As a puppy, she enthusiastically pulled on leash in her desire to get close to the people and dogs she saw. She was very friendly and social, at least initially when she was young. In addition, her owner allowed strange dogs and people to approach her for the same reason: because they were interested in interacting with her. As the pup matured, however, she became less and less friendly towards other dogs who approached. She sometimes growled or froze or showed her front teeth. She occasionally snapped or “snarked.” Eventually, she would even preemptively assume subtle defensive posturing at the mere sight of another dog. She was bracing herself emotionally for the inevitable: an uncomfortable situation over which she had little control.
Her owner struggled with handling her dog in these situations. Like many dog owners, she had bought into the concept that dogs should be able to “say hi” to dogs they encountered. It was the polite thing to do, right?
A significant oversight in this practice is the failure to consider how a dog feels about being forced to interact with others. It’s a slippery slope. A dog can quickly learn to employ offensive aggressive techniques as a default behavior to avoid having to interact.
Full disclosure: the dog owner described above was me, many moons ago. The dog was Dory, a Standard Poodle puppy, my first dog. I’d been soaking up all sorts of information about raising and training puppies, but nowhere was there a universally endorsed “best practices for handling your dog in public” manual. It should be required reading for all dog owners…
I realized I needed to make changes in how I handled Dory so that she was happier, I was happier, and our relationship was better. I couldn’t expect her to change. It was up to me. But what could I do?
Instead of continuing to go out and hope for the best, with unrealistic expectations for a spontaneous and magical transformation, I asked myself some specific questions.
Q: What did I want when Dory was on leash?
- I wanted our excursions to be in partnership, providing fun, shared experiences
- I wanted Dory to feel safe and comfortable
- I wanted our leash skills to improve so there was less pulling and more connection
- I wanted “on leash” to mean “no interactions with other dogs.”
Q: What didn’t I want?
- I didn’t want Dory to enter other dogs’ personal spaces
- I didn’t want other dogs to enter her personal space
The New Meet-Free Rule
No dogs were allowed to come into Dory’s space when she was on-leash and she wasn’t permitted to enter other dogs' spaces when on-leash.
What I did to implement this rule included:
- Letting go of the ill-conceived idea that dogs should be allowed to “say hi” to any and every dog they encounter. It’s not in anyone’s best interest to embrace this concept.
- Fitting Dory to an anti-pull harness
- Learning techniques to mitigate pulling and strengthen attention skills. This included increasing the frequency of rewards, the value of those rewards, and keeping leash walking sessions short and successful.
- Increasing my value to Dory through play and rewards. We took those games into a variety of environments.
- Being vigilant about the presence of other dogs and managing Dory’s space so that there was no possibility of interactions.
- Saying “no, thank you” when other dog owners suggested their dog “say hi” to Dory, even if that meant the other owner considered me to be rude.
- Learning some evasive maneuvers if the other dog’s owner pursued us.
A Salient Shift
It took very little time for our walks to feel very, very different. If Dory could talk, I know she would have thanked me. Gone was the dread of “greetings” gone wrong, gone was the posturing. In their place was a happier, more attentive dog.
Imagine how many problems would be prevented if we all practiced this rule with our leashed dogs. There would be no dog bites, strangers wouldn’t get jumped on, there’d be less reactivity and barking, just to name a few.
What does your dog focus on when you take her for an off-leash walk? How often do you offer her rewards? Where is her focus? Yours?