Let’s Talk Bubbles …

I want to talk bubbles … but possibly not the ones that immediately spring to mind. We all know about water bubbles, you know … bath bubbles, washing up bubbles, blowing bubbles and such like. Over the last couple of years we have also become very accustomed to hearing the phrase “social bubbles”, with regards to Covid-19. Today, I want to talk about a different type of bubble – personal bubbles.

You might already know that we (humans) have a personal bubble. Another name for it is personal space. Our personal space is an area around us that other people generally stay outside of. For example, When we talk to someone face-to-face, we naturally stand at a distance we feel comfortable with. The size of someone’s personal bubble is not “fixed” and it is not normally the same for two people. It can also change depending on who we are with. Taking the previous example, we may stand quite close to the other person (family and close friends) or remain much further away (acquaintances and strangers). For example, our bubble might be around 1 metre in size and this barrier should only be crossed by those we feel comfortable with. If someone gets too close, we begin to feel uncomfortable and may try to “step back” to create more space between us. We think of the other person as “getting in our face”. Have you ever been on a packed bus or train and had to stand so close to someone you can smell them? Or had a boss (or teacher at school) who didn’t seem to understand personal distance, and “invaded your space” by getting too close or looking over your shoulder?

At the start of Covid-19, the UK Government set social distance restrictions to try and prevent the spread of the virus. They told us we had to stay 2 metres apart from those we did not live with. That distance effectively became everyone’s personal bubble. Because it was our “normal” for such a long time, how many of us now feel uncomfortable if someone comes within 2 metres of us?

I know I do…

What About Dogs?

“That’s all very well, but what has all this to do with dogs?”, you might ask.

While not (yet) validated by science, it is my belief that dogs also have personal bubbles and they work in the same way as ours. Have you ever noticed how your dog might want to “get up close and personal” with some dogs, but not others? Next time you are out, just watch him (or other dogs and see how close they approach one another. It’s fascinating to witness. If you have an anxious dog, he might want to keep as much distance from others as he can – any closer and he becomes uncomfortable with the situation and his stress levels start to rise. If he is unable to maintain his personal space, his body is likely to go into fight or flight mode. His instinct will be to try and increase the distance between himself and the other. If he cannot create this distance by moving away himself (for example, if he is on a lead), he may try to force the other dog to “go away” by growling, barking or lunging at them in an attempt to scare them off.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to recognise (or respect) another’s personal bubble and may accidentally (or sometimes intentionally) violate another’s boundary. Think of the teacher from the example above, we probably all know someone like that …

Now, consider the off-lead dog in the park who charges up to your on-lead “reactive” dog, while his human shouts, “it’s ok, he’s friendly …” . To your dog, it doesn’t matter if the other is a puppy, a friendly adult, is socialised, unsocialised or just socially awkward. The result is often the same – your poor dog’s bubble (boundary) is crossed and he reacts badly. Not only that, but the size of his bubble is likely to increase too, so the next time he is out on a walk, he may need to have more space in order to feel comfortable.

What Can We Do ..?

Of course, we don’t know how big our dogs’ personal bubbles are. They are not a fixed size and can change depending on many factors (meeting a known or unknown dog, how they feel emotionally, previous experiences etc.). So instead of “how do I know?”, the question should probably be, “what can I do to help him?”. Ultimately, we have to be aware our dog’s individual needs and ensure we act when they need it. We can do that by watching (and learning from) their body language and their behaviour. Once we understand them better, we will be in a much better place to make sure we work with them on walks, rather than forcing them into situations they are not comfortable with. After all, do you want to meet and chat to every person you see in the street?

One last thought, it is the same when it comes to dogs meeting people. Your dog may be perfectly happy to be touched by you (his family), but might not want to petted by every other person he meets. Occasionally, he might not even want to be touched by you. We shouldn’t be offended, we should respect our dog’s personal bubble and be mindful that all dogs are individuals, with their own emotional needs. They are not robots and not everyone wants a hug!

© 2021 Tony Richens-Smith with illustrations by Mandy Richens-Smith (except where stated)

You can find out more about what your dog is trying to tell you and how to understand their body language in Tony’s book Not Everyone Wants a Hug, available directly from the Books page on his website, and all good retailers.