By Valerie Barry
In Partnership With Dogs
Frequently when I’m out walking or hiking with my dogs I see so many situations where dogs really need some help. Sadly, many dog owners seem unaware of their dog’s distress or know how to handle the situation in such a way that helps their dog.
Help Me – I’m Stuck!
Something that I see commonly – especially on off leash dog trails – are dogs struggling to get past a dog or group of dogs that they are clearly worried about. You can see the dogs from quite a ways away constantly scanning to see what’s coming up next as they move through the trails. Their eyes are on what’s ahead – not excitedly sniffing the air or happily dodging from one tree to the next checking out the pee mail as a carefree, happy dog should be – they are watching for problems.
Upon spotting a potential problem, some dogs choose to dodge far into the woods to zip past, hopefully unnoticed, while they rush to catch up to their owners who have continued on their walk.
Other dogs try and brave it out, staying on the trail and slowing almost to a standstill as they assess the situation. If they have some good social skills, they might stop and try turning their head or even their whole body in an effort to project neutral, non-threatening intent – anything that might slow the approach or deflect the interest of the oncoming dog or dogs. Once the other dog or dogs have gotten close enough, the worried dog might do a quick sniff but then quickly moves on past – fast enough to get past but not so fast they might elicit a chase. If the worried dog doesn’t have enough social knowledge, they might try a quick dodge past – usually making things worse for a few moments as this can often lead to a chase – definitely not what they intended!
I see this behaviour quite a bit with dogs who are accompanying people enjoying their outdoor sports – biking, jogging and trail running. Did you know that it’s considered very rude for one dog to race by another dog they don’t know at a fairly close distance? What should happen is that each dog slows down, gives a slight head turn away, and moves past at a more sedate pace (usually moving a little bit further apart if the trail allows) and then carries on as normal once they’re past each other. Sometimes, they might stop and do a quick “hi, how are you” sniff and then carry on – depending on the distance between them. If you’re biking or running with your dog, and aren’t aware of any of this – you just keep on moving at your preferred pace. This forces your dog to make a choice: be polite to the other dog and possibly lose my owner; or, keep up with my owner and hope that the other dog won’t express his displeasure at my rude behaviour. Worried dogs don’t like to lose sight or sound of their owners and this can be a highly traumatic situation for a such a dog.
Another common situation is people “walking the dog – but”: carrying their coffees, busy with their phones, plugged into their music or chatting so intently with their human companions that their dogs are very obviously not part of their thoughts at all. These people are simply getting the “job” of walking the dog out of the way so they can get on with their day. If the dog is leashed you can see them figuring out how to use the constraints of a sidewalk to avoid confronting oncoming dogs, bikers, strollers, children, etc. Certainly the dogs who belong to these people are getting the benefit of some fresh air and exercise . . . but I’m pretty sure that if you could interview the dogs they would prefer a companion who gives them a little bit more of their time and attention.
When you’re observing all this and watching the faces and body language of these dogs, it’s very clear they are feeling anything from deep distress as they struggle through some of these situations to resignation as they realize nothing is changing. The situation itself may only last a few seconds, but it very obviously feels like forever to these dogs and often highly traumatic in that moment. If you imagine a particularly worried dog going through an hour of these encounters on his daily walk, every single day, then I’m not so sure that those walks are at all enjoyable. And trust me, there are a lot of very worried dogs out there – I see them all the time.
Walk With Your Dog.
That seems pretty obvious, right – walk with your dog? Isn’t that what you’re doing when I see you out there – walking with your dog? No, actually you’re not. Your dog is just along for the ride but you’re not really with him.
What I’d like to see is people who are really and truly with their dog. People who are occasionally chatting to their dog, checking in frequently with their dog as they pass things, other people or other dogs. Or people doing what I’m often doing which is working while we’re walking – taking frequent moments to work on the skill of leash walking, or passing by people/dogs politely, or recall skills.
What I would like people to learn and what I strive to convey when I’m working with people and their dogs is for understanding. Learn to understand what your dog is trying to tell you. Learn what their body language is saying when they’re happy, when they’re worried, and when they’re truly afraid.
Of course I would love to see everyone attending training classes to help their dog learn useful skills and also help their dog learn to be less worried and afraid.
But really, all you have to do for starters is to recognize what’s going on and then be there for your dog. All it may take in the moment is to slow down, move into position beside your dog, or close enough that he can see you there, and walk with him past that group of worrisome dogs.
Keep pace with your dog and be ready to help out if need be:
- Engage the other owners in casual conversation and say hi to the dogs as you move by – acting naturally with a friendly tone will help your dog feel better.
- If a dog is paying a little too much attention to yours and it’s clearly alarming your dog, instead of letting them “work it out”, just walk calmly between both dogs and call yours to come with you. Dogs will often lose interest quickly if you’re moving in opposite directions. But, if necessary, ask the owner of the other dog to call their dog as you move away.
- If you’re walking on leash and your dog seems worried about something up ahead – get some distance from it as you pass by – change your intended path to help your dog.
- If you like to bike or run with your dog, take the time to slow right down each time you encounter a dog so your dog can comfortably move past that dog or quickly greet them.
- Avoid dog parks where dogs congregate and choose trails where people and dogs keep moving.
- If you need to stop at the grocery store or walk down for coffee, keep your dog in the car or stay outside with them while a friend goes inside.
- Pay attention, watch your dog’s body language, be there for them.
There are many more situations than those mentioned here that make me sad for dogs: the dog wearing a choke collar/flexi lead combo AND a shock collar with the owner clutching the remote repeatedly shocking her dog as she doesn’t respond to “come”; the dogs running fence lines or up and down their balconies all day long barking frantically at everything that passes by; dogs in houses staring out the front window barking angrily at every dog they see; the dog loose in the back of a pickup trucks holding on for dear life when an angry owner slams on the brakes in response to any barking; dogs tied up in front of grocery stores, coffee shops and bike shops anxiously watching the door willing their owners to hurry back and save them. It’s a big list – these situations that dogs are placed in with little or no preparation and their owners presumably having little or no understanding of how their dogs feel about what’s happening to them.
Take the time to learn more about your dog – what worries him and what is hard for him. Learn to understand his body language and be there for him. Everybody needs somebody, sometimes.