A good bad thing happened during our walk this morning.
Archer and I joined Tarah for today's Pack Adventure, and things were going super well! Working through Archer's dog reactivity is a major goal in our training, but until this week, we had been focusing on addressing his base state of mind and basic obedience, as we would need both to be more stable before introducing other dogs into the mix. When we first popped out of the car, he was very overstimulated, and generally edgy towards the other dogs (hair raised on his back, whiney, teeth chattering, ignoring food rewards, and generally erratic and busy physical movement). Within a 15 or so minutes of walking together and continuing to reinforce the leash skills that we have been building, he began to settle and become more neutral to his surroundings. By the middle/end of our walk, he was very relaxed and engaged, enthusiastically working for treats and ignoring the other dogs. I was really, really happy with his general behavior and recovery from the initial stress.
When we were beginning our second loop on our chosen trail, we spotted a woman with a large off-leash dog a small distance away. Generally, I am not super concerned about off-leash dogs so long as they seem to be under control, responsive to their owners, and a respectful distance from us, but I am ALWAYS aware of where they are, and keep tabs on their behavior to avoid problems and ensure the safety of the dogs that we are working with. Sure enough, this dog spotted us and began to approach. I politely but firmly called to the woman "please call your dog!" She proceeds to attempt to call him multiple times with absolutely no response from the dog, and seems supremely unconcerned about the lack of obedience.
When I get into these situations, I go immediately into defense mode. I don't recommend allowing
dogs to meet other dogs on leash as a general rule, but I especially don't recommend doing this with dogs and people that you aren't familiar with. I don't know this dog, but clearly the owner does not have enough controls on this dog to intervene if an issue were to arise, so there is no way that a dog with that little control will be allowed to meet any of the dogs that I work with, even ones that are highly dog social.
When this incident happened, I had a reactive and temperamentally unstable dog in my hands. We have worked hard over the last few weeks to build Archer's trust in us to keep him safe and look to us for direction when stressed, and if this scenario is mishandled, it can destroy some of that hard earned trust. Though this is a risky scenario to find yourself in, there are also ways that you can use these interactions to communicate to your dog that you are in control of what happens to them. As soon as the dog failed to come when called, I stopped, positioned Archer in a sit behind me, and squared up to the dog, communicating an assertive "tone" with my body language by standing tall and square, staring very directly at him and possibly taking an assertive step to two towards him. Thankfully, this dog slowed down and kept a small distance, but did not return to the owner.
*Note: if this dog continued to approach, or charged us, I would do everything in my power to prevent them from having access to my dog, whether than means grabbing their collar (this is risky and is an easy way to get bit, so be extremely careful when choosing this route!), yelling at the dog and stepping towards them aggressively (my go to is "no, get!"), using your feet and body to block or shove away, or using a dog deterrent spray, walking stick, or other item to keep them away. Any discomfort caused to the dog in this moment is far less than the injury that could result from a dog fight.*
At this point, I very directly told her to come get her dog. She made more than one comment that made it clear that she did not consider this to be an issue, at which point I impressed upon owners how incredibly dangerous it is to other people's dogs, your dog, and the people involved that would need to break up a fight when you choose to allow your dog to roam off-leash without a solid recall. I'm never unkind, but I've begun favoring directness to politeness in these situations. The feelings of dog owners that choose to ignore the rights of other dog owners to choose whether or not they would like to meet your dog place lower on my priority list than the safety of the dogs that we work with. She retrieved her dog, and we moved on.
By experiencing that moment, Archer learned:
- Dogs in the environment will not be allowed to approach him.
- His handler will take control of situations that are scary or stressful.
- His handler will advocate for his needs.
- He will not be responsible for responding to stressful situations. It is not his job to control dogs and humans around him.
- He can look to his handler for help when he is nervous.
These lessons are critical, and can hold far more value for nervous or reactive dogs than traditional obedience work alone. By trusting the handler to advocate for their safety, dogs become much more comfortable when navigating all environments. Taking this one step further, they will often tolerate triggers at a much smaller distance, or even begin to show curiosity towards their triggers, now that they feel safe and know that they have back up and can ask for help if things become stressful.
So while being approached by off-leash dogs that do not have a solid recall is frustrating, it can also be an opportunity for your dog to learn to see you as an ally and advocate for their needs. I saw an absolutely HUGE improvement in my own dog's reactivity after a few moments like these, and that has been invaluable in our training journey. Don't be afraid to be assertive, and remember, the person allowing their dog to approach strangers and dogs in public spaces without their consent is already choosing their own comfort and desires over yours. You may never see the person again, but you'll likely spend a lifetime with your dog. Your relationship with your dog and your dog's physical well being is worth more than some stranger's opinion of you, and you have every right to peacefully enjoy public spaces without having strange dogs forced on you.
-A grumpy dog lady