Originally posted May 2013
I have been seeing a lot of people lately engaging in what I would refer to as stunts. One of these stunts is sometimes marketed as “reality” training, where dogs are left on a down stay outside of a store while the owner goes in. The dogs are unattended and un-tethered. These dogs are really clear that a down stay is a down stay is a down stay, but let’s think about this. Is this really a good idea? I have dogs who could do this if I asked them to do so, and in fact, I have done this in times past. Learn and grow I always say. I learned and I grew, and now, I don’t do it unless there is an emergency. I cannot think what that emergency might be, but I will never say never. I will just say that I would have to be pretty convinced that an out of sight, public down stay might be necessary.
Is the dog under control? Yes. The dog understands that he must not move. In the world of protection work for instance, the goal is to train to this level and the dog understands that if he moves, bad things will happen. This looks like a great idea and it is a wonderful piece of theater. I remember revelling in my earlier days as a trainer, doing stunts like this. Then I grew a little bit and I started to realize that doing this is pretty darned disrespectful of my dog. The dog may be under control, but there is no plan “B” for what will happen if the dog is startled or spooked out of his stay. What will happen to the dog if he is stung by a bee, spooks and runs into the street? What might happen is that the dog could be hit by a car. Worse, someone might swerve to miss the dog, and hit a child. Control is not the only element that should be taken into consideration.
I am seeing other stunts around town too. Today I saw a small dog being led around the downtown core by a toddler who was maybe three or four years old. Cute? Yes. Safe? No. The child doesn’t understand the risks of leading the dog and the dog doesn’t understand traffic and if the dog spooks and runs into traffic, then not only is the dog dead, but so is the kid. This is a stunt, and mom may have thought that she was amusing both the kid and the dog, but it just wasn’t a good idea.
And then there are the dogs I am seeing off leash, with joggers and cyclists in the city. These dogs are really the victims of stunts, because they are often being run through traffic. As a runner in traffic, you are at risk but at least your body is usually taller than the hoods of most cars. Your dog is not, and if the driver doesn’t realize that there is a dog loose in traffic, then he is are real risk for being hit by a vehicle.
Not all stunts are set up on purpose. A colleague of mine lives on a corner lot in a beautiful neighbourhood. She has a service dog who is completely reliable. One day, the dog was let out to toilet and the family went back in the house for a few moments. A couple of minutes later, they looked out and the dog was out of sight. They called and she reappeared and came in the house. Not a big deal, until you find out that a neighbour observed a car slow down and someone get out and try and coax the dog our of her own yard and into a car. When you cannot observe your dog directly, you are depending that everyone around you is kind and honest and not intending to do harm to your dog, and sadly, that just isn’t the case some of the time.
Another stunt I regularly see happens in barns with horses. I am a recreational rider, and I often see dogs in barns, off leash, just doing their thing. On the surface, this doesn’t look like a stunt, but in a dog who doesn’t live with horses, and horses who don’t live with the dog, this sort of stunt can result in danger to both the horse and the dog. Worse, if you are mounted and coming back into the barn yard and your horse is faced with a loose dog she doesn’t know, you risk that the horse will spook, the rider may fall and the dog may get injured by the horse, or the horse by the dog. No one wins in this sort of a situation.
Every day I see stunts around me in the name of training. Doing an off leash heeling routine in a public square away from traffic is one thing, but doing the same thing through traffic is another. Doing a sit stay by a statue (something I have been doing with D’fer for many years) when I am right there is relatively safe; leaving that dog at the statue while I go out of sight is grand standing and doesn’t respect my dog.
When you have a dog in modern society, you have to take into account a number of really important things. The dog is incapable of understanding the risks of the environment he lives in. A hundred and fifty years ago, putting your dog out to toilet was not a big deal. Horses could hurt a dog, but there were many more horses and the dogs learned early how to behave around them. Dogs who didn’t learn, learned the ultimate lesson and were killed. It was a slower time and there were fewer people interested in stealing or harming a dog. You knew more of your neighbours and people didn’t show up randomly in your neighbourhood as often as we see now.
So what can you do in public with your dog? In traffic, please keep your dog on a leash. Walking your dog off leash just isn’t safe and it is a stunt that could cost your dog his life. If you need to go into a store, tie your dog and ask him to stay. Yes, my dog CAN stay out of sight for a very long time (I once left a dog on a down stay in the training room to answer a phone call and came back forty minutes later to find him snoozing on the floor where I left him!), but I have no need to risk my dog’s life to prove that fact. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. If you want to take a picture of your dog in public, by all means use your stay to the level you have trained it, but don’t leave the vicinity and hope for the best.
If you want to introduce your dog to horses, make sure that one person is controlling the horse and one person is controlling the dog while you train your dog to do things that are safe around your horse. If your dog is frightened of your horse, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If you want to spend time with your dog and your horse together, orchestrate what you want them both to be doing. When I am grooming my horse if my dogs are around, I will put out a mat or send the dog to a bale of hay to lie down while I am grooming. If I am riding, I will have a spot for my dog to do a down stay in the event that I am in an arena or riding ring where it is safe for my dog to be. If I want my dog to heel with me, I will teach both my horse and my dog to work together instead of hoping that they will both figure it out.
The bottom line is that we are responsible for both what happens because of our dogs and what happens to our dogs and it doesn’t matter if we are there to observe the activity or not. If you leave your dog on a down stay out of sight and a child comes up and teases your dog and your dog bites the child, you are responsible. If you are crossing the street and your dog is off leash and he darts between the cars and is hit, that is also your responsibility. An important lesson to consider is that it need not be your fault in order to be your responsibility.