Downeast Dog News

"Fine" and its Slippery Slope

What is your dog actually saying?
By | Aug 01, 2020

The young puppy’s instant response to my presence was to move away and stay out of reach, tail tucked, mouth closed firmly, body and voice completely quiet. This is worrisome behavior for a 3-month old puppy, who we want to be social and trusting of humans. We want puppies to feel safe around humans and this pup clearly communicated that he did not feel safe near me despite what I considered to be non-threatening movements.

I asked his owner how he was when visitors came to their house.

“Oh, he’s fine,” she said. I asked her a few more questions, so I could understand what “fine” meant in that context. “Does he move away from them?” I asked. “Yes.” “Does he solicit attention or contact with them?” “No.”

In my world, this is not “fine.” Perhaps the pup’s owner figured that since he didn’t bark or bite, he was “fine.” If we were to ask the puppy, however, I’m pretty sure he’d say something like, “I’m really uncomfortable around strangers.” That is, in fact, what he was saying at the time.

“Fine” is not “Good”

“Tolerant” is not “Happy”

The Trouble with “Fine”

It is a fast and slippery slope from “Fine” to “Not Fine” or worse. Tolerating interactions, situations, or environments usually has a tipping point, a threshold beyond which the dog is very unhappy. We shouldn’t ever assume that just because our dog, for instance, lets children pull on his fur, that he will always tolerate it (for the record, kids should never pull on dogs’ fur). How about the vet’s office? At first, a young puppy might seem quite happy, but after multiple visits paired with an insufficient amount of good stuff, those visits can go sour. It’s often just a question of time before a dog is pushed beyond his comfort zone towards resistance, fear, or even aggression.

If we pay enough attention to our dog’s body language, we can intervene early and start pushing that “Fine” needle towards “Enjoyment.” We need to build nice, thick cushions of “great stuff” in order to achieve the ideal level of enjoyment with a generous buffer built in to help create resilience.

Damage Control Necessary

I knew better…. sigh….

Our 1-year old pup, Skipper, recently returned from a walk all muddy. I wanted him to rinse his paws in our little kiddie pool before letting him inside. I would usually use treats, training, and patience to get him to willingly step all four feet into the pool and spin around a few times. This time, though, I was in a hurry and lacked all of the requisite tools listed above, in particular patience. What did I do? I picked him up and placed him in the pool and did what I had to do. He was “fine.” He didn’t resist, and I got the job done. Nothing bad happened, but I could tell he was unhappy.

What do you suppose happened the next time I needed him to step into the kiddie pool?

“No way!” was what he said. Resistance, avoidance, jumping away, and “nah uh!” is what I got as an answer to my invitation even though I was now armed with what I needed. The water in the pool, mind you, is only a few inches deep, and it wasn’t cold. It’s not physically uncomfortable. Skipper didn’t like being forcefully placed into the water, though, and my good intentions notwithstanding, he now has a negative association with the process.

Oh dear… time for some damage control. I’m going to have to start from pre-zero level and build him back up, step by step, to be a willing participant in the rinsing project.

Watch out for “Fine.” Try to add great stuff, so you can transition “fine” to “enjoyment” as much as you can. Try not to put your pup in questionable situations unless you are ready to add great stuff. Remove him if necessary. Know that “Fine” often leads a pup down the slippery slope to much worse responses.