Danger all around: dogs in the park

One of the things I’ve learned since Spencer arrived in our lives is how totally oblivious most people are to the potential danger that dogs pose. I’m not saying that to scare you. Because most of the danger can be defused if we behave appropriately, but very few of the humans that we encounter in the park do behave correctly, and that includes other dog owners. I’m not saying we’re holier-than-thou. But when your dog weighs 42 kg/ 92 lbs, you become painfully aware of the potential danger he poses and you learn to avoid situations that could go wrong and how to manage them if you can’t get away. (That’s a work in progress for us.)

Here are some of the key things that people should remember:
* Always observe a safety margin. I’m always amazed by the strangers who pass right in front of us, even with babies and children, despite there being plenty of room to leave a wide berth. Most times there will be no problem, but Spencer has a troubled past; he can go from relaxation to stress pretty quickly if there is a trigger. I’d rather people would leave me the space to calm him down again safely. That means, the length of the leash (1.2m), the length of my arm and the distance he may pull me before I get a foothold (1m). This goes for smaller dogs too. If the dog seems calm with the owner, that’s no guarantee that something about you or in the environment could trigger a negative reaction. As well as the distance, this means that you should pass on the side the owner is on, not the side the dog is on. Spencer walks on my left, which means we have to violate the “pass on the right” convention to observe this safety rule. Sometimes people don’t leave us the choice to do that.
* If you approach, greet the owner first and ask if it’s OK to come closer. Give the dog space to come to you. Don’t impose yourself too quickly, which can be threatening. Don’t pat the dog on the head. Scratch behind the ears or under the chin.
* Dogs don’t like lurkers. We were early for our morning walk, so the park was pretty empty today. We were passed by a big, muscled jogger (who looked like he should have been in London for the Olympics). A little later, when we were doing some training exercises, he was a little way away stretching. He then jogged over directly in front of us, stopped and started walking slowly around in circles. Spencer immediately tensed and fixated on this guy who looked like he was preparing to charge us. I immediately walked Spencer calmly away, but it was a while before he stopped looking over his shoulder. The man was apparently oblivious to us, but in Spencer’s eyes, the jogger was being aggressive. I was even more befuddled by the fact that we were on the edge of a wide open space and there were a zillion other places the guy could have done his circles except right there in front of us.
*Dogs don’t like to be approached from behind. This is how dogs attack, so you can see where it might make them nervous. (Update February 2015: I have no idea if this statement is true. I took it on faith from our previous trainer, but so little of what he said was based in scientifically verified fact, and I have never seen any other reference to it, so I am skeptical.) This is a trigger for Spencer, and one we’re working on. Sometimes, when he is relaxed and looking to me for guidance, he does really well. But if he’s stressed, my presence doesn’t comfort him much and he tends to react by charging the person who passes us. Although he has never yet gone beyond posturing (and trust me, if he really wanted to get away from me to bite, he could), it can still be scary for the person he charges and stressful for me.
* Most people are not in control of their dogs. It’s sad to say, but the number of owners who I respect at the park is limited. In most cases, it’s clear that if they were not much larger than their dogs, they would have no control at all: the dog pulls at the leash, doesn’t come when called, etc. Steer really wide of these people because you never know what’s going to happen. And steer really, really wide if their dog is on an extendable leash. These people drive me crazy. When Spencer was in the Cone of Shame one lady let her dog wrap him up in its extendable leash while she laughed and most unconvincingly told it to come. Another one doesn’t respect my explanations that I am trying to teach Spencer that he should never initiate contact whether positive or negative — that’s my job. So as I try to control Spencer’s approach to her dog, she is nudging hers into the Temptation Zone.
* Cleaning up after your dog creates a moment of vulnerability. I do everything I can to keep Spencer under control while I am cleaning up after him, but it’s impossible for me to have the same control when I am crouched down focused on the sidewalk with the leash in only one hand and when I am focused on him and scanning the environment with the leash in both hands. Furthermore, it is possible that Spencer senses I am less connected to the surroundings and goes into a protective mode. Help out the good citizens who clean up after their dogs and don’t give their dogs any reason to react during the clean-up operation.
* A big dog being playful on a leash can cause damage. We encountered a woman with a smallish dog in a relatively narrow place this morning. I put Spencer on a short leash and kept him wedged between the wall and my hip while we passed. The woman (whose dog was up on its hind legs straining at its leash and who had been miles ahead of her shortly beforehand when off the leash) looked at me with large eyes and asked, “Will it be that difficult?” I replied, “No, but he is being trained that he shouldn’t initiate contact.” About halfway around the park, we met them again. This time, her dog was off the leash and came running towards us, tail wagging. From about half a football field away, she was calling her dog to come (and being ignored). I decided to do a controlled approach to the dog. We almost got there, when Spencer pounced forward playfully. Playful or not, he still pulled me on the leash, and I decided not to fight in order to make a point to the woman who was watching. The dogs said hello, and Spencer nearly pulled my arm out bouncing all over the place from excitement. By that time, the woman had arrived and said she’d extract her dog from the situation, especially since her dog was “afraid”. Umm, no, bouncing and wagging your tail means you’re playing, not afraid. Anyway, it gave me time to explain to her that even when he was playing, I could lose control of Spencer because of his size and that I cannot allow myself that luxury. I doubt she got it. Oblivious owners like her think that if you can’t let your dog off the leash he’s not “nice”; they have no concept of owner responsibility.
So those are some of the lessons we have learned about dog control in the past 3.5 months. I’m sure there will be more in future.

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