Part I of our “Reactive Dog Series”
Most people who walk or hike with their dogs in public places have been in that uncomfortable position when suddenly a dog comes barreling down the trail, no owner in sight, while you’re walking your dog on leash. In fact, it just happened to me today. It’s one of my biggest pet peeves as a dog owner (no pun intended). When not under their owner’s control, off-leash dogs can be a real safety concern, to themselves and to the unsuspecting dogs that they run up to. This is especially true if you have a reactive dog, or hell, just a dog who doesn’t appreciate being bum rushed by some excited dog that they don’t know.
Your off-leash dog may be the nicest dog in the world, but my dog has no way of knowing that, or of knowing whether they want to play or if they’re about to attack them, especially if they have had bad experiences in the past. We all know that not every dog can handle being approached by a running, excited off-leash dog that they don’t know…
But what about when people do the exact same thing?
Sure, most dogs love attention from strangers and would be thrilled to have you come up and give them some lovin’. But again, not every dog in the world wants to be approached and messed with by people they’ve never met.
My Heeler-mix Ringo is one of these exceptions. Ringo had a rough start to life and came to us with some trust issues and fear aggression. He was what you’d call a “reactive dog.” He’s the sweetest, most docile dog in the world, unless he feels cornered. When he’s scared, he tries to run away. But if he feels trapped, like if he’s on leash and someone or something comes running at him, he goes into defense mode.
Ringo has been with us for almost 4 years now, and after LOTS of training with both a trainer and with me at home, Ringo is much more confident, much less fearful dog. He can still be a timid little guy at first and he takes a calm, smooth introduction to new people and dogs, but if you walk up calmly and put your hand out for him to sniff, he’ll be trying to kiss your face 2 minutes later. He just needs that moment to check you out, to feel safe and make the decision on his own to let you into his bubble.
Knowing that Ringo can be a little timid, I am hyper aware of my surroundings when I hike with him. This is not because there is any chance in the world that he will mess with anyone passing us on the trail (he would never do that), but exactly the opposite.
I constantly need to worry that people will run up and touch my dog without asking. I call them “off-leash people.”
I do all that I can to avoid situations like this. We hike on less popular trails, often during the week or early in the morning when there are less people out. I even trained Ringo to step off trail with me and sit quietly while rambunctious children or large groups are passing by. But honestly,
My dog shouldn’t have to miss out on one of his favorite activities because people are rude and inconsiderate.
You’d probably assume that I’m talking about children coming up and wanting to pet the cute little dog. While that does happen, I honestly find that most of the time, kids are much more respectful than adults in this regard. Thankfully, a lot of children (not all, but most) have been taught to ask before petting someone’s dog. For some reason, it seems like a good amount of adults need to relearn this lesson.
Sure, it comes from a good place. You probably never even thought about it before if you’ve never dealt with a fearful dog. I get it, I’m a HUGE dog lover and I want to meet every dog that I see too. But, just like most of us were taught as kids, I ask the owner first.
All it takes is a simple “Can I pet your dog?”
When people do ask, I say something like “He can be a little shy, but if you want to let him smell your hand, he’ll let you know if he wants you to pet him.” To this, people either say something along the lines of “Oh okay, well I’ll just let you two keep hiking then” or, if they really want to meet him, “Sure, I’d be happy to.” Then they squat down and offer Ringo a sniff. Most of the time, Ringo will then kiss their hand and become fast friends with this no-longer stranger. If not, he’ll simply turn his head or back up if he’s not feeling overly social. He will never growl or bark or lunge, he’ll just walk away.
The problem is when it’s not his choice.
There have been literally dozens of instances where we’ll be passing someone headed the other direction on a trail and, without a word, they’ll reach down over Ringo and try to pet him. No asking, not even any chance for my dog to anticipate what’s about to happen.
Just like your dog may not appreciate being rushed by a strange “off-leash dog,” mine doesn’t appreciate being rushed by strange “off-leash people.” No, I don’t literally mean that people should be leashed. I simply mean that we should, at a bare minimum, do what we expect our dogs to do when meeting a new dog on the trail. We control our dogs (or “leash” them) and ask before we let our dogs walk up to other dogs. We make sure the other dog is friendly and wants to be approached. Lets not be scary “off-leash people” to unsuspecting, possibly reactive dogs.
No, I don’t literally mean that people should be leashed.
Imagine being a small dog, nonchalantly walking around, smelling things and watching for squirrels, when a giant hand appears from the sky out of nowhere, reaching down and grabbing at your head. Now imagine that over the course of your life, some of those strange hands that reached down meant you harm. How do you know the difference? How do you ever just assume that all hands have good intentions?
Luckily, with all the training we’ve done, Ringo has never reacted by biting or snapping at anyone in one of these situations, but there was a time when he might have and it still scares me a little every time. He gets visibly anxious, knowing he cannot stop what’s about to happen, and will either try to quickly move closer to me, or duck and cower. He tucks his tail, he tenses up, his eyes bug out of his little head, and he looks around in a panic.
How is this fair to my dog?
He was out, minding his own business, and YOU came into HIS bubble with no warning. As humans, we understand the idea of personal space. We don’t walk up to other people we’ve never met and touch them. We don’t stand uncomfortably close to people we’ve just met.
Why do we expect dogs to tolerate a behavior that we as humans consider rude or uncomfortable ourselves?
All I ask is that the next time you’re out and you get that urge to go pet a cute, friendly looking dog, you think of dogs like Ringo and you do it the right way. Please, don’t be another “off-leash person” for dogs like Ringo to worry about. Just ask first. 🙂
If you have a reactive or timid dog of our own, be sure to check out Part II of our Reactive Dogs Series, 12 Tips for Walking Your Reactive Dog. Part II focuses on what you can do as an owner to help your reactive dog have the best possible experience out in the world. With proper training and knowledge, your dog can thrive on the trail.
Thanks for reading!
Debbie & RINGO
** This post is in no way an attack on people who hike with their dogs off-leash. I have no issue with off-leash dogs, so long as they are under the control of responsible owners and are recalled before being allowed to approach unsuspecting people and dogs.