THE ANATOMY OF A REACTION

Originally posted in April 2013

People often talk about their dogs being reactive, but what does this mean?  What does it look like?  We throw around terms such as reactive, proactive, responsive and so on as though everyone should just “know” what that means, but often we don’t stop to think about what it really means to have a dog who is “reactive” and what we should do about it.

To begin with, let’s understand that every animal will and should startle at some things.  For some animals like my chessie, D’fer, a jet plane taking off is nothing to really bother with, and when he has been close by, this is nothing he is concerned about in the least.  He is the least reactive animal in my life at the moment.

Cute barking dog not aggressive on leash
This dog has noticed something that he is worried about. He is “reacting”, but we would only say he was reactive if his reaction was really out of line with the threat.

My horse Kayak on the other hand startles at many things.  Somethings she startles at are predictable.  She does not like motorcycles zipping by us; and when she startles, she will jump sideways and sidestep and sometimes buck a little bit.  Somethings she startles at are not at all predictable.  Rocks.  Large rocks startle Kayak.  The thing about rocks is that they don’t run around and jump out and say “boo”.  They are rocks.  But if she is walking calmly down a trail and she encounters a rock, she will often stop suddenly and stand still and if it is a particularly large rock she is prone to backing away from it.  The rock is on the horizon, and everything is going well until we reach about ten metres.  Ten metres from a large rock and she will sometimes startle.

Kayak doesn’t startle as much as some of the dogs I work with.  I was working with a dog today who over the course of an hour habituated to the room, the dogs barking in the next room, the toy dog on the floor and then he noticed my hat!  Yikes!  Hats probably eat dogs, or at least that is how he was behaving.  He didn’t just startle either, he shivered and he barked and he stared.  The dogs like this are dogs who baffle their owners because it can feel like he is busy acquiring new fears on the fly.  What I think often happens to these dogs is that they are so overwhelmed that as they become less aroused and overwhelmed, they start to notice more and more things to worry about.  Some of these dogs are highly visually reactive.  Some are highly sensitive to sounds.  I am betting that there are a number of dogs who are sensitive to smells, and I know that a lot of these dogs are also very sensitive to touch.

While I wouldn’t describe D’fer as reactive, he will notice things in his environment.  And although Kayak notices more things in her environment I wouldn’t call her reactive either.  Some of the dogs in my classes though absolutely ARE reactive; I would describe a dog who barks at leaves falling as reactive and when they don’t bounce back readily, I would consider them highly reactive.  All this brings me to “what is the anatomy of reactivity”.

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All three dogs have noticed something. The dog in the very back is much more concerned than either of the other two. We would say that he is more reactive.

The first part of a reaction is before the reaction occurs, when the dog is calm.  With dogs who are stable and confident, this calm behaviour is when they look at the world and they are able to make accurate predictions about what is coming up.  Are all of the stimuli in the environment predictable?  Can they explore things that might be surprising?  Calm, confident dogs use this time to evaluate what they are seeing and what is happening around them, while reactive dogs might use this time to worry about things they don’t understand.  It is like they are always on a slow boil, anticipating bad things coming up.  Reactive dogs use this space between startling events to worry and think about the dangers inherent in the environment.  Most dogs fall somewhere in the middle; they don’t spend all of their time worrying about things that might go wrong, but they also don’t hang out not worrying at all either.

Once a stimulus has occurred that might be concerning, then you have one of two situations.  Either the dog is not at all worried about it and remains calm, or you have a reaction of some sort.  In the most extreme situations, you have a dog who barks and carries on and ascribes to the idea of “when in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout”.  The alternate side to this is the dog who experiences fear and shuts down.  The stimulus is frightening but his tactic is to shut down and go into that part of his brain that is related to self protection.  He may become quiet and unresponsive.  The common element to either of these reactions is that the dog is unable to follow a simple cue like sit or lie down.  When a reactive dog is presented with a stimulus and you ask him casually to do a behaviour he knows really, really well, if he is unable to do it the behaviour right away, then regardless of his apparent level of concern, he is over his threshold.

Once a dog has reacted, then the next thing to look at is what he does after the stimulus has been removed.  Does he immediately return to a calm state?  When you startle my mare Kayak, she is pretty quick to settle down; in less than five seconds she is usually back to her calm state.  D’fer is pretty unflappable and rarely startles, but if he is startled, he comes back to a calm state pretty much as soon as he recognizes whatever startled him.  Along the continuum of dogs I see on a daily basis we get everything from dogs who settle back down immediately to dogs who take hours or even days to really recover from even a mild surprise.

When working with dogs with behaviour problems it is essential that we are responsive to situations instead of being reactive.  The first step in success if having a plan.  Being proactive means preplanning everything that you have  control over.  Do you know what is on the other side of the closed door?  If not, can you check before you take your dog through it?  Do you know what the dog you see in the distance is likely to do when he greets your dog?  If not, can you avoid meeting him?  Do you know that the person you are handing your leash to will take as much care as you do in handling your dog?  If you don’t, can you ensure that you are not putting your dog into a situation where he might be at risk?

Being proactive actually means more than just preplanning.  It means always thinking about the possibilities without terrifying yourself.  It means taking reasonable care to avoid situations where your dog might go over the threshold and be triggered into a reactive state, and thinking about what your actions will cause in the environment around you.  It means being observant and figuring out what you can do to keep your dog’s wellbeing in the forefront.  Often it means doing things differently than you might otherwise do.

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Wargas was an Anatolian Shepherd Dog; a flock guardian. Flock guardians are supposed to be non reactive observers who can live within a herd of sheep. He was most happy to lie on the top of a boulder and watch while his buddies played and swam in the quarry. When someone approached he calmly got up to investigate, and decided that he didn’t need to bark because he knew the person. This is what a non reactive dog should do!

I learned about being proactive as most of us do; the hard way.  I had a dog named Crow, a German Shepherd who had never been off the cow farm he had been born onto until he was 7 months of age.  Crow was not extremely timid, but he also wasn’t overtly confident, and he was quite reactive.  He did have some quirks that were very difficult to live with.  He had a total fear of new flooring.  Crow would walk calmly and confidently on cement floors, grass and asphalt.  When I first brought him home, he trotted into my cement floored porch, and over the threshold into the kitchen where the floor was linoleum and promptly back peddled with all his might.  I carried him in and put him onto the hardwood floor and he stood stock still for about ten minutes before he dropped his head and sniffed it.  We had to repeat the ordeal to get him back out again.  It took Crow a solid two weeks to decide that my home with hardwood, linoleum and two different types of carpet would not eat him.  It was really sad and if I knew then what I know now, I would have approached the situation very differently.

Trains didn’t phase Crow, but people in long coats, people on bicycles and people playing musical instruments would send him into fits of barking.  Tractors, heavy machinery, cows, elk and deer were not a problem.  The shiny police motorcycle that was parked at an agricultural fair was terrifying.  The officer in a helmet was not a problem.  Over time, I was able to title Crow in Novice Obedience, but we could only show out of doors.  After the first indoor show I entered required him to walk over a parquet floor to get to the shiny tiled floor of the fair building it was held in, I didn’t feel I could ever do that to him again.  I did show him at the National German Shepherd Specialty mind you; they hold it on a concrete pad in a hockey arena and they bring in sod to cover the ground.

The kind of pre-planning and proactive thinking I had to learn to do with Crow was not just a day to day thing; it was also a minute to minute thing.  When I walked out of my house every day, I had to think about the weather (would there be people in long coats that I would need to be aware of?), and the time of year (would we encounter a parked motorcycle?) and the time of day (would the diverse group of university students who lived in the apartment building across the street be going to the bus, wearing a variety of coats and hats?), but I also had to think about the larger picture too. Did I really want to continue training Crow in Obedience when there were so many variables that I could not control when we showed?

Even though I learned to be very proactive with Crow, I could still from time to time run into huge issues.  Things might be going along just fine and then a sudden environmental change, or “something that Crow considered different and difficult” might appear and startle him.  I realize now that when I am faced with a dog or dogs who are reactive I have a mental check list that I run through that helps me a lot with helping my dog when this sort of a situation arises.

The first thing I ask myself is “Am I safe?”  I learned this in every first aid class I ever took.  If I am not safe, then I cannot help and I am better to get out of the way.  Recently, I was in a situation where my three horses were behaving unpredictably.  The weather was really bad, there was ice falling off the trees and the horses were frightened.  Frightened horses tend to bolt and although none of my horses would intend to hurt me, three horses running in a small paddock are not safe for the people.  I was in the paddock with them when I realized I was not safe.  Recognizing that I was in a dangerous situation, I chose to leave the horses.  Yes, they were at risk, but I couldn’t help them if I got hurt, so I got out.

Once I got to safety, I could think about what to do to help.  The second step I go through when I am working with reactive animals is to ask if they are safe.  In the situation above the horses definitely were not safe, and going back into their paddock was not a good idea.  I thought about things for a moment and decided to get a bucket of grain and the horses’ halters and I leaned over the gate in the shelter they have access to, and I was able to catch two of them and tie them to a wall.  Once I was safe, I could make sure the horses were safe.

Once two of the three horses were confined, the third horse stopped running around in the ice and the rain and the wind.  Then I put a riding helmet on so I wouldn’t get hurt by falling ice (keeping myself safe), and went around the paddock to another gate(avoiding getting the first two horses excited)  and caught the third horse.  I was able to safely catch the third horse.  Once all the horses were safe, I was able to think about the next step.

The third step is to ask myself if there is something in the environment that I can change.  Our shelter is small and the two horses I had tied in there would share it once there was room to do so.  I took the third horse and put her in the barn.  Then I went back around to where the first two horses were and let them loose so that they were safe for the night.

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I have large breed dogs. If I arrived at the dog park to see these three dogs playing, I would be pro-active and choose to not release my dogs to interact. Three small breed dogs, one toy and my German Shepherd would be a recipe for reactive behaviour on the part of one or all of the dogs!

Only once I had determined that I was safe, that the animals were safe, and that I had changed the environment to make it as safe for the horses as possible could I begin to address the behaviour of these frightened animals.  When everyone was safe, I spent some time with the most frightened of the horses (the one I put indoors for the evening), grooming her and soothing her.

For clarity, the steps are as follows:

  1.       Ask myself “Am I safe?”  If I am not, get myself to safety.
  2.       Ask myself if my animal is safe.  If he is not, address that issue next.
  3.       Check to see if there is any way to make a change in the environment to make it safer for the animal.
  4.    Address the behavioural needs of the animal.

So let me run through a possible situation.  You are out in the park with your dog on leash.  Your dog is reactive to other dogs and you see a loose dog on the horizon.  He is still at a distance, but he is running towards you and your dog.  What can you do?

  1. Are you safe? At the moment you notice the dog, yes.  This means without doing anything else you can go to the next step.
  2. Is your dog safe? At the moment, yes.  If he knows how to lie down between your feet, now is a time when you might ask him to do this so that he will stay safe.
  3. What can you change in the environment? If your dog will do a reliable down stay, you can put yourself between him and the dog.  You could throw hands full of treats at the approaching dog.  You could call out and see if an owner will appear.  You can even yell at the dog “You come here you bad, bad, bad dog!”  Many dogs will run away if they have heard that line in the context of being punished!  Once the dog has either left or been caught or been scared off our an owner has appeared, you can go to the final step.
  4. Address your dog’s behaviour. If he is lying down calmly because you have drilled him on this sort of situation, you can probably give him a pile of treats and then continue on your way.  If he is upset, you may need to stop and do some massage, or it could be that the best thing you can do for your reactive dog is get him home to a safe, quiet crate.

Living with dogs and other animals who are reactive can be really, really challenging.  It can be extremely difficult to predict where the next motorcycle is going to come from, or where the next giant dog is going to come from, or where the next falling leaf will occur.  With good proactive handling and a plan, you can often decrease or minimize the unpleasant consequences that occur when frightening things happen.  The more you can decrease the impact of the unpredictable situations, the easier it is to implement a successful classical conditioning program.

THE ANATOMY OF A REACTION

OWNING A GUN

Originally posted May 2013

**Please note*** Since writing this blog I have relicensed to hunt, which you may have seen reflected in some of my other writing.

 

I am a gun owner.  As a gun owner in Canada, I have to follow certain rules, and in fact, I follow even more rules than I am required to follow because I really want to make sure that I never ever allow my gun to fall into a situation where it might be used to commit a crime or to cause harm to someone.  I got my gun when I was pursuing a hunting license in order to be able to hunt food for myself.  Now that I no longer hunt, a good argument could be made that I no longer need a gun, but I might go back to hunting at some point and at that time, I would need a gun again, so in the meantime, I am a responsible gun owner who stores her gun in a manner that prevents people from getting the pieces, putting them together and firing the weapon.

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Guns must be kept in a secure lockable containment system.  Dogs with aggression issues must also be kept safely to keep everyone from harm, including the dog.  Image credit: michaklootwijk / 123RF Stock Photo

My approach to gun ownership is very much like the approach I take to living with my dogs.  John and I live with three dogs, all of whom in various ways could create havoc if they were improperly managed.  D’fer, our oldest is not terrific with puppies.  Preventing him from harming puppies is pretty straightforward.  No matter how much your puppy wants to meet my adult dog, I don’t allow that to happen.  I keep him crated, behind a fence or on a leash when a puppy is around and this keeps puppies safe.  Would he harm a puppy?  Probably.  I don’t want to find out, so I will never give him the chance.  This means that there are a very limited number of people who are permitted to handle D’fer.  I don’t just leave him with a friend, because I don’t want to risk that they might mis-understand or put him into a situation where he might make a mistake.  Deef is my responsibility, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

Eco, my German Shepherd was bred for protection work and I did a certain amount of that with him.  Although he has met children, he doesn’t know them very well and he is over 45 kg.  Without trying, Eco could easily harm a child, just by running and bumping into one.  For this reason, Eco is not a dog park dog.  He is not permitted to run loose in public because I don’t want to risk that a child or even a small adult might be hurt if he ran into them.  Once again, there are a limited list of people I would leave Eco with because I don’t want to put anyone at risk.  If I left Eco with someone who didn’t clearly understand the risks of handling him, and the boundaries we have to be aware of, then I would not be behaving responsibly towards my dog or the public.

Friday knows more about kids than Eco does and she likes puppies, but she is also a large dog at about 30kg, and she is young and sometimes foolish.  She is a dog I could leave with some folks, but not with everyone.  Not everyone is set up to deal with a young, goofy adolescent dog.  She is a good girl, but she is creative, thoughtful, agile, and sometimes a little too much for your average person to deal with.

Most of the work that I do is with dogs with serious behaviour problems.  Some of these dogs are extremely dangerous.  I have worked with dogs who have mutilated people and killed other dogs.  Some of these dogs will never ever be completely safe in public and yet they live safely in people’s homes.  How does that work?  On our uniform sleeves we have the motto “It Depends…”  The answer to how does that work is “It depends”.  It depends on the problem, it depends on where the owner lives with the dog, it depends on what risks there are in the lifestyle of the owner and so on and so forth.  The bottom line when living with a dog who is dangerous in one way or another is risk analysis.

When working with dogs who are dangerous, it is important first and foremost to look at the physical premises and determine what would make the most sense when living with a dog with a problem.  A dog who is predatory towards chickens should not be asked to live loose on a farm with hens.  That would just not be safe for the hens and we would be exposing the hens to a significant avoidable risk.  That same dog might well be perfectly safe and content living in a city in an apartment, where hens are extremely rare.  I would not necessarily trust such a dog with a parrot however.

I frequently get calls from families who wish to add a dog to their home when the resident dog or cat either doesn’t like other dogs, or has caused a significant injury to another animal.  I have helped many people make this work, but one of the first things to think about is “is this a good idea?”  If it is not a good idea, then no matter how much the family might want to add another dog, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a bad idea.  A lot can be done by using crates and gates with care, and avoiding the problem, but if you have a resident animal that doesn’t like other animals, is it actually a caring move to add another animal to the home?  I would suggest it might not be a kind thing to do.  This falls under the category of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

When a dog is dangerous to the public at large, it is our responsibility to protect the public.  There are tons of ways to keep people safe, and if your dog has ever caused harm to someone in public, be it a human or another dog, you must keep everyone safe at all times.  I would like to make it cool for dogs to wear muzzles in public.  If a muzzle will keep people safe, then why shouldn’t your dog wear one?  Keeping large boisterous dogs on leash can help a lot too.  Walking in places where other people don’t walk can really help a lot.  And finally, choosing your time to walk is important too.  I had a client who got up at three in the morning for four years to walk his dog because that was the one time that he could pretty much guarantee that his dog aggressive dog would not harm anyone else’s dog because other dogs just weren’t out at that time.

Owning a dog who has already caused harm to the public is a huge responsibility.  It is as big a responsibility as owning a gun, but because this is a thinking and feeling gun, we often forget that the dog can cause an enormous amount of damage.  Knowing how much damage a dog can do, and understanding that a dog is a thinking and feeling being requires a healthy dose of awareness, and compassion, without tipping yourself over into paranoia or soft heartedness.  When you live with dogs like this, you have to be entirely and dispassionately rational about what your dog is able to cope with, and what he should not be exposed to.  It is easy when you love a dog and you live with him to forget that he may have caused an incredible amount of damage, especially if you have not seen the action.  It is equally possible to become overly protective and never allow your dog to live a normal life at all.  The middle road can sometimes be difficult to find, and it can also sometimes be difficult to follow once you have found it.

The other issue to consider is that it is not only what YOU do with your dog but what others do too.  Consider the situation where you have a dog who has seriously injured another dog in a dog park.  Perhaps this happened when you weren’t with your dog.  Perhaps this happened before your dog lived with you.  If it happened at all, it is now your responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and this is where other people come into the equation.  Perhaps you can take your dog to the dog park when no one is there.  If you are able to see when other people show up, then you can leash up and leave.  If you are unable to see people coming, then you cannot reasonably let your dog off leash to play.  You cannot count on other people who don’t know your dog to take the kind of care that you do.  Another alternative is to find dog friends who ARE safe with your dog and meet them together to keep his skills with other dogs fluent.  All this falls apart though if you hand your dog over to a dog walker who doesn’t understand the risks.  Or if someone comes to the park and as you are leashing up, unleashes their dog to come and molest your dog.  When you cannot control who comes into contact with your dog, you really cannot take your dog into the situation.

One tragic incident happened to a client of mine many years ago.  She knew her dog was not good with strangers, but it was her family’s year to host Christmas dinner.  I suggested boarding her dog.  Not keen on that idea, she chose instead to put her dog out in their outdoor kennel while her guests were there.  An uncle, who had met the dog as a puppy decided he knew better than the owner and went out to the kennel and let the dog out.  After playing with the dog for half an hour, he let the dog into the home, where she mauled one of the other guests.  The owner appeared to be behaving responsibly, but she could not prevent her uncle from doing something that we knew would cause a problem.  It isn’t always what the owner does, but what the people around the owner do that can cause havoc.

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When you have guests, containing your dog at home may be a good idea if your dog has aggression issues, but often it is a better idea to send your dog to a professional boarding kennel where he can be safely cared for. Image credit: evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo

There are lots of dangerous dogs living in communities, and when everyone is brutally realistic without being paranoid or soft hearted, we can make it work.  When you own a dog who might be dangerous, it is your responsibility and no one else’s to protect society from harm caused by your dog.  As members of society, when an owner tells us that a dog is not friendly, you are not helping in any way by insisting that you know better.  You don’t.  You have no idea what the history of the dog you meet is and if the owner or handler tells you that the dog is not safe or not comfortable with being touched, then don’t press your luck; it is not worth it in any way.  Staying safe when working with dogs is like owning a gun.  You don’t leave it out where people who don’t understand it might have access, and you don’t leave it in a place where someone who might use it to commit a crime might find it.  With dogs with behaviour problems proactive handling, preplanning and organizing a plan B so that you can avoid problems is just common sense.  Kind of like living with a gun.

OWNING A GUN

DOG PEOPLE AND NON DOG PEOPLE

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.

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If you are walking your dog in a public space, carry a bag. Heck carry two! Or more. And if someone offers you a bag be gracious about accepting it! it would be terrific if posts like this were found more widely, because everyone gets caught short once in a while, but you should not be caught short every time you walk your dog!

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.

Father and son patting dogs head
When I am hiking, and I meet a child, I usually prefer he doesn’t come over and greet my dog. At least in this case, the dog is on a leash (it is hard to see but it is there) and the child is being supervised by an adult, but I always wonder if the child is actually meeting the dog or if he is just touching him because he thinks he ought to. If you look at this image, the child is not really engaged with the dog! Dogs should not be treated like stuffed animals, to be mauled by anyone who wants to touch them.

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.

A man with two dogs walks in the woods in winter
This is the sort of tricky situation that can go wrong really quickly. When someone turns up in the dog park with a dog on leash, call your dog and leash up. Don’t both getting angry that there is a dog on leash spoiling the fun; you don’t know why he is leashed up! It may well be that the on leash dog was having a great time playing and got injured and is leashed up to protect him from being more badly hurt. Someday that could be your dog. It is a common courtesy to leash up in the presence of another dog when the other dog is on leash.

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!

 

DOG PEOPLE AND NON DOG PEOPLE