Great Start, Not Such a Good Finish

“I really should plant my feet more solidly,” I thought to myself as I took my eyes off Spencer for a split-second to acknowledge the man’s thanks. Almost instantly, I found myself flat on the ground and being dragged by an over-excited Cane Corso.

The day had started off well enough. Although the forecast called for rain all-day, the greatly appreciated “Will it rain here within an hour?” service said no, so I took a chance and packed Spencer into the car for a long walk in the woods to offset what was likely to be a day of being cooped up inside.

He’d been great on- and off-leash for the duration. He came when I called for the most part and calmly watched strangers jog past. He explored left and right and pulled much less on the long lead than in the past. He sat and waited for me when we got near crossings that I wanted to make together.

We were almost back to the car, and I decided to take the small path that parallelled the paved road. Despite being narrow, there’s pretty good visibility on it, so I let Spencer run ahead of me, as he likes to do in the woods (let’s be frank: he likes doing that in town too, but he can’t get far without pulling on the leash, which is a no-no).

Anyway, there’s a crook in the path, and when I clear a bush, I see that he’s stopped and is checking out someone who is coming towards us.

No panic. I call Spencer to me, which has a variable success rate when he’s checking something out. But then I call “Spencer, mi-tour!” (u-turn), which has a good success rate and then I head in the opposite direction. That gets his attention, and he comes running toward me.  Good dog!  I take him back a little bit, find a place off the path where we can go, put him in a sit, attach him to the short leash which is around my waist and start clicking him and rewarding him with treats.

As the man comes into view, I am really happy that I’ve done all this, because he has a little dog with him. Spencer has a lot of trouble with impulse control when it comes to other dogs, although we’ve been working on this and getting pretty good. However, had I known there was another dog, I would have gone further off the path because Spencer’s impulse control improves with distance and I didn’t have very high-value treats.

They walk by, and all seems well. The man says “thank you”. I glance up to acknowledge his thanks and bam! That’s when it all goes wrong!

Now convinced that the little dog is not going to get aggressive with him, Spencer decides he MUST run after him and say hello!  I go down in an instant (luckily a thick carpet of dead leaves cushioned my fall). He starts lurching forward, dragging me with him. After a couple of seconds (probably less, but it’s always hard to judge time during these episodes) Spencer stops.

I think the man and the little dog must have stopped, but to be honest, my eyes are on Spencer, who is straining at the leash. This worries me, because I know the tight leash can build his frustration up to a point that he’ll misinterpret it as my being scared and try to scare off the man and his dog.

“I’m fine!” I lilt, trying to sound calm. “No harm done. I’m used to this. No worries.” What I want is for them to continue on their way so that Spencer will turn his attention back to me and even realize that I am lying on the ground, a fact to which he is so far oblivious.

And then I see, or rather hear, the hysterical wife coming up the path. My heart sinks.

I was so focused on my dog that I didn’t even hear what she said (I think she was yelling at her husband for not stopping and helping me, but that is total supposition). I just heard the strident tone of voice and knew that her charging up the path yapping like that with my reactive dog straining at the leash was a bad combination.

Still managing to stay calm, I said (and I’m sure she thinks I’m incredibly impolite for this, not understanding the context), “We’ll all be fine if you’ll just stop yelling.”

She charges by and Spencer doesn’t even blink. Ok, so far, so good.

Their little fight must have been about him not being able to leave the small dog and come help me, because she took over Little Dog’s leash and (horrors!) the man came back to help me. Don’t get me wrong, it was really thoughtful, but I really was OK, and I just knew that it was unlikely to end as a training success story.

To my surprise, Spencer didn’t bat an eyelash as this guy came back up the trail and passed him. The man came around behind Spencer and tried to help me up. That went OK until (I think not realizing that the leash was attached around my waist), he pulled on the leash, which created additional tension for Spencer and caught his attention. Spencer turned around, saw me on the ground, saw the man reaching out towards me and pulling on his leash…and well, while it wasn’t the action I wanted from him, I think from a dog’s perspective it’s normal that he felt he needed to protect me at this point.

To be fair to Spencer, he didn’t attack. His message was clearly a warning. He did vertical jumps next to the guy, nipping the air next to him. In any case, he was muzzled, so he couldn’t really do any harm unless the guy stuck his fingers inside the muzzle.

I hope I thanked the guy, but I have no idea. I was so fixated on getting the situation back under control. They moved away. Spencer pulled towards them, barking a few times, but it sounded more like his frustration bark because he couldn’t talk to Little Dog than his aggressive bark. I managed to get his attention back, moved him down the path and asked for a Sit to get him refocused on me (which he did with no problem).

My positive takeaway from the episode was that the rapidity of Spencer’s recovery indicates that he was not in emotional overdrive.  My negative takeaway is that I need to practice the emergency measures I’ll take during such an event in future. What could I have done differently if I was in a clearer state of mind?

  1. Once recovered from the initial shock of the fall, I should have asked Spencer for a Sit, which he is pretty good at doing even when there’s another dog. That would have released pressure on the leash and made it easier for me to scramble to my feet. Plus it would have given me an opportunity to re-establish the connection between us.
  2. When Spencer didn’t react to the woman or the guy walking past him, I should have clicked, which would have had the double benefit of letting him know that I wanted him to do that and to potentially get his attention back if he turned to me for his treat.
  3. Again, I could have clicked and treated before Spencer reacted negatively to the guy helping me.
  4. I need to always, always have high-value treats with me. If Spencer had been eating chicken and not broth-soaked kibble, it is much less likely that he would have taken off to say hi to Little Dog in the first place.

Anyway, to finish on a positive note, here’s a lovely picture that Spencer posed for a few days earlier in the same forest. Note that while something caught his attention and he turned his head at the last moment, he did not break his Sit.

Spencer sits among the flowers in the woods

Spencer cooperates for a lovely portrait in the woods


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