I was under no illusions at all that I was making excuses for my rubbish parking skills when I told the amused Sainsbury’s assistant ‘My new car – it’s too bloody long!!’ as I mowed down the cone I was supposed to stop in front of, as I reversed into the space so I could collect my ‘click and collect’ shopping. I sometimes joke similarly about my dog’s ‘floppy ears’ when she ignores a verbal cue to do something. I know, really, that it’s my poor judgement about a badly timed or insufficiently trained cue, not her ‘floppy ears’, that are the problem, but joking aside – with our dogs, it can matter.
The dog owner who says ‘My Mongolian Duckhound – they just have to chase ducks! It’s what they’re bred for!’ as an excuse for not having trained or managed the situation well enough to stop their dog pursuing the ducks on the local duck pond. The dog walker who says ‘My dog doesn’t like other dogs – that’s why he barks and lunges at them when other owners let their dogs get too close’. All too often Ignoring the role they had in putting the dog in the position that it felt the need to kick off; blaming other dog owners and their dogs.
The blame game
When do reasons become excuses? That I was having difficulty parking my new car was undoubtedly because it was a much longer vehicle than I was used to. I hadn’t learned how to reverse park it into narrow spaces or judge its length. But that becomes an excuse when I am clearly laying some kind of responsibility on the car for the problem, or Sainsburys for putting the cone in the wrong place, not my lack of skill if I don’t plan on doing anything about it to change the outcome next time I have to reverse into a narrow space.
Same as with dog training – blaming the dog for actions, when it’s our management and training skills that are lacking, is very common. It allows people to place the responsibility for unacceptable or ‘wrong’ behaviour on the dog, or on other people. But any experienced dog trainer knows that is silly. If a dog hasn’t learned (yet) to not chase ducks, then as the big-brained human it is our responsibility to aim to manage the dog so it isn’t in a position to chase ducks. That the dog made a bad decision (as far as the owner and the ducks were concerned – the dog probably had a great time!) to chase ducks is down to handler error. That the Mongolian Duckhound is hard-wired to want to chase ducks may be a reason the dog decided to chase the ducks, but blaming the dog for doing it is making excuses for poor management skills, or lack of training, on the part of the owner. Not liking other dogs might be the reason a dog keeps kicking off at other dogs, but if it keeps happening, then it is just making excuses for not managing walks better. Blaming other dog owners, or the dog’s history, in an effort to seem less culpable is a very understandable human response to making mistakes.
Human frailty means I am probably as guilty as the next person in sometimes exclaiming “B***** dog!!”, as it legs it over the horizon, but I do know, in my heart of hearts, that my emotional response isn’t the slightest bit helpful, or fair on the dog, and must aim to try harder next time to not let it happen.
Does it matter? Maybe not, but if the owner continues to blame the dog, other dog owners, the ducks for moving too fast, or the rest of the world for just being there (like that pesky cone in the Sainsbury’s car park), without actually doing any training, or changing how things are managed, so things are less likely to go wrong again could lead to disastrous consequences. Avoiding taking responsibility for the dog’s unwanted behaviour rarely does the dog any favours.
Of course we all misjudge things from time to time and management might fail (and random ‘stuff’ happens) – but let’s not blame the dog (or others) when it does. It’s important to try and identify reasons why dogs do or don’t do things. But it’s also important to do something about those reasons if the consequences are unwanted or likely to be potentially harmful.
So I can see I shall have to spend some time and out some effort onto retraining reverse parking in narrow spaces before I mow down some hapless pedestrian, since should that happen, the excuse that my car is too long probably won’t stand up in a court of law!
I remember the day I went out with a client with a lungy barky GSD – at the training stage of ‘dealing with random stuff on walks’. At one point a large truck pulled up and a man got out clearly intent on talking to us, so while the handler did her ‘move the dog away to create a bit more distance and move behind mum’ strategy, I ran interference – the man was just asking directions. Which I gave him. Dog and handler doing really well on their own behind me. No lunging or barking. Almost relaxed owner. As our accidental helper was about to go back to the truck I felt I had to ask – ‘do you know about dogs?’ because he hadn’t looked at the dog and owner at all. Not once. SO unusual. It turned out he had been a dog handler in the RAF and knew exactly how NOT to (as well as how to no doubt!) turn the dog into a whirling dervish monster dog. Turned a random encounter into a great positive training opportunity for which I thanked him.
