Originally written in 2015
I received a rather weird post to my business Facebook page, from a man in another city imploring me to teach my students to follow the city by laws. His rant was full of frustration and anger. He was SO frustrated that he complained to just about the only person who could not help him. There is definitely a divide between the dog owning and the non dog owning community. The only thing that both communities seem to agree upon is that they are fed up.
On the one hand are those who own dogs and who have to move through the public with those dogs. Very few of us want to cause discomfort to the people who live near us, but sometimes things happen. If you get caught away from home without a bag and your dog leaves a mess, there is little you can do. My kingdom for bag stations and garbage cans on every street corner! Dogs are dogs though, and they do things that we wish they would not, at least from time to time. Beyond toileting in public, dogs do other things that non dog people may find uncomfortable or unfriendly. They bark, lunge, pull on leash, whine, leave footprints, jump up and sometimes get into or onto things many folks wish they would not.
Non dog owners sometimes cause problems for dog owners too. I have been yelled at, charged, had a bicycle try and run my dog over, had rocks thrown at me and experienced some pretty awful behaviour from the people I meet-and I have a very well behaved dog! It seems like if I go out in public and my dog does not appear to be unpleasant or unfriendly, then I become a target for every non dog owner’s frustration, or the target for every child who wants to touch my dog.
A part of the problem is that as a society, we seem to have forgotten a few golden rules. First and foremost, we seem to have forgotten that we should try and not interfere with the enjoyment of other people of the public places we go to. Being physically present with a dog does not constitute a hardship in and of itself. Neither does being in public without a dog. If we could all remember that everyone, dogs too, need a bit of space that would help. Acknowledge one another and say hello. When I am walking my dog and a skate board comes up behind me, I may not hear that; call out and I will give you more space. Common courtesy of acknowledging one another and helping each other seems to have fallen away when it comes to the interactions between dogs and the public at large.
Toiletting is perhaps the biggest issue I see. If your dog toilets in public; clean it up! I have been caught short without a bag from time to time, it happens to all dog owners-but it shouldn’t happen every single time you go out. It shouldn’t even happen once a week. If you are a non dog owner, and see that I am scrounging for a bag (I have even gone into trash cans looking for them!) and you have one…I will not be offended if you offer it to me. And dog owners; if you are offered a bag, take it with some grace. It is not the responsibility of the non dog walking public to carry bags, but believe me, it isn’t a horrid idea to help one another out!
Another common pet peeve between the dog owning and non dog owning public is a dog who should be wearing a leash but who is not. Not only is it illegal in most places, but frankly it is incredibly dangerous in most places. All a dog has to do is make one small mistake and walk into traffic and he is dead. As a professional dog trainer I often have a cheapo extra leash with me. I have given out dozens of them to people over the years. If you own a dog, he needs a collar and leash and if I offer you one, please USE IT! Yes, I regularly run my dogs off leash in places where they are safe from traffic but in town, regardless of how good my dog is, I use a leash and collar. Last Friday, as I was leaving for Montreal, I arrived at the train station in Kitchener and there was a large Boxer, loose in the station (yes, inside!) without a leash or collar. I travel with an older service dog; my first duty is to protect my dog. Luckily I had help; John stood up and stood between me and the other dog-not only was this situation dangerous to the loose dog, but it was incredibly unfair to me and my dog as there was nowhere for us to go to escape him should he want to greet us.
As I mentioned earlier, I have had some horrendous experiences with the general public when I have been out with dogs. One of my earliest experiences with socializing a puppy involved going out to a park and sitting on a bench to watch people go by. There was a bench across the street from me, so I walked my young puppy over. An older man was sitting on the bench at one end, so I went to the other end with my puppy. Without a word, he reached over with his cane and very deliberately struck my dog across the nose, and then began to berate me for bring a dirty animal to the park. Why? I still don’t know. Perhaps he had been frightened by a dog, but that is unacceptable behaviour and it certainly interfered with my right to enjoy the neighbourhood I lived in.
Humans are a social species. We are meant to live in groups. Everyone has the right to enjoy their neighbourhood. What I think most people miss is the right to enjoy something is accompanied by the responsibility to protect one another when out in society. That is part of being a member of a social species; we all contribute to the greater success of one another when we are part of a neighbourhood. This means that both dog owners and non dog owners need to work together to get it right and stop interfering with one another.
The people who own dogs who are the least likely to cause problems for one another are those who are already proactive about their dog’s behaviour. The people who come to puppy classes and training classes are not generally the ones who are causing problems by letting their dogs run loose. They are taking action to prevent problems by educating their dogs about acceptable and not acceptable behaviours. In our classes we teach a wide variety of things including toileting on cue which means that we can tell our dogs when and where they can go. We teach leash manners which means that the dogs who come to our classes are learning now to walk politely beside their people. We teach the cued take it which means that our dogs are not the ones who are loose and scoffing food off the sidewalk or out of your hands.
