Tuesday, September 13, 2011

being an advocate.

Over the past few months, I've noticed that Claire has become more protective of her personal space. Not when it comes to people (she wants to be in your lap all. the. time.) but when it comes to other dogs. She does just fine at daycare and at the dog park when she is off-leash, but she gets very afraid when dogs approach her while she is on-leash. She starts barking frantically and raises her hackles, and the owner of the other dog typically reacts as though she is a bad dog when she is really just scared. Not all people who have dogs are educated about dog behavior and calming signals. Not all people care as much as I do about both of those things, either.

That being said, I realized that I need to be a better advocate for Claire in these situations, so I have been working hard to do all that I can to protect her from these instances. That means that I either...
  1. Speak up; I tell other owners who quickly approach and say, "Oh, my dog just wants to say hi to your dog!" (while their dog is sticking their nose right in Claire's face - where are their manners?!) that she does not deal well when getting approached while on a leash.
  2. Make a wide circle around the approaching owner and dog or change direction so that Claire does not get close enough to them to feel threatened.
  3. Position myself so that I am blocking Claire from making eye contact with the other dog, which is a nonverbal calming signal that tells both dogs that everything is okay and that there isn't a threat.
Sometimes people don't listen to me when I ask them to help their dog maintain a respectful distance - and this gets extremely frustrating. I tend to lean more towards avoiding/blocking just because it's guaranteed that Claire will stay calm and safe. I have spoken to a few trainers about this to make sure that I've been handling it correctly, and some have said that I am, while others have said that I need to train her to respond differently.

What are your thoughts?


  1. I think that you're handling it correctly. Other owners can be extremely frustrating in their selective deafness, and in their lack of perception in their own dog's behavior, and other peoples' dogs.

    To protect Claire, though, I would perhaps start working on a good, neutral behavior for when other dogs approach. A sit, perhaps, a "watch me", that kind of thing. "Watch me" (or "look at me", which I use) can be really good to use if you're able to keep in motion. Sometimes, that way, the other dog loses interest in your dog, when she doesn't look at them to acknowledge their presence.

  2. This is interesting. I don't know many calming tactics so I was glad to read this.

  3. We've been having the same issue with Wookie. Initially he didn't display this behaviour, but over the past few months it's gotten worse. He's not at all aggressive, but REALLY want to say hi.

    I tried avoiding dogs but then realized I wasn't doing him any favours. So now it's hit or miss, and we try different things to see what works. He seems to be getting a *bit* better, though.

    I don't know what the correct way to do this, if there is one, but I don't think avoiding is the answer.

  4. I can definitely sympathize with you on this. Murphy's predecessor Pal was fearful and aggressive with other dogs. I cannot tell you how many times I had the same exchange: Someone lets their dog run up while telling me how friendly he/she is, while I'm frantically trying to explain/yell that my dog is NOT friendly with other dogs! He was a golden retriever which made it even worse, everyone expects goldens to be magically friendly with everyone/everything.

    I think one thing you can do is work on the "watch me" command with Claire, so if another dog is passing close by you can use that to keep her attention focused on you.

    Also -maybe Claire has some friends who you could help you practice? You could start by walking the dogs in the same direction alongside each other, which is generally less confrontational/scary then approaching head on.


  5. I thin you are doing the right things. But I also think you should keep introducing her to dogs while on the leash. It just has to be the right dogs so you can set her up for success. Obviously she does love other dogs if she plays at daycare and at the dog park. Give her treats for good behavior when she does meet other dogs nicely on a leash. And avoid the maniac dogs you pass on walks for now as you are doing.

  6. Hi Lauren,

    Our golden (yes, golden) Rex is leash-reactive, and we've worked very hard with him to help him re-learn behaviors to enable him to cope better in the presence of other dogs. There are all kinds of skills to help you and Claire with this. "Watch Me" is a great skill; see the dog, look at Mom, get a yummy treat (Rex recommends freshly grilled salmon(: ) You basically want to reprogram her thinking to associate seeing another dog with good things happening. Another skill that has worked well for us is "find it": tossing a treat on the ground and asking her to find, preferably away from the other dog. This works well if you're trying to actually walk past another dog when Claire is on alert. You may need to back up and to start at some distance from another dog; if she's already at the barking-hackles stage she's "above threshold" and it will be hard to her to tear her gaze away to do much of anything else. You can practice "see the dog, get a treat" (or whatever skills you learn) at a distance; outside pet stores, vet clinics, etc. She needs to be sub-threshold as she learns these skills and gradually lessen the distance to other dogs as she gains confidence. You want her to succeed; for every leash encounter with another dog to be a positive experience. Start far enough away, and close the distance slowly enough that she doesn't "fail". Persistence is the key; keep working at it a little at a time. Also, stay calm and use your happy, mellow voice...she can sense if you're anxious about another dog and it can absolutely stress her further. Patricia McConnell has written a terrific book called "Feisty Fido" which gives all kinds of helpful ideas for just this issue. Easy read, short little book--well worth your time.

    Good for you for caring so much about this! Claire is one lucky pup.
    Jeanne, as typed for Rex (: