Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT
In one of my previous posts, Why Dogs Bite, I talked about fear aggression and why asking an owner before trying to approach or pet their dog is so important. But let’s face it, humans love dogs and sometimes people get so caught up in how cute a dog is or how unusual a particular breed of dog is that they just approach or reach out without thinking. In my article, What Is a Reactive Rover?, I discussed different types of leash reactivity and why dogs behave the way they do on leash. Owners of non-reactive dogs simply don’t understand the plight of the owner of a reactive dog. They honestly don’t see anything wrong with letting their dog walk towards your dog for a greeting or allowing their off leash dog run up to your dog for a quick butt sniff.
If you’re the owner of a fearful or dog reactive dog, read on because this post is for you. If you own one of those lovely, non reactive dogs, or maybe you don’t consider yourself one of those clueless dog lovers, you might be tempted to stop reading. Please don’t. When you see a dog owner using any of these techniques or tools while out walking their dogs, you’ll have a better understanding of what is going on.
Dealing With Approaching People
Some people own dogs who are afraid of people. If you’re an owner of one of these dogs, you’re working very hard to counter condition your dog’s social fear and keep your dog from reacting fearfully while on walks. This is difficult to do if well meaning strangers keep approaching and asking you to pet the dog. This is impossible to do if your dog is so adorable that people simply approach and reach out to pet your dog. That’s why one of my favorite products is the Dog In Training vest. It’s a nice neutral color with an equally neutral message printed on it: “Dog in Training — Give Me Space”. We really like the CAUTIONWALKER Safety Leash (review of this product here) which provides a stronger message to on comers which is sometimes necessary. Rest assured that if you see a dog wearing one of these vests or on one of these leashes, the dog does not want to meet you.
Believe it or not, even if your dog is wearing one of these vests, even if a person has asked you whether they can pet your dog and you say, “no, she’s afraid of people”, someone will try to pet your dog! I’ve heard them all from these well meaning but clueless dog lovers. “I’m good with dogs, they won’t bite me”. “Ah, he’s so cute I’m sure he won’t mind”. Really, I’m not kidding. I was working with a client and her fear reactive, unneutered, 140+ pound, male Newfoundland who was wearing a Dog In Training vest. We were working at a park. A man who had to be six feet tall made a beeline for that Newfie and only stopped two feet away from him because I body blocked him by stepping between him and the dog. I explained that the dog was working and even apologized yet the man was still angry when he walked away. I’m going to share an idea from my wonderful colleague Nicole Wilde. Nicole recommends that if someone asks to pet your dog and you don’t want them to, just say, “no, he has a contagious skin disease”. This is hilarious, but it works!
Dealing With Off Leash Dogs
Most owners have non-reactive dogs who love meeting people and other dogs. These owners never consider that their off leash dog who is running towards you might be heading for a traumatic experience. Even worse are irresponsible owners who allow their dogs to escape from their yards or out the front door without ever having trained a reliable recall (come when called command). Sometimes an off leash dog is aroused or may be itching for a fight. Here are some tips for dealing with off leash dogs while on your walks.
The easiest way to tell an off leash dog to back off is is to use your body language and your voice. We’ve selectively bred dogs for 15,000 years to live with us, interact with us, and work with us. A recent study even proved that our domestic dogs understand a human pointing a finger as well as a small child (and better than a primate!). Lean over and hold out your hand like a crossing guard indicating that you should STOP! You can stomp your foot, stomp forward one or two steps, and issue a low, smooth, vocal warning, “baaaccckkk offfffff”.
There’s a product on the market called SprayShield which comes in a small can with a clip which you can clip to your belt or fanny-pack. It sprays a highly concentrated stream of citronella oil which is aversive to many dogs. This spray is handy for breaking up dog fights as well. If you’ve used this product in the past, it used to be called Direct Stop. What if the owner of the off leash dog becomes angry? First off, explain that you didn’t use pepper spray which is what most people will think you have used. Explain that it’s citronella and doesn’t hurt their dog except to make them smell lemony. You can also offer to call 911 for the offending owner since in most cities in America, having a dog off leash is illegal.
The last suggestion I offer to owners is to carry the smallest umbrella they can find on their walks. With this technique, make sure that you’ve used the umbrella with your own dog combined with treats. We don’t want you dog to be afraid of an umbrella flying open suddenly. Once your dog ignores the umbrella when it’s opened outside, you can use it as a deterrent to an off leash dog. Yell something short like “scram”, pop open the umbrella, and slowly move towards the approaching dog.
Most of the time, these things work. The only time they don’t work is when the off leash dog is truly dog aggressive (rare) or when the off leash dog has been trained to fight other dogs. So, what if none of these things work? If your dog is small, you can pick him up. If your dog is too big to pick up, drop your leash. I know, dropping the leash seems counter intuitive but if your dog is going to fight for his life, you don’t want him to be handicapped by you restraining him on leash. Just drop your leash and call 911.
Whew, well that was a stressful way to end this post but I hope this information was helpful. If you have a fearful dog, please take the time to tell us about your journey. We want to hear from you!
Alex in Leeds UK says
It’s been reassuring to read about all these experiences and the good advice. Yesterday we were walking in a popular part of Yorkshire. As our mellow 11 year old lab was having a paddle in a stream, a little pit bull came flying down a hill from where its family we’re eating and started going for our dog. He kept flying for the throat and all the owners did was scream but there was no recall. Eventually I got hold of him while my husband held back our dog, who was getting a bit angry by then.
Turns out the other dog had a little muzzle on but he was having a good attempt. The owner was completely unapologetic and very aggressive himself .
Our dog is fine – give him a biscuit and he gets on with life. But myself and my husband are nervous. I’ve always loved all dogs but I’ll be very wary now.
I suppose I’m just sharing this to say it happens. I don’t know how people can remain calm – it all felt very frantic . I’ve done training in dog body language but there was just no time. For this reason I’m not sure a brolly would work. And we can’t carry harmful sprays or knives in the uk!