Like children, dogs engage in social referencing before deciding how to react to a situation, especially an unfamiliar context. The signals sent by the person at the other end of the leach can make all the difference, especially with a reactive dog. This means that when Spencer has a bad day, it’s sometimes really that I’m having a bad day and giving him the wrong signals.
This morning was a perfect example. I was trying to navigate through a slightly complicated intersection. A woman was coming down the sidewalk in front of us, so we crossed to the right. We couldn’t continue up the street on that side because there was a guy in front of us who made Spencer a bit nervous. I was going to continue down the side street when I saw a woman and her toddler coming towards us. So I decided to turn around and cross back to the other sidewalk, but suddenly there was a guy on our right walking straight towards us. Surprised, I jumped, and Spencer started barking at him. But then the strangest thing happened.
I consciously loosened the leash and said in a really calm voice, “No, no. Sorry, my fault.” The guy veered away from us (but still very close) and I glanced down at Spencer…to find him him SITTING and looking up at me to know what we were going to do next.
Let me repeat that: Spencer just spontaneously sat down calmly with a strange man less than two metres away from him.
This has been a strange yo-yo week. In France, when your dog bites someone you are legally obliged to undergo an evaluation from what is called a “behavioral veterinarian” (a sort of doggie psychologist, if you will). We saw ours on Wednesday, and Spencer was brilliant. He got a really good grade. He floored us.
Then yesterday morning, I took him out for a walk and he barked at practically everyone.
Last night he pulled like the dickens during our walk, but seemed to be on a mission to cover as much territory as he could, insisting on going down all kinds of streets we never or rarely take. He had a very clear plan where he wanted to go. I have no idea what the basis was for the plan, but he made it clear on several occasions that my idea and his were not the same. he didn’t seem stressed, just intent and over excited (it was windy and that often seems to rile him up).
And then this morning, after the incident with the man, he did some other surprising things:
- He pulled me down a dead-end street to go say hello to dogs who were barking at him. Bless his optimism: as these dogs were barking, “Hey! Stay away from my fence!” Spencer walked up, started sniffing their noses and even play-bowed to one of them! Totally socially inept, but at the same time, very confident and courageous.
- A little further down the road, a neighbor we don’t really know was out in her yard and said hello. She has a Jack Russell who most decidedly does not like Spencer (he’ll bark maniacally if Spencer is within 100m). But the dog was inside, which was the very first remark she made. Spencer stopped and looked at her through the fence. She started to walk towards us. I warned her that Spencer might react if she got too close. She got pretty close. We chatted. I kept Spencer moving, but still pretty static, and he didn’t say a word. We kept the encounter brief, but still, I was gobsmacked.