But how often can you rely on random strangers out on walks behaving in such a way to help you and your dog? IME hardly ever. They let their dogs come too close. They let their off lead dogs run over to us. They try to stroke and fuss our dogs – especially if they are cute puppies. Ask them to stop and they don’t. None of them mean harm. They love dogs just as we do. But every experienced dog owner can relate tales of how well meaning, but (but let’s be frank here!) ignorant people seem to mess things up for them. It’s a very human thing to want to hug and touch and make contact physically. It’s what most people do.
People will come up with loads of things to try and prevent those episodes happening. “My dog has mange” “Let me try and hug you to show you how unpleasant it is to be groped by a stranger”. I once had occasion to say clearly and deliberately to one person “my dog has bitten people for doing exactly what you are doing now. Please take your hand away”. Yet that person persisted in stroking her. It was a testament to Poppy’s progress that I was able to bring her away before she bit one more person for touching her in a way she deemed offensive! Calling out to people in the park “please call your dog away” as their dog runs over to say hello, rarely has a dog magically understanding the recall cue the owner might already be trying, in vain. That’s assuming they are trying. But many an owner could be genuinely mystified as to why a complete (possibly quite mad!) stranger is telling them to call their dog. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try these things. But IME we are so often left frustrated, angry or upset by what appears to be the thoughtless behaviour of these random strangers.
Being your dog’s advocate?
So if there is one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that there is no point in relying on random strangers to change their behaviour to accommodate you and your dog. Being assertive and practiced at “being your dog’s advocate” in telling people to stop doing what they are doing can work. For sure. Always worth trying. But all too often unless you are prepared to be pretty rude to some people either in what you say, or what you do, and risk losing their willingness to help you in the future, as well as cause offence, you probably need to work on changing you and your dog’s behaviour rather than rely on changing their’s. If you aren’t very good at being assertive and start to sound worried and anxious in your attempts, you might well make your dog more anxious. Sound at all aggressive – ditto. But not only that – if it has come to the point where you and the other person are close enough to have that conversation, it’s probably already too late. They will have already stretched their hand out. They might already be cuddling your puppy. They have probably already made eye contact with your dog. Their dog is probably already trying to make “friends” with yours even more intimately.
Have a plan
So have a training plan to deal with ‘random strangers’. A strategy. It might be as simple as making sure you can easily turn and move away before the intruder- human or canine – gets too close so the situation doesn’t arise in the first place. It might be teaching your dog to move behind you. Your dog being up close and personal to you, with you acting as physical barrier, is likely to stop most humans in their tracks.
You could enlist the help of friends by asking them to role-play being a “random stranger”. Practice saying phrases like “Please don’t touch my dog” in a firm tone of voice, whilst rewarding the dog for moving behind you, for instance. Practice taking a step away, more or less subtly as the situation dictates, as the stranger moves closer.
Random strangers and their dogs can be a menace. They aren’t friends or training buddies who can be instructed in what they should do, or not do, to aid your cause. Accept it. 🙂 IME it’s much easier, and usually less stressful, to change how you and your dog behave than trying to change theirs. IME it’s much easier to train and manage a single dog than train or manage an entire population of random strangers.
One of the things a lot of trainers used to insist owners taught their dogs was to make sure they – the owner – went through doorways first. It was believed that it supported the owner’s position as ‘pack leader’ and showed the dog who was in charge by leading the way. Like much advice associated with outdated ideas about how to deal with ‘dominant’ dogs, it has fallen out of favour and doesn’t seem to be taught much these days. But is that wise or sensible? I say not.
