Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.
Dear Beast Mode,
Seven months ago I adopted a dog larger than my other two (he’s 55 lbs., compared with the others at 7 and 15 lbs.), and he has this weird habit of walking up to men, shoving his head between their legs, and just standing there. It’s OK when my sons visit; we think it’s funny. But he tries to do it to every man he thinks he likes. Today at a dog event I was talking to a man from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and he just walked up, stuck his head between the man’s legs, and stood there. Luckily the gentleman thought it was funny and gave him pets—but what is going on with my dog? He’s a rescue from Puerto Rico whom we got after the hurricane. He was on the streets for a while before he was rescued and acts like he’s had a family before. Is he missing something?
—Thigh’s the Limit
Dear Thigh’s the Limit,
Imagine trying to explain the notion of tact to a dog. They are social beings—don’t get me wrong about that—but tiptoeing the thin line of mannerly expectations is above their pay grade. My dog is lying down next to me as I write this, and she just farted without care or apology. What’s great is that I know she’d do the same were the queen of England sitting on the couch with her instead of me. What a dog lacks in tact, he more than makes up for in endearingly brazen sincerity.
Reading about your new family member makes me all kinds of happy. It sounds as if you’ve given him a great home and that he’s fitting in nicely, even if “fitting in” sometimes refers to the space between a man’s legs. The behavior you describe isn’t uncommon, and it could be due to excitement or anxiety. A scared dog may try to “hide” somewhere he thinks is safe. Your pup has been through some big changes over the past year, and he could be a little nervous as a result. It’s worth mentioning this to your vet, especially if he’s showing other signs of anxiety, as there are ways to help ease his nerves if it’s determined that’s what’s causing this behavior.
OK, back to tact. You mention in your letter that you and your sons find it funny when the dog goes between their legs. While I don’t doubt that it is hilarious, your reaction at home to this behavior may increase the likelihood that he will do it elsewhere. If he hears laughter and senses excitement when he uses their legs like a croquet wicket, he’s going to assume he’ll get similar encouragement when he does the same to a stranger. You could try to explain the difference to him, but I don’t think you’d get far.
Next time your sons come over, have them calmly ignore the dog when he tries to squeeze under their legs. At the same time, you (or your sons) should distract him with a command—“sit,” “lie down,” or whatever else you’ve worked on with him. This will redirect his mind from the exciting meeting he has scheduled between their knees and onto something you can manage and control. You can then transfer this routine to occurrences outside the house when the dog approaches nonrelatives with similar gusto.
Your dog seems sweet and friendly, and it’s heartwarming to know he’s so comfortable with people. As his new family, you have given him lots of love and attention. I don’t think he’s missing anything. He has everything he needs.