Why do dogs seem to grasp the rules and regulations of how to greet their peers when for the rest of us it’s a lifelong lesson?
Our latest guest columnist writes of the uncanny etiquette of dogs and with seductive sensuality of the kingdom of the night.
ARE YOU A barker? A yapper? Given to a gruff noncommittal growl in passing? Or in less canine and more human terms, when out in the country and passing other walkers do you utter a cheery ‘hello’ as you pass? Or come to a halt your heart set on a chat about weather, what’s up ahead and boots? Or do you mutter something under your breath whilst looking ahead and striding on?
The etiquette of greetings between passers-by is far from clear and easy to get wrong. You don’t mean it but your over-friendly salutation strikes an approaching stranger as an unwelcome intrusion in her solitude. So, you try a more muted, grudging even, ‘morning’ on the pleasant couple hoving into view and they think of you as unfriendly. Whilst the garrulous outpourings of the swivel-eyed loner who has stepped into your path are tantamount to the deranged, lapelgrabbing ravings of the Ancient Mariner who’ll get round to the albatross after he’s shared his views on the poor way-marking, given you a Ted Talk on magnetic variation and performed a riff on the amusing mix of foods he’s packed for lunch.
Here’s the thing, though; it would all be just dandy if we were sensitive enough to the feelings of others to match tone and enthusiasm of a greeting to the mood of the greetee. In the dance of polite acknowledgement between all us walkers out in the shared space that is, still...well, er...mostly spacious, grunt would be met by grunt, a bit of banter by equally upbeat rejoinder before a contented moving on. And (exceptionally, I agree), a desire for some serious gabbing would find a soulmate happy, overjoyed even, to stop for a talk fest.
It doesn’t work that way though. The outdoors is marched across by a varied cast of characters who as they pass have the ability to grate on each other. The jolly upbeats feel snubbed by mutterers. The misanthrope has his gloom interrupted by attempts at cheery conversation, (though you’d think the intrusion would make them even more grumpy and so paradoxically happier, no?).
Dogs are much better at all this than humans. I regularly walk a friend’s English Setter on Hampstead Heath. Five or six miles a day across mutt central. And here’s the thing even the most knuckle-headed dawgs are capable of reading each others mood from fifty yards out. Wooster has got the meet, greet and move on down to an exact science. A swerve to the left to say a short hello to the reserved but polite Alsatian. A quick bound off to play with an energetic Boxer. Some refined mutual sniffing with a peppery old Collie. He ignores the psychotic Dalmation, and is ignored in turn. Wooster never gets it wrong. Never. And neither do any of the other dogs.
Of course in the biped world it may just be me that gets it wrong. Aiming a surly and curt grumble at a friendly and talkative hiker. Breaking into a stream of consciousness about cows in response to the most reluctant of head nods from someone clearly caught up in some inner and private turmoil.
Without actually peeing on people’s legs or stealing from picnics I still have less social skills than even the callowest of puppies. Perhaps the solution is to decide on just one kind of salutation style – grunter, generous, garrulous – and stick with it whomever one meets. It was, after all, the Alfred Wainwright way. Quizzed about meeting people in the hills his advice was blunt. “Try to avoid them. Or strike off in another direction. There are boulders you can get behind.” Typical. Blunt. Un-dog-like. And, honestly, not that much fun. We can all do better than that, surely? Right, I’ll let you get on now. Nice meeting you. Good walking. Or, if you prefer, a muttered grunt.