However much I’ve tweaked and adapted my class content over the years ‘dog following owner though doorways’ has always stayed in there, somewhere. And I teach it to every dog I own. Yes, really. For many people it conjures up pictures of ‘pack leaders’. Dogs being subservient to the human in charge. But in my book it’s just plain sensible for the dog to learn to tuck itself behind the owner, and let them deal with whatever may be out there first. It is also an excellent way for a dog to learn self-control.
Many years ago I used to teach classes in a hall which had a stage where people sat waiting for their class to start. An owner with a large RottieX arrived, dog out ahead of him at the end of the lead. The dog went through the door onto the stage – but something made the door swing shut on the lead. So the owner was one side – dog the other. What the owner couldn’t see, and didn’t, was there was a child on the stage just the other side of that door. As the dog bounced though the door, he jumped at the child and grabbed his arm. Fortunately, playfully, and without doing any damage. But by the time the owner had opened the door, the dog had let go, and the owner was blissfully unaware what had happened until he was told. Disaster was averted – but only just.
What I took from seeing that near miss was that from a safety point of view, the dog mustn’t be the one to discover what is on the other side of any door first. It’s simply too late, and potentially dangerous, to let the dog go through and then discover there’s a hazard on the other side. He will have already kicked off at the dog that is just outside, or started to chase the cat sitting on the step or grabbed the child waving its arms about excitedly. The harm will have been done. Shutting stable doors and all that.
In the context of reactive dogs it is even more important. Nothing puts more dread in my heart than seeing an over-aroused dog appear in a doorway before the owner is visible! Seeing them drag their owners ahead at stiles, doorways and gates, around blind corners – especially front doors or into a dog training hall – you just know it won’t take much to send that dog spiraling upwards and kicking off before the owner is even aware there is another dog around.
It’s not a ‘teach the dog a sit stay and then give him permission to charge through ahead of you’ obedience exercise (although it can be helpful to teach the dog go though ahead on some kind of cue), it’s an exercise where the dog, as a default, learns to drop back behind the owner in order to negotiate narrow spaces. Where someone – either the dog or the handler – has to go first. And if needs be, pausing in that doorway first, so the environment can be checked out first. That it’s safe to proceed. No lurking cats, passing dogs or children. Nothing to do with being a ‘pack leader’, just plain sensible.
Today some pictures of the cutest, fluffiest little dog needing a home strayed across my Facebook timeline. So many comments from people on how beautiful she was and how they’d so like to give her a home. She WAS beautiful too. But people were wanting to offer her a home purely on what she looked like? How crazy is that? OK, aesthetic appeal matters and I’d be lying if I didn’t say some dogs attract me visually more than others. But when offering a dog a home what it looks like surely is the least important thing to consider?
Meet Poppy a collie I owned. Poppy was very pretty. I had people say ‘She bites? But she’s so pretty!’ as though prettiness excluded any desire to bite people! I knew her history – she was born and reared (presumably with minimal human input) on a Welsh puppy farm and ended up in a pet shop in South London/Surrey before she was 8 weeks old. That she was unsuited to a pet home in an urban area with first time dog owners who had no car to take her to parks or dog training classes, no experience or knowledge to make good decisions about her, let alone deal with the issues such a poorly bred and reared dog would inevitably bring, seemed not to bother the pet shop owner. He sold her to them anyway. It did not work out well.
By 9 months old she was probably going to be euthanised because she was scary, scared, stressed and aggressive. It was sheer chance she ended up with me and I was able to give her a home which I hope was more suited to her needs and give her less cause to want to bite people.
We see so many dogs these days ending up in homes where those dogs and puppies that have NO experience of a life in a home, with people in their lives, wanting to fuss and cuddle them, or take them on leads for walks and expect them to meet other dogs and people – experience a toally alien life – under circumstances they’d never choose for themselves. Up close and personal when that may be the very last thing they want or need. They may have been shut in sheds and barns or shelters with no experience of the lives they are now forced to lead.
That their rearing and experiences are so wrong on so many levels is indisputable. That many learn to cope over time – because they have to – does that mean we should put them through it without a lot of hard thinking first?
