A couple of days ago, my dog Saint and I went to our local tennis court to play a game of fetch before I headed to work. This has now become part of our daily routine and his primary form of exercise. As I tossed the ball for Saint, I noticed a woman and her young dog (about 5 months) approaching the fence. More accurately, the dog was pulling her to us, dragging her along behind. As they approached, Saint showed no interest in them, even when she asked “Can we come inside?” I politely replied, “I’d rather not, because my dog’s not going to enjoy sharing his ball.” That was the first thing I could think to say, but in that split second before I responded, I looked at Saint and I looked at her dog. Saint was sitting in front of me waiting for the ball to be thrown and had shown no interest in engaging in play or even approaching the gate. On the other hand, the puppy was at the end of her leash, pulling her owner with all the strength in her body—so much that the owner had to get low and physically restrain the puppy so she would stop choking herself. The dog was showing no interest in the owner and my guess was she was going to have no control of her dog off leash. I knew this situation could easily become a bad experience for everyone. I did not think about sounding rude; my priority was the dogs’ wellbeing. So I made the call.
After I replied, I tossed the ball for Saint to fetch. After a few long-distance fetches, the owner was still struggling to pull her dog away from us. Even though the puppy only weighed about 20 pounds, her insistence to play with Saint was stronger than the owner. I felt bad for the puppy, so I turned and said “It’s OK, pup—we’ll be done in about five minutes and you can have it all to yourself.” In a desperate voice, the owner replied as she struggled with her dog, “Can’t she just come in and run around with him?!”
I could relate. Just a year ago, I struggled with my two personas: dog trainer, and dog owner. A year ago, I felt what that owner was feeling. I remember our first months together were filled with frustration. I was so jealous of how other dogs made Saint so happy with very little effort, and I could barely get him to fetch. Exercising him was also a challenge. In the winter months (and, in Chicago, there are many long months of winter!), we could not go for a run and I could feel his frustration at being cooped up in our tiny one-bedroom condo. At the time, I just wanted to give in and let him play with other dogs, but I knew he wasn’t ready. I also knew if I gave in without building our relationship and his skills first, there would be a risk of too many bad experiences that would lead to him never being able to be around dogs, period. I knew giving up and giving in was the “easy” way out… for now. But I also knew that in the long term, doing so would create its own problems. So, when the dog owner in me toyed with taking Saint to the dog park, the dog trainer in me responded: You need to build a relationship first. Suck it up.
So I did.
I found a couple of toys Saint enjoyed, and with the help of a long leash and a narrow, quiet place, he soon started to get the hang of fetching. In addition, he started to learn sign language to strengthen our communication and ability to guide him (Saint is deaf). Every weekend for a few weeks, we took field trips to the forest preserve and worked on his recall, stays, and attention. I knew part of his arousal with other dogs was attributed to his overall stress levels due to adapting to his new home and daily routines as well as being neutered, so we took to the trails to relieve stress and help him settle down internally