Jasper Winn

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?

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - News -

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.

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