So what are the alternatives? That raises other questions and dilemmas for another blog. I guess if we had all the answers we’d not see these dogs struggling and we wouldn’t feel we had to make appeals for good homes based on how ‘pretty’ or superficially attractive a dog is.
You are a very sociable person. You were raised in a large family. They often had friends round.You love people 🙂
Then as you were beginning to grow up and maybe even reached your teens, you were given away to a family of camels. Yes, camels. An entirely different species. They don’t hug or kiss or chat. They don’t talk to you in any kind of language you can understand – just a load of noises which make no sense to you. They stink too. Worse, they live in the desert, so from that day you don’t see another human being. But you get along OK. You adapt. It’s not a terrible life. Then one day, meandering about in the desert with your new camel family, you see on the horizon not just ONE human being, but a whole bunch of them! You can’t contain yourself. You charge over to them, laughing excitedly and generally making something of an idiot of yourself as you shout ‘HI! HI! OMG! People! Who are you?’ You hug and kiss a couple before they are really aware you are on top of them. But the third one is ready for you – and pushes you away angrily. After all – you are a complete stranger. You not only ignored all the social niceties of a proper greeting – you HUGGED him?? He gets cross. At least the others just move away and put up with your nonsense. But that one who just got angry – he’s not prepared to let it go. He’s a bad tempered old bugger with a dodgy hip; he can’t evade you and it hurts. And you nearly had him over! He gets hold of you and shouts at you to ‘stop!’ Suddenly all your enthusiasm evaporates. You are frightened. You had never met anyone as grumpy as that before and you were only trying to be friendly and you hadn’t seen a fellow human being in ages.
Very quickly your camel family gallops up and intervenes and hurries you away. But mortified by your totally inappropriate behaviour, and angry with the grumpy old man who’d so viciously attacked you, it is clear they are upset as well. They make angry-camel noises at you. All very stressful. No chance for apologies. No making up between you and the humans you were so desperate to make friends with. Everyone is angry and there’s a sour taste of frustration that you hadn’t been able to make friends with any of them and worse, finding out that some people are horrible to you. And you don’t know why. A poor encounter on every level.
So we can easily see how a young dog is being set up to make the kind of mistakes that can end in tears when encounters with other dogs are mismanaged, or allow him to behave in a way that upsets other dogs. But worse than that, if something bad happens, what we humans do in response often compound those worries and fears. Our friend who lives with the camels wasn’t given the opportunity to learn actually most of that group of humans were OK, but, well, if you approach people in a crazy way, they are very likely to going to react badly, especially if they can’t move fast to get out of your way!
Both our human friend and the grumpy old man might get labelled “reactive” in today’s world. The friendly youngster as he jumps up and down with excitement, shouting hello as he charges towards the group of people; the grumpy old man as he reacts sharply, and aggressively, to stop from being hurt or knocked over. Very different motivations; potentially very different outcomes in the long term that might have been avoided had things been managed differently.
People often use Facebook and Google to ask about training or behaviour issues with their dogs and FB can be great for exploring and sharing problems, and getting opinions from people who have experienced them, but it’s usually best to consult a trained and experienced professional. In the dog behaviour business though, there are no legal requirements; no rules at all about who can set up as a behaviourist or a trainer so you need to check their credentials with care.
But which do you need anyway? A trainer or a behaviourist?
Essentially a trainer works with owners to help healthy, relatively untroubled dogs learn things. To use the old-fashioned term to be “obedient”. We talk about responding reliably to cues these days, and the techniques used are very different, but training is about helping the average, problem-free dog learn what owners want of them, and for owners to learn what is fair and reasonable to ask of their dogs. Trainers might be called in to help with housetraining puppies, or coming when called, or more specialist needs like competitive sports dog training or assistance dog tasks. The good dog trainer will have enough understanding of behaviour to spot if these training needs are symptoms of a more complex health or behaviour issue, especially if the dog is finding it difficult to learn to be responsive to what the owner needs or wants him to do. If they aren’t qualified to deal with those things (which they might, or might not, be), they should have the knowledge to know when to refer clients to other professionals.
