Nowhere to Run

August 29, 2012

“Oh, he’d never bite.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that phrase, I’d be blogging from a beach in Tahiti. The truth is, no matter how sweet a dog is, if the right set of circumstances conspire, that dog will bite.

The most common scenario for an otherwise peaceful dog biting is that the dog is frightened, and feels he has no other choice. This commonly happens during vet visits; the dog becomes defensive when restrained or when having a medical procedure. But it happens in homes as well. A dog who is lying in his crate, when confronted with a child crawling in to kiss him, has nowhere to go. A dog can easily feel cornered even when not confined, whether indoors or out. And when a dog is restrained by a collar or leash, his fight or flight options are severely limited.

You would think it would be obvious to owners when a dog is going through this type of emotional turmoil, but all too often, it’s not. Yesterday morning at the park, Sierra and I walked along with a nice group of owners and their dogs. We passed a woman I’d seen before, whose terrier I knew to be fear-reactive. Sure enough, as they neared our group, the dog began to bark defensively while practically hiding behind her owner. The woman stopped to chat with one of the men. The owners stood there having an amiable conversation, while the poor little terrier had a less pleasant experience. The man’s dog, a medium-sized mixed breed male, kept trying to investigate the terrier, and the terrier wanted nothing to do with him. Unfortunately, the little dog had nowhere to go. I tried in vain to explain as it was happening that the dog was clearly upset and afraid. My entreaties to allow the dog to move along fell on deaf ears. The man actually told the woman, “She seems to be doing better,” and the woman agreed. I stood there dumbfounded.

I’ve seen people stand with their dog on leash in the middle of an actual dog park where other dogs are romping off-leash. Naturally, dogs come up to sniff the leashed dog and some try to play with him. Others, though, try to hump the dog or even start a fight. I’ve seen the latter two happen to leashed dogs as the owners stood there, oblivious, chatting. It boggles the mind. I’m not a parent, but I can’t imagine that if I were having a conversation with another adult and their kid began to scare my child, that I’d blithely continue talking and ignore what was going on. How is it possible that this happens with alarming regularity with dogs? Owners are shocked when their wonderful dog, who’d never hurt anyone, bites another dog. The worst part is that the biting dog gets blamed, when the responsibility should rest squarely on the shoulders of the owner. Maintaining at least peripheral attention to our own dogs and others, even when we’re engaged in other activities, would go a long way in preventing bites and reducing canine stress.


Caution: Too Much of a Good Thing?

August 21, 2012

On my early morning dog walks, whichever dog is with me (the other is typically out running with my husband) gets a quick run-and-poop in the deserted dog park, followed by a hike in the surrounding hills. Our dog park is divided into large and small dog areas which share a common chain link fence. This morning as Bodhi and I approached, I noticed a couple with a beautiful, long-haired Akita in the large dog space. They had spotted us as well, and were hurrying to leash their dog in order to remove him from the park. I called out that there was no need, and that we’d go to the small dog area instead, as it was deserted. The wife thanked me, explaining that their dog could be aggressive with other dogs.

The Akita stood calmly at the common fence, gazing over at Bodhi without showing any signs of aggression. Bodhi approached to sniff through the fence, and the Akita’s body language remained relaxed. In fact, the dog seemed interested in playing. The wife, already concerned, was walking toward the dogs. “He seems to be fine,” I commented. “Well,” she responded, “Other dogs start with him at the park and then he gets into it. He’s an Akita, you know.” Breed aside (it’s true that there are a lot of dog-aggressive Akitas out there), it’s understandable that a dog who feels insecure or defensive will fight. And it’s admirable that these folks were so aware of their dog’s behavior patterns, and were being very careful around other dogs. I wish more owners would err on the side of caution.

The dogs got along just fine through the fence, but the couple still wouldn’t allow any fence-running or play of any kind. Very soon, they put the dog on leash and departed. I was left reflecting on how, although caution is commendable, it can sometimes take over to the point where the dog isn’t allowed to interact with other dogs at all. Sometimes that’s the wisest course of action, while at other times it goes a bit too far.

Here’s a case where the caution meter has crept too far to the right: on our morning walks, we often pass a man with an adorable adolescent spaniel. Through past conversations, I’ve learned that the dog was attacked by another dog months before. Since then, the man has been adamant that the dog never, ever be exposed to other dogs. He absolutely will not allow the dog to play, and even if we pass on leash and my dog appears friendly and wanting to greet, as does his, he yanks the dog away. It would be one thing if his dog were traumatized and clearly wanted to avoid other dogs, but that’s not the case. It doesn’t take a person trained in dog behavior to see that the dog is a wriggling mass of excitement when he sees other dogs, and he’d love nothing better than to play with them. If anything, the man is the wary one. Now, a dog doesn’t have to play with or greet other dogs to have a happy life, but I feel sad that this dog will have to live the rest of his life without experiencing one of the things he obviously still enjoys most.

Again, being cautious is a good thing, and I wish it were a more prevalent trait among dog owners. But when humans become more traumatized than their dogs by past experiences, if we’re not careful, we can actually overcompensate. If we simply ask our dogs how they feel, we will always make the right decisions. By understanding a dog’s temperament, learning their body language and becoming familiar with their responses, we can tell whether the dog wants to engage with another dog, person, or situation…or not. And while we always have the final say in our role as guardian and advocate, it’s good to remind ourselves to listen to our dogs’ opinions and feelings, too.

Bonding with Dogs–or Not

August 14, 2012

If you had a superpower, what would it be? I know people whose answer might be, “I can whip up an amazing meal in ten minutes, regardless of what’s in the fridge” or, “I can run for ten miles without getting tired.” Mine would be, “I can bond with any dog in .5 seconds.” Okay, maybe it’s not such a unique superpower—many of us seem to have the ability. And it’s especially easy to bond with puppies. One gaze of those big, brown eyes and you’re lost: the oxytocin flows, your own eyes go soft, and very soon, high-pitched baby talk is flowing from your lips unbidden.

I’ve never, ever had a problem feeling closeness with a dog in a very short amount of time. So imagine my surprise when we first got Bodhi and I felt…a lot of nothing, unless you count apprehension. My husband and I had adopted Bodhi from a shelter at roughly 1-1.5 years of age. He’d been given up by a college guy who “couldn’t afford his upkeep,” and it was obvious that he’d never had training in manners or anything else. I’ve written before about how Bodhi’s anxiety and lack of manners was so bad at first that he’d jump up and mouth us in a disturbing, desperate fashion any time we tried to cross a room. He was also terribly destructive. And he lunged and barked at other dogs. Also, he and Sierra’s play would escalate into aggression all too often. I could go on.

It took a very long time for me to feel true affection for Bodhi. Although I felt bad about it, it was understandable; the dog had turned our lives upside down, and not in a good way. The whole subject of non-bonding got me thinking about some of my group class students in years past. Over time, I’d heard too many owners make comments about their dogs such as, “He’s stupid” or “She’s stubborn.” There seemed to be a direct correlation between the strength of the owner’s certainty that the dog was disagreeable in some way, and the size of the emotional gulf between them. If we’re to be honest with ourselves, we’ve got to admit that it can be easier to love a being who is easy-going, affectionate, cute, and so on, rather than one who’s anxious, destructive, ill-mannered, and worse. And yes, that applies to both dogs and people.

No caring owner wants to go through life feeling distant from their dog. But the solution is simpler than you might think: You’ve got to stop being at odds and form a team. How that happens is up to you, but an excellent way to start is with training. Training with gentle, positive methods necessitates interaction and communication, and working together to achieve goals. In the process, you and your dog learn each others’ signals, what makes the other happy, and what causes stress. You begin a fluid dance of cooperation and communication that leads to feelings of pride, accomplishment and, eventually, togetherness.

Another great way to encourage bonding is to engage in dog sports. It doesn’t matter what the sport is—agility, Rally, and nosework are all wonderful, among others—so much as the fact that you’re learning a new skill together and working as a team to make it successful. The shared hurdles and little victories can’t help but bring you and your furry teammate closer. And it’s hard to feel distant from a dog as you proudly relate to your friends or spouse the accomplishments of the day.

Even if you don’t want to be involved in dog sports, and training is something that only seems to happen every now and then, you can still spend quality time together. Getting out with your dog for long hikes or walks around your neighborhood offers another opportunity to build closeness. Instead of watching the clock, watch your dog. Notice the things he likes to do. Does he keep his nose down, intent on the trail of critters? Does she wag with delight at the approach of other dogs or people? Observing what makes your dog light up offers the chance to learn more about who she really is. And understanding what makes another being tick is often the first step to true bonding.

When you can’t seem to bond with a particular dog, it’s easy to feel that something is wrong with you, or to believe that something is wrong with the dog. Either way, don’t wait for fondness to magically manifest with the passage of time. Be proactive. Find things you can do together. Maybe our collective superpower is that regardless of our emotional state, we can still make the effort to do what’s best for our dogs, and ultimately, for our relationship with them.

When You Assume…

August 1, 2012

When your preferred time for dog walking is the early morning, you get to know your local park regulars pretty well. Last week I ran into a Border Collie and his owner, both of whom I knew by name. (Yes, you may click and treat me for knowing the human’s name, too.) The dog is reactive with other dogs and also pulls on leash. A month previously, a friendly chat had led me to suggest a head halter. The woman purchased one, and now the dog barely pulls. He’s also doing much better around other dogs. But when an off-leash terrier began to walk directly toward him, I almost stopped breathing. The Border Collie’s mom had the dog as far off the path as possible and was actually standing in front of him to block the little dog’s approach. The Border Collie, to his credit, was managing to stay in a sit. Fortunately, after someone yelled to the terrier’s owner, “You really don’t want him to approach that dog!” (okay, that was me), she called the dog back to her and no one got hurt.

After the Border Collie and his mom went on their way, I told the terrier’s owner that the Border Collie can be aggressive toward other dogs, and would quite possibly have bitten her dog had he approached. The owner answered that she always assumes other dogs are friendly. Now, I’m honestly happy for her and the little dog’s sake that it’s turned out that way so far, but there’s entirely too much assumption going on there. And the one time she’s wrong, it could mean severe injury or worse for the terrier.

Interestingly, since Bodhi has gotten to the point where he’s much less reactive toward other dogs, people assume he’s dog-friendly. Many an owner will begin to veer toward us to “let the dogs say hello,” which is the last thing a reactive, leash-restrained dog who’s holding it together needs. Just because a dog isn’t lunging at the end of a leash or frothing at the mouth, it doesn’t mean he wants to meet your dog! Had the person been paying attention, they might have heard Bodhi making a soft, squeaking sound that’s his own signature blend of frustration and self-control. When necessary, I intervene to explain that actually, he’d prefer not to meet your dog, but thanks anyway and have a nice day.

Assumptions that dogs are friendly are made all the time. Children are notorious for running up to dogs and then finding out the hard way whether they’re friendly or not. And although we teach kids to ask first whether it’s okay to pet the nice doggy, I seldom see adults do the same. I’d like to think I’m a good judge of canine body language, but I still don’t know someone else’s dog as well as they do, and I always ask before approaching. And, by the way, even when owners say their dog is friendly, a quick scan of the dog’s body language often reveals whether what they’re saying is accurate or not.

You know the old saying: “When you assume, it makes an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” Worse than being an ass, assuming puts dogs at risk. What we need are fewer assumptions and more awareness of canine body language, respect for space, and communication.

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