The people who don’t have dogs who are the least likely to run into trouble with dogs are those who understand a few things about dogs. Just like most people don’t like to be hugged by strangers, most dogs don’t want you to touch them either. Dogs are descended from predators and if you tease a dog and then run, they will likely chase you. If you threaten a dog, no matter how nice the dog is, he is going to defend himself. Most interactions between dogs and humans are really, really benign-most dogs are not going to do anything to you if they are running free without interference. If you happen across an unaccompanied loose dog, catching him is not a great idea; call your local humane society but don’t try and catch the dog. Catching dogs puts them in a position where they are vulnerable; and dogs who feel vulnerable may bite. Beyond that, you don’t know the health status of a strange dog. Dogs can and do carry parasites, fungal infections and diseases that we can get. Leave catching strange dogs to the pros, especially if you don’t know much about dogs in general.
You may admire my dog, but please, don’t just walk up and touch him. I happen to live with three very easy going, happy, friendly dogs, but not every dog accompanied by a person is a happy easy dog. Many dogs need space for a variety of reasons. You would never walk up to a total stranger and hug them, and no matter how much you may admire my dog, he is not an object to be fondled. If you would like to meet a dog you have seen, ask the person who is accompanying that dog. If you have been invited to greet a dog, greet him verbally first and see if he approaches for pats! Don’t just touch him randomly.
And dog owners; don’t put your dog up as a toy or object to be handled and touched. Dogs have thousands of years of living with us and they live rich emotional and cognitive lives. Requiring a dog to be touched who doesn’t want to be touched is unfair. Ask your dog by giving him permission to greet-don’t just let people touch your dog as though he didn’t care. Your dog cares deeply and deserves the chance to be touched on his terms. If your dog is telling you he is uncomfortable about being touched, then don’t force the issue. So many dog bites could be prevented if only the dog was permitted to leave when he was uncomfortable.
There are some conventions I would like people to understand about dog parks too; many problems could be avoided easily if we were to just all play by the same rules. First and foremost, don’t encourage on leash greetings. Very few handlers know how to leash handle in a way that is sufficiently sophisticated that they are going to avoid issues when their dogs meet on leash. Tight leashes create an agonistic posture in dogs, and when your dog is approaching another dog in a way that looks threatening, that is how dog fights start. Further to that, the dogs cannot leave, so if they want out of the greeting, they don’t have many choices. Finally, on leash greetings tend to be protracted, like a handshake that goes on much, much too long. There is no better way to annoy a potential friend than shaking their hand for too long. Handshakes and dog greetings should operate on a count of one, two, three and we are done. Off leash, most dogs do this. On leash, with the people gabbing and not paying attention, greetings go on and on and on and everyone seems surprised when a snarl breaks out.
If your dog is off leash, and you encounter another dog who is on leash, for heaven’s sake, leash up! The other dog cannot greet properly and he is captive to whatever the loose dog decides to do. It is our responsibility as reasonable dog owners to make other people’s lives just a little easier. Yes, I know we have all dropped the leash, had the fence fail, had the door open and yes, if you are the one holding the leash, you have to take action to prevent a blow up, but really, if you have a dog running loose, even in an off leash zone, please leash up when you encounter a loose dog.
Finally, if you are riding a bike or a board, please take care to give some space to dogs. Not all dogs will chase a fast moving target, but if a dog begins to follow you, stop and put your bike or board between you and the dog. In the event that the dog is unfriendly, you can protect yourself by keeping your bike or board between you and the dog. In the event that the dog has strayed you are giving the owner a fighting chance of catching up and putting his dog on leash. If on the other hand you are a dog owner whose dog has followed or chased someone on a bike, please, please, please go get your dog and leash him up. Joggers can also stop to help dog owners catch their dogs. It is very easy to be self righteous and say that the dog ought not chase, but that isn’t going to get you anything if you lead the dog so far from home that the owner cannot intervene and in the event that the dog is unfriendly, continuing on your way won’t prevent a bite. If the dog is growling; he is asking for space. If he is barking and chasing, he may just be having a great time, but he may not either. Friendly behaviour in dogs is usually inefficient and involves a lot of vertical movement and curved approaches. Encouraging the dog to chase does not help either; you can get a dog so highly aroused that he slips from friendly movement to more dangerous flat, straight line motion, making him more not less dangerous. The faster you go, the more likely it is that this will happen, and given that dogs are fully capable of running at 20km/h or more, it is unlikely you will be able to get going fast enough that you can avoid a dog by outrunning them even on a really fast bike.
The bottom line and the take away message is that we all share the same space and it sure would be nice if we started to work together to get along instead of working against each other and creating problems that did not exist already. And to the city of Toronto; I just passed through your down town core. It would be a lot easier to clean up after dogs if there were a few more places to put the waste. Just a suggestion to help start meeting the needs of the frustrated man who started me thinking about this!