A behaviourist works with owners to help resolve behaviour problems. For example fearfulness, anxiety, aggressive behaviour, dog/dog “reactivity”. They aim to bring the dog’s behaviour to as near to problem–free as possible; the aim being to enable dog and owner to live in peace and harmony, the dog to live a ‘good life’ and to be more open to learning (training) if its needed. Not just for the owner’s sake of course, but for the welfare of the dog. That may need some ‘dog training’ skills as well, but that isn’t the behaviourist’s main role and they may refer clients to a trainer once underlying behaviour issues have been sorted out. A good behaviourist works in cooperation not just with trainers, but with vets too. Most work only on vet referral since many behaviour problems result from pain or illness.
Some trainers are qualified behaviourists, and vice versa. There is inevitably a lot of overlapping of skills between the two.
Experienced or qualified?
Any trainer or behaviourist will do their best to ensure that their advice is founded in good science. Unfortunately evidence and good science is not only rather lacking in important areas of behaviour work, sometimes it’s pretty hard to apply to the ‘real world’. But it is widely accepted that a behaviourist would be educated in a directly relevant subject to at least degree level, so will usually have a relevant degree – either undergraduate or post graduate, typically in Applied Animal Behaviour or Clinical Animal Behaviour, and would normally have been mentored or examined in some way in order to demonstrate they can apply their knowledge and skills working with clients.
If the problem is a serious aggression or behaviour problem then the first port of call should be the vet who can, and should, refer you to a qualified behaviourist. Veterinary surgeons don’t receive much training in dog behaviour at vet school, but they can specialise in behaviour work and some have pursued post graduate qualifications in behaviour, so it’s worth checking out if your vet’s practice has such a person. There are a few vets who are listed as specialists in veterinary behavioural medicine with the RCVS.
Some vet practices have vet nurses that have some extra training in behaviour to handle minor behaviour problems. Some may be qualified to work as behaviourists in their own right.
Coaching and counselling skills also form an important part of the job. An effective behaviourist will have those too.
Dog behaviour work doesn’t have a single, straightforward set of skills, so although there are certain evidence based protocols which a good behaviourist would normally follow, it’s not like building a wall, cooking a soufflé or learning to drive so there will be variations in how each carries out their work. There are two important significant variables that makes each case unique – your dog. And you.
So its a real hotch-potch of things to look out for. It pays to do some research to find out who is the right person to help you and to find out what their qualifications and experience can offer you.
LISTS OF BEHAVIOURISTS
There are other organisations than these listed – but these (below) should identify most currently in practice in the UK and some include the members of those other organisations. Each organisation has their own criteria for membership so you may want to check that out. Typically they will have minimum academic standards, usually an assessment process, a code of practice and/or some kind of ethical statement, how members or their courses are accredited (if they are), if they have a complaints procedure (just in case things go wrong) and how they expect members to behave professionally, and how they maintain their skills. They vary. Note there are also behaviourists who are well qualified, and experienced, who are not members of any organisation. There is no obligation, legal or otherwise, for any behaviourist to join any organisation.
ABTC – the Animal Behaviour and Training Council.
An organisation which brings together members of a number of organisations, including the long established Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC). http://www.abtcouncil.org.uk/
Register of ASAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourists (CCAB)
The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASAB) runs a certification scheme and lists those who have fulfilled their criteria. https://www.asab.org/ccab/
FABClinicians – The Fellowship of Animal Behaviour Clinicians
An organisation established in 2020 which is a support organisation for those already academically qualified in clinical animal behaviour and working towards becoming certified by the Association of Animal Behaviour (ASAB). https://fabclinicians.org/
The International Association of Animal Behaviour Consultants is what it says on the tin – it includes a number of respected British behaviourists as members so is worth checking out https://m.iaabc.org/
Expect to be asked to go to your vet for a formal referral. It is usually best to approach the behaviourist first though to check out they are happy to take on your particular case, to discuss how soon they can see you and importantly how much it will cost. Behaviourists aren’t cheap. But you may be able to claim it on your veterinary insurance. The behaviourist (and your insurance company of course) should be able to advise you on that, so don’t be shy about asking – they will want to you to be able to pay them. You may also need immediate ‘first aid’ advice on how to manage a dog safely until you can see someone. That can be especially important where aggression is involved.
