Dogs are always trying to figure out how any given thing fits within their space. They can be highly sensitive to space and proximity.
As dogs make their way through this human-centered world they rapidly learn that it’s a world filled with sights, sounds, sensations, and humans which may be at times overwhelming, if not outright frightening.
Whether its another dog, human, car, the corner trashcan, a falling tree branch, or a paper blowing across the street, they’re always in the process of guessing “Is this person or thing safe or not?”
“Is this something that scares me”?
“Do I move away from it”?
“Do I allow it to get closer to me”?
“Do I welcome it or get defensive”?
It’s about the unknown
These responses and thought processes are largely determined by a dogs level of familiarity with the “thing”. Novel experiences and encounters can often be one of discovery and exploration for a dog. A time during which they “size up” their impression of the new person, place, or thing and conclude whether they feel safe around it or not.
Humans are not much different in this regard. Unfamiliar people and environments may invoke various emotions and responses within us. We can feel hesitant, reluctant, cautious, among other feelings. Each impression determines how we feel and in turn affects how we proceed in the new encounter. Do we engage or create distance between ourselves and the new person? Do we engage yet remain reserved and cautious, perhaps even prepared to act defensively should our stress level increase?
One exceptional difference is that dogs have trouble generalizing while humans can draw almost immediate distinctions between varying people and objects. We quickly recognize that a falling branch does not pose a threat and that most dogs are friendly. Dogs who are easily stimulated or highly sensitive to their surroundings can be triggered into a fear response from the falling branch. A dog accustomed to reacting negatively towards other dogs typically does so because he views them as potential threats. Thus the anticipation of a negative outcome makes the dog keenly aware of who or what is within close proximity.
Many dogs have what can best be described as “proximity issue.” It’s as if they have a small bubble or circle around them and their current frame of mind, and stress level, will be determined by who or what enters into that bubble or circle. Without knowledge of this specific problem an owner with a dog that experiences proximity issues can be in the dark about behavior patterns that a dog may exhibit during times of discomfort. Among these displays is a dog that moves or retreats away from uncomfortable people or surroundings or a dog whose stress level is so high he resorts to displays of aggression.
Dogs can also hypersensitive to their surroundings, and their comfort and stress levels are often predicated on how familiar, or unfamiliar, their current environment is to them.
Knowing all this deepens your understanding of how dogs think and why they react the way they do under certain circumstances.