(Update February 2015: Since this article was written, we have learned that research has totally debunked the myth that dogs are somehow trying to gain status over humans.
First, dogs don’t have fixed hierarchies. They may scuffle for control over resources that they find valuable, but each dog values different things.
Second, it’s nonsense that a dog feels the need to test you after you’ve tried to impose yourself on him. A more accurate reading of events in retrospect is that I had showed Spencer that he would be punished (in this case through choke chain leash corrections) when strangers came near. So his lunging at the man was a preemptive attempt to prevent the man from approaching.
Third, luring crows nearby and then leash-correcting the dog is cruel. You’re basically setting the dog up to fail and then imposing corporal punishment for the inevitable. It is much better to proactively teach the dog impulse control.)
One of our key objectives in training is to teach Spencer he should never take any initiatives of contact with third parties, whether positive initiatives (Hi Dog! I want to play!) or negative (I don’t like the looks of that man, I think I’ll lunge at him). He should also refer to us for direction. This is a gradual process, and one which sometimes involves some steps back as well as forward.
Yesterday, Spencer and I had a very fruitful lesson. We are working on resisting temptation and listening to the handler’s instructions, regardless of what is going on in the environment. One of the trainer’s tools in this exercise are crows, which he feeds, so they hang out nearby. Crows trigger Spencer’s hunting instincts, so he will naturally want to chase them. As the handler, my job is to firmly communicate that I am in charge so that he doesn’t even attempt to go after the birds. This sometimes makes for rather physical lessons, which look a bit like taming a bucking bronco. (Don’t forget that Spencer weighs 2/3 what I do!)
So yesterday, although Spencer chased a bit, I came out on top, which means that I gained status, which spills over into other areas of obedience because I had shown him that he can have confidence that he can trust me to be in charge. After all, if I can’t control him, how can he possibly believe that I can control all the scary things that surround us in our urban environment?
That was the background for this morning’s walk. I was feeling pretty confident based on yesterday’s results. We passed a house on the corner where a fenced-in dog always barks, and Spencer wanted to go say hi. I firmly told him to keep walking, and he did.
I still find it difficult to get the balance right for walks. Basically, the trainer says there are four types of walks:
- The potty walk
- The I-need-to-get-somewhere walk
- The work/training walk
- The relaxation walk.
He says that you shouldn’t be as strict on a relaxation walk unless you want your relationship with your dog to be a work relationship. The problem I have is that I haven’t quite found the level of firmness that keeps me 100% in control and yet doesn’t seem too much like work for both of us. The trainer assures me this will come naturally.
Anyway, this morning, I should have been prepared for Spencer to test me after my imposing myself both yesterday and at the beginning of the walk. The park was empty when we got there, so I let my guard down, apparently a bit too much.
My first warning sign should have been the unnatural level of attention he paid the little electric truck that goes around collecting the garbage. From that point forward, he was much less focused on me than he should have been. Before I managed to regain the upper hand, I saw some (unleashed) dogs arriving behind us. I suspect at this point that I became less calm and signalled tension to Spencer because when a man came up the path behind us and passed us at a respectful distance that would normally not bother Spencer, he lunged.
Luckily the man had maintained a security distance (something that a shockingly few number of people do when approaching my giant dog), because the grass was damp from yesterday’s rains, and I slipped and fell. I managed to keep the leash in my hand, stand back up and finally pull Spencer the other direction so the poor man could make his escape (and bravo to this gentleman for keeping his calm and not getting angry. I wish I could apologize yet again to his face since I couldn’t linger over apologies at the time.)
It then took me quite a while to get Spencer back into his follower role, but luckily we didn’t have any other near approaches until I did. However, I found him hypervigilant for the rest of the walk.
Moral of the story for me: Whenever I gain status, I need to be mentally prepared for a challenge and make the ensuing walks exercises in consolidating my gain so that we can relax all the better afterwards.