If they don’t want to ask for a formal vet referral, or suggest a visit to the vet won’t be necessary, ask why. It is considered ‘good practice’ to make sure health issues are eliminated and they ought to be able to justify such advice. Some behaviourists like to schedule a short assessment visit first.
Do your research
By now, hopefully its become clear It is important to do your research, even if the person you come across is on one of the registers, above. Or indeed, if you find someone who calls themself a behaviourist, who isn’t on any register. They may also be good at the job, but be mindful they aren’t under any obligation to adhere to laid out codes of practice, or be answerable to a professional body. So long as your vet can satisfy themselves that person is fully qualified (and insured) it ought not be a problem for you to express a preference.
Other organisations will have their own criteria for membership and have members who may be excellent at the job, and well qualified in most significant respects.
1 – Internet – Check the various registers, above.
2 – Check the websites of likely candidates.
Does it tell you what their qualifications and experience are? Especially if they aren’t on the registers, above. Are they relevant to what you need? “I became a behaviourist because I love animals and grew up with them” is NOT a qualification! Google their name – see if it throws up useful facts about their experience e.g. experience of specific issues which may or may not be relevant to your needs, interest in specific breeds or problems
Are they members of reputable organisation? (See above).
Do they describe HOW they work? Do they state what approach they take? They should. If they say things which suggest they buy into techniques which appear to rely on being a ‘pack leader’ or dismiss using food treats as a tool before they have even met your dog, for example, then you probably want to steer well clear of them. If they are also trainers running classes, go and watch them at work if you want reassurances (but do ask first – it’s the polite thing to do J).
3 – Ask other people locally. Get personal recommendations
Chat to local dog walkers, the local pet shop. Other dog owners. Be prepared for them to offer biased and uninformed opinions as well as sing praises of the people they respect though. Gossip and badmouthing people didn’t start with FaceBook! Just be ready to ignore what may just be scurrilous rumours about bad practice, but you are likely to get a picture of how well respected a behaviourist is, and their effectiveness, by talking to a range of local people who have experience of their services.
Now you have a behaviourist on board?
Once you have connected with a behaviourist, work with them as a team. A good behaviourist will want your feedback, and ready to adapt their advice (assuming its in everyone’s best interests to do so of course) to suit the circumstances, so don’t be scared to talk with them if their advice doesn’t appear to be working, or you believe it might be too difficult for you to follow. Check out you really are doing what they intended.
But let’s assume all goes well and you are happy with the help you are getting. Behaviourists also love to know when things are working out and the problems sorted – so if they don’t ask, don’t let that stop you dropping them a line or giving them a call to say’ thanks! We are all well and happy now’. It will be appreciated.
I was out walking my dog yesterday. On lead. Urban streets. She’s a friendly, well behaved dog. She didn’t spot the dog about 60 yards away the other side of the road, but I did. I stopped. THAT other dog had not only spotted my dog at that distance, she was rigid, right out on the end of her lead, owner in tow. The dog’s expression was hard, her whole body was tense and it said ‘Don’t you come near me! I’ll have you if we get any closer!’ The owner, on her phone, seemed blissfully unaware. Mrs Oblivious. By now my dog had noticed them and was looking in their direction, tail waving, interested, and friendly, if a wee bit unsure. Mrs Oblivious didn’t notice me making sure my dog made a good decision to break off looking at her dog, to turn and move away behind me as I moved calmly into a gateway to be as far away from them as I could be.
Owner and dog, pulling against each other, the other side of the road, managed to get past me and my dog. I could see her dog’s body relax a bit as they got past and off they went on their not-so merry way.
