This article is a true story, told from Spencer’s perspective, followed by some commentary from me.
Kristen has been showing me that the world isn’t as scary as I thought. Strangers, barking dogs and buses with terrifying hydraulic brakes all make liver, chicken and cheese appear. And the closer they are, the more goodies I get! I’m still not comfortable getting too close to people I don’t know, but if Kristen shields me, I can now let people walk right past us on a narrow sidewalk, and most of the time we can walk by people, although I’ll keep my eye on them, just to be sure.
I’m also learning that I don’t need to worry about other dogs (but I’m not always convinced). A lot of times, we just walk by them, and Kristen gives me a treat so I don’t get tense. The thing is, a lot of dogs bark at me for no reason. Sometimes a dog across the street starts straining at its leash and barking aggressively when I haven’t even looked at it. Kristen says it’s because my size and my muzzle make them nervous, but it’s unfair. I don’t bark at them! If I strained at my leash like that and barked for no reason, people would say I was a mean dog. When little dogs do it, no one seems to think twice about it.
Anyway, Kristen is teaching me not to freeze when I see another dog, and it does seem to limit the frequency of them being aggressive. This morning, I got to meet a nice little dog. We were cutting through the “park” in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings, and two women were chatting with their small dogs next to them. Kristen and I started to move away, but one of the dogs was off-leash and came trotting over to say hi.
I was a little nervous, but he seemed friendly, so I didn’t mind sitting down when Kristen asked. Sitting is a way to let the other dog know that I don’t mind him coming closer. At the last minute, I did get a little overexcited and jumped towards him, which I’m not supposed to do, but he didn’t seem to mind and then we were able to great each other calmly. And then he started playing with me! I was happy.
His mistress came over and said something to Kristen, but she was moving slowly and calmly and didn’t come too close, so I didn’t mind. Kristen asked me to move away from them, and I tried, but the other little dog kept following us because he wanted to play. Finally, he disengaged and trotted away. The woman turned away.
Suddenly, my new friend came running over again after checking in with the other little dog. And then, for no reason, the woman veered towards us and charged while yelling angrily! I didn’t know why she was being so aggressive, but I was scared and lunged back and started barking, “Go away! What did I do to you? Back off!”
She backed off, and my new friend left too. I realized Kristen didn’t seem worried and was asking me calmly to come back to her. I stopped barking and turned to her. We moved a few feet away and then she told me that she understood I had been scared but was glad that I had stopped barking and lunging. Because she wasn’t worried, I calmed down right away, and we didn’t have any problems for the rest of the walk.
There are a couple of points that I’d like to stress from this story:
- If you’re going to have your dog off-leash, please make sure that s/he comes when called.
- There is a reason my dog is muzzled and leashed and that we move away from you. Please respect our space.
- If your dog does come over to us, remember that since my dog is muzzled and leash, there’s very little harm he can do to yours. At this point, best just to let the dogs be unless you actually see your dog being in some mortal danger.
- Calling your dog back in an angry voice isn’t compelling. When your mother called you in a stern voice, did you think, “Yippee! Can’t wait to go find out what Mom wants!”? Or did you drag your feet trying to delay the confrontation as much as possible? If you want your dog to always come back, practice calling him or her in a happy voice and rewarding him with a treat for obeying. We’ve done this with Spencer, and he’ll now even stop barking at something in the yard and come running into the house because he knows that coming back in is the more enjoyable option.
- It is entirely possible that the woman in this story thinks that Spencer lunged at her “out of the blue”. After all, she’d been near him for several minutes, and he’d been calm (even surprisingly relaxed). But, in fact, he had reacted to a perceived menace. She knew she was yelling at her own dog, but Spencer didn’t. From his perspective, she was threatening him, and he didn’t have to think twice before his self-protection instincts kicked in.
- Finally, the leash holder’s reaction can make a world of difference. If I had yelled at Spencer angrily, it just would have fed his tension. It’s an incredibly hard exercise in Zen, but learning to gently reel the dog in makes a huge difference in the duration of episodes and in the dog’s ability to recover quickly. I can’t tell you how hard this has been to learn. The good news is that it serves me in my relations with other human beings too. I think this is the lesson of “turning the other cheek”; you can either contribute to the vicious circle as emotions spiral out of control, or you can try to short circuit it.