Overhead Dread

May 28, 2013

chibigpupilscropBack in the days when I co-ran a rescue center for wolves and wolfdogs, we sometimes brought ambassador animals to educational events. If the events were held outdoors, we had to screen carefully for banners, flags, and other overhead objects that were likely to flap around and scare the animals. This fear of things overhead is not limited to wolves and wolfdogs; many dogs also have a case of Overhead Dread.

Here’s a classic example: A child approaches to pet a dog by extending a hand palm-down over the dog’s head. The dog cringes and perhaps moves away. Sure, some dogs have learned to tolerate this type of greeting, but there are still plenty who actively avoid it, and others who will take the offense and snap or bite at the offending hand.

In contrast, this next example is something most people don’t think about. Many of my training clients with small dogs can’t seem to get their dogs to come to them. When I ask to see what they’re doing, they call the dog, the dog runs toward them…and stops just out of arms’ reach. Why? Because that dog knows that once he reaches the owner, she’ll swoop down and scoop him up. Now, there’s nothing wrong with holding your dog (or so I hear, said the woman who’s never had a dog she could actually lift). But it’s easy enough to avoid that swooping part by crouching down, turning to the side, coaxing the dog to you, lifting, and then standing up together, or else getting the dog to jump up on an ottoman or couch and then picking him up. Soon enough, the dog is coming in close when called.

Even trainers and other professionals who work with dogs and generally know better sometimes forget to keep this common canine fear in mind. I have seen many professional trainers shake the hand of a client directly over the dog’s head. If the dog were fearful, a bite wouldn’t be entirely surprising. I recently held my breath as I watched a pet photographer lean over a frightened dog to adjust a human subject’s jewelry. Fortunately, the dog didn’t bite, but he easily could have. I’m not exempt from making an over-the-head mistake, either. Back in the ‘90s, when I practically lived at the shelter as a volunteer, the one and only time I was bitten was when I’d taken a small, fluffy white dog out to meet a prospective adopter. When it came time to put the dog back in the pen, I leaned over her oh-so-cute fluffball pen-mate—and got bit in the face. It didn’t break the skin, but it was certainly a wake-up call. And it was entirely my fault. Had that dog been a 200-pound rottweiler, chances are I would have been paying much more careful attention to what I was doing.

Even though we “know” certain facts about dog behavior, even when acting accordingly becomes second nature, it’s good to remain mindful. Or, since I can’t pass up a chance at a rhyme, just remember: To avoid Overhead Dread, be mindful instead.

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An Encounter with Ignorance

May 20, 2013

You would think staying out of the actual dog park within a public park would be enough to ensure avoiding altercations with other dogs and owners…but sadly, no. I was walking Sierra and Bodhi this past Saturday morning along one of the trails that surround our local park. There are very few people out at that hour, so I was surprised to spy a large man walking his 40-something pound Akita mix off-leash on the narrow trail. They were headed directly toward us, and there wasn’t much space to maneuver.

I stopped while they were still at distance, and waited. We were in clear sight of each other, and most people in that situation will leash their dog. He didn’t. So I shouted, “Could you leash your dog, please?” He yelled back, “No, not really!” and kept walking toward us. Well, that was odd. I tried again: “Please leash your dog. It’s for his own safety.” I didn’t know how Bodhi and Sierra would react if a dog charged toward them. For all I knew, one might feel defensive and attack the dog, and the other would join in; or, Sierra would become aroused and redirect on poor Bodhi. I led them off to the shoulder of the dirt trail, had them sit, and rewarded them with treats for waiting calmly. The man finally leashed his dog. When he reached us a moment later, I said, “Thank you.”

What happened next took me completely by surprise. With a most unpleasant look on his face, the man yelled, “You need to train your dogs, you stupid bitch!”
Excuse me? Rude epithet aside, it seems to me that two dogs sitting calmly by the side of the road virtually screams, “Well trained!” But hey, what do I know.
Now perturbed, I looked directly at him and said, “There are leash laws here. Your dog needs to be on a leash. My dogs came from shelters, they used to be reactive with other dogs, and I don’t want to take a chance with your dog running up to them.”
“You’re killing them with what you’re doing!” he exclaimed. “My dog came from a shelter too. I trained him! You need to train them!” All of this flew from his mouth as he removed his dog’s leash again, having barely passed us. He then turned and added, “You stupid bitch!” in case I didn’t hear it the first time.
This is where I’d love to report that I took the high road and just walked away, but you know what they say about not taking the New York out of the girl. “You f’ing a-hole” I said (and no, there were no abbreviations involved), “Everyone at this park is going to know about you. Just keep it up.”
He answered, “F___ you, you stupid C___!” Seriously? The C word? That really crossed the line. I waited until he’d walked a bit further away. And then I called the police. I told them I wasn’t sure whether I should be calling them or animal control, and described exactly what had just happened. I gave them a full description of the guy. To be honest, I doubt they ever showed up, but it sure made me feel better to have called.

These sorts of altercations are upsetting, not to mention totally unnecessary. Look, I understand the desire to walk your dog off-leash. On those super early mornings when there’s pretty much no one around, I do it with Bodhi. But when I see another person, even at a distance, I leash him immediately. It’s not only the law, it’s respectful. Some people don’t like dogs, or are afraid of them; they shouldn’t have to be subjected to my dogs approaching them. And if the other person has dogs, I sure don’t want Bodhi running up to them. Even if Bodhi was perfectly behaved, the other dogs might not be, despite outward appearances. It’s courtesy, and it’s common sense. It’s mighty unfortunate when people have neither.

The troubling thing about the encounter, other than the risk of canine aggression and the socially inappropriate behavior from the two-legged of the pair, was the underlying belief the man seemed to hold, namely, that treat training is a terrible thing to do to dogs. Granted, I’ve never quite heard it stated in quite that extreme—that training with treats is killing a dog—but there are an awful lot of people who still believe dogs should do what we say when we say so, and that reward-based training is ridiculous and unnecessary. (Actually, I’m not positive he was refering to the treats—he might have been referring to keeping them on leash, but at the time it did seem he meant the treats.) Like so many people, he seemed to subsribe to the theory that choke chains or similar tools meant to “correct” a dog are not only the appropriate way to train, but the only way. And that those who believe differently are misinformed, or perhaps touchy-feely fools. It’s sad, not only for the level of ignorance, but mostly, for the poor dog.

I know I’m not the only one who’s had this sort of encounter. It’s easy to become disheartened, but it’s also helpful to remember that for every disgruntled, unbalanced, misinformed person who refuses to play nice with others, there are five pleasant, dedicated dog parents who respect the rules and each other. Here’s to hoping the balance shifts even further to the positive.


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