I wonder how often that dog had been forced to walk past or close to another dog it didn’t want to? I wonder how many dogs had been on the receiving end of that threatening glare and tension? All my experience told me that dog was not wanting to be friends. I have worked with enough dogs that are aggressive towards other dogs to know the difference between the ones that mean business, and the ones that don’t. This one meant business. I didn’t want her to get any closer that’s for sure!
It’s baffling how some people don’t see how damaging it can be to ignore what their dog is telling them and want to force them into situations the dog is so obviously deeply unhappy about. More worryingly though, is how potentially dangerous it can be. The lead only needed to break, or be pulled out of the owner’s hand, for that dog to be running across the road and reach my dog.
Try this analogy for size…
You are a passenger in a car driving along a motorway. Of necessity, you put your trust in the driver to get you home safely since he is in charge of which direction you go, and what speed you travel at.
A few hundred yards ahead of you see some blue flashing lights. Small, insignificant lights to start with, but enough to put you on alert because you have, unfortunately, been involved in a crash before, so you know it can end badly. You tense. You can feel your foot anticipating the need to push on the brake pedal. Your hands clench slightly. Your heart-rate has gone up a tad. You want to be sure the driver has seen them. ‘Whoa! Slow down a bit! I think there’s something wrong up ahead!’ Nothing happens. He is oblivious to what you are saying, whistling along to the music on the radio, not paying much attention to the road, or you. Your alarm increases as he keeps driving inexorably closer to what to you is looking like a major hazard. Stressville!! Panic is kicking in. He squeezes past the pile-up without incident. Just. But it’s a close call and you feel you were just a whisker away from death! Still blissfully unaware or uncaring that your heart rate has rocketed, or you were trembling in fear, he carries on. Still whistling along with the radio. That you have just experienced the very real stress and tangible fear that can arise from the anticipation of disaster, and a near miss, seems not to concern him one iota.
If you knew you could trust him to never to crash the car, and knew his judgement was always spot on, maybe you would panic less, but you know from past experience you can’t always trust him, or other drivers, to exercise good judgement.
This is exactly what some people, like Mrs Oblivious, do every day when they take their dogs out. Hanging on to the lead, supposed to be in control, as they move unerringly towards a potentially dangerous situation, paying little or no attention to what is going on. Blissfully unaware of the stress and anxiety he or she is causing their dog. When your dog says ‘whoah!’ you really ought to notice and heed that early warning. Slow down. Take a good look before carrying on. You may even need to stop. Your dog might be wrong about the risks in getting too close to that other dog across the road, but she may well be right. She may well be better at reading other dogs than you are, and may be a better judge of the situation. She may be paying more attention than you! Her experience and history could well be that she knows she can’t trust the judgement of a human holding the other end of the lead. She might well have learned, as this dog seems to have, that pulling towards other dogs, looking fierce and in a threatening way, is an effective way to make sure other dogs back off. Getting in with a preemptive attack isn’t unusual in a dog that is forced into close encounters by an unwitting owner.
As for Mrs Oblivious? Well, fingers crossed she doesn’t find out the hard way just what her dog is telling her. She was like that driver, blissfully unaware of what was going on, so completely oblivious to the risks she was taking. I hope I don’t meet them again. Scary.
So your dog is worried by other dogs…?
I mean worried. Not terrified. Just that he’s uncomfortable around dogs he doesn’t know. He’s not kicking off every time he sees, or even meets, another dog out on walks and he’s never bitten, although you fear he might snap at another dog if he were pushed too far.
Well, there’s no doubt distracting a dog with food treats, or playing a game with them (if they are willing to do either), can be a useful tactic to make sure your dog chooses to engage with you, rather than bother about the other dog. Giving your dog a job to do, like agility, or obedience exercises, which takes their focus off other dogs when they are around will serve much the same purpose.
Avoiding and escaping
It’s also going to help your dog feel more comfortable, and safe, if they know you are going to move away from other dogs as soon as you see them, so the subject is never broached. Diving into the shrubbery, ducking behind cars or going for 5am walks so the stress of even seeing other dogs at a distance is avoided – yep, all part of the package of advice to make life with the reactive dog easier.
Carried out correctly, with good timing, distracting and avoiding have their place in managing the worried, reactive dog.
But allowing your dog to learn how to predict whether other dogs are safe, or unsafe, and have the power to change how you behave around other dogs, is a skill distracting and avoiding interferes with. Sometimes we need to interfere less, and interfere differently. If our dogs never get to meet or see other dogs, how can they learn how to engage with them? That doesn’t mean we should just “let the dogs get on with it”. Or allow them to “sort it out for themselves”. Despite being recommended by a lot of trainers, this approach can go horribly wrong. It’s just not worth the risk. It’s not fair on any dog and is very likely to make many dogs far worse. So here’s something else you can do to help. Help your dog learn to observe dogs from a safe distance. Then consider if closer encounters, progressed carefully, under safely managed conditions are appropriate.
At a nice safe distance, when your dog sees another dog and alerts to it, with a slight lift of the head, ears and tail perhaps beginning to lift, eyes focusing on the other dog, you should draw calmly to a halt. Relaxed. Standing still(ish). Not frozen. The rabbit in headlights look is not wanted. On a loose, long lead, watching and waiting. Saying nothing. Doing nothing except observing your dog. You want to see your dog observing the other dog, not just looking or glancing at him, and then looking back at you. We want to see (as far is possible) your dog’s behaviour as if there was no owner attached to the lead. We don’t want to see actions taught by the owner. Food may need to be kept in pockets; toys away somewhere else. The dog should not be pestering the handler for food. If there was a safe way to do this offlead, we’d do it offlead, but it rarely is.
What you are looking for is for your dog to DE-arouse. To make the decision that the other dog, at that moment in time, in that place, is OK. To see him drop and or turn his head, relax his body. His tail to lower. You are looking for changes in millimetres. In some dogs that can be really hard to see. Others, it is very obvious. What happens as a consequence should be to your dog’s advantage. You can either drop some food on the ground or you could make the decision to move away from the other dog and/or go on your way in a different direction. Or do both. You haven’t interfered, except to respond to what your dog has shown he needs to have happen. That when he said to the handler ‘whoah! Dog up ahead! Let’s stop and see what’s what before going on!’ and then followed by ‘Oh – it’s OK. I can see we’re safe’ you noticed, and acted on that information.
But what if….
But if instead of relaxing, and his arousal levels increase, rather than decrease, he is heading towards a point of no-return, and you know in the next second he is going to kick off, that needs interrupting. Promptly. The window of opportunity to do this is limited. So if your dog stands up higher on his toes, even by a millimetre, his tail and ears come up higher, his body tenses still more, that’s when you do need to interfere. Just a little. If your dog is relatively calm (and being calm enough may need preparatory work), it should only need the handler to take a backwards step and movement, or just light touch with a finger somewhere on his body to have him glance to see what is happening behind him, and so interrupting that inevitable build up to kicking off.
If those subtle signals don’t work immediately, then your dog is already too aroused to behave appropriately, and the likelihood he is going to kick off is high. Not what is wanted! So cut your losses and move AWAY. Create distance. Fairly rapidly, but not in a rushed or panicky way. You don’t want the dog to believe there really is a reason to panic or run away. That cool, relaxed ‘Let’s Go!’ strategy may need teaching to the dog first, away from other dogs. Next time avoid being so close that an escape is needed.
Over time, with repetition, your dog will learn he can STOP you taking him closer to other dogs until he has them sussed out, knowing you aren’t going to make him go closer than he is comfortable with. It should also start to enable less antagonistic communication. As the dogs observe each other it gives them the opportunity to exchange the more subtle, gentle signalling that dogs are so good at if they have the opportunity and stress and over-arousal are taken out of the picture. You, and your dog, will also learn to be quicker at making decisions about other dogs, because you are both going to get practice at doing it. You DO need to practice it too. Just doing it once or twice won’t hack it.
So observe more, and interfere less whenever you can.