Thursday, June 3, 2010

Weird people in the park

Living in San Francisco, it is pretty easy to get use to "weird". In fact, the sheer diversity of weird in SF is amazing! It can be an endless source of amusement and frustration.

As a pup, Zuko had the advantage of being socialized early (and often) with weirdness. Hippies, neo-hippies, homeless people, teenagers who looked homeless but were not, drunk people staggering around, people wearing strange hats, strange costumes or no costume at all (or clothing for that matter). Wheelchairs and scooters, bicycles with ribbons flying on them, people speaking every language under the sun, people speaking in tongues, tourists in shorts when it is 55 degrees...and so on.

In SF, "weird" is our normal. So Zuko tends to roll with the flow with most things, though skateboarders still bug him for some reason. In general though, he will not freak out if someone goes by on a bicycle wearing wings, a tutu and goggles. That is normal weird. What is NOT normal is when their body language doesn't make sense. I have a huge amount of respect for a dog's ability to pick up on "weird" body language - when a person's actions are inconsistent with normal behavior patterns. I've mentioned to my husband that I trust Zuko's sense on these things wholly and completely - if he is suspicious, I am suspicious. If we are walking, we will avoid that person, take another route and be extra alert.

Today was a perfect example of this: we were doing an early morning walk in "Zuko's park" and he was happily pee-ing on everything around and updating his "Zuko wuz here" postings on every tree and shrub. An older lady was shuffling up the hill towards us, sorta trying to jog, but really shuffling. Zuko was on leash and other than noting she was there, neither of us paid her attention. Suddenly, she stops, cringes against the park wall and starts saying "no, no, no, no, no". Ok - another person in SF talking to themselves, nothing new there. We keep going.

Suddenly her cringing body language got Zuko's attention though and he stops about 6 feet from her and stares. She cringes more and starts to SCREAM. Obviously, this is outside the norm, so Zuko goes on alert and barks at her. He's still on leash and I have full control of him and I say to the woman "he's on leash, chill out" and she screams LOUDER. So Zuko and I continue on but he's still on alert and keeps looking back to see if the crazy lady comes after us.

Another example: my husband took Zuko into work one day and a lady came over to his cube area and saw Zuko laying there in the aisle. He was leashed up 'cause the LAST thing you want to do is chase your dog through a cube farm and Zuko would totally love it. This lady suddenly pushed herself to the wall and "creeped" toward Zuko. She said she was joking, but the body language set him off - he started barking at her.

My point in all this? Had the woman just shuffled on, keeping her distance, Zuko would never have noticed her. The other lady displayed "unusual" behavior. Both of them showed body language that drew his attention and the lady in the park - her reactions to his attention confirmed his belief that something was "wrong" with her. Their behavior put him on "alert" which includes giving them a warning bark or two.

I realize some folks have had VERY negative experiences with dogs and I respect that. What is so fascinating to me is how little body awareness we have as humans, and how much dogs are fully aware of body language. Both of these women probably believe their fear of dogs was confirmed by these instances, but in reality, their body behavior brought on Zuko's behavior. I don't subscribe to everything Cesar Millan says about dog training, but his discussions on energy and keeping your body calm are spot on. I try to remember this when Zuko misbehaves and to check what signals I'm sending.  And as I mentioned - I trust his instincts on people 100%. If he is suspicious, I am suspicious.

As for the people who pull dramatic dog-fear body language weirdness - whatever. My dog doesn't want to be around them and I don't either.

Good little Guard Dog!

 I'm watching you!

-- Posted by Zuko's mom


  1. Zuko's lookin' good! I love San Francisco!

  2. Hi Gina - Thanks! We love SF too, always interesting here. :-)

  3. I have to side with Zuko on this one - I would start yelling back at her too if she started screaming in my face and startled me!!!

    One thing that totally bugs me is when people on the street start barking at Shio. It's really weird and so NOT funny.

  4. Hi Ting - OMD! I think that has only happened once or twice with Zuko (people barking at him) but yes, it is a stupid thing to do. Especially since people also seem to lean down (ie get in the dog's face more) to do it.

    There are a few things I wish were added to our educational system and "How to handle and be around animals and be humane" is one of them. Starting in like grade school for a couple of years. I see so many kids being mean to animals and too many adults who are "afraid" of cats, dogs, horses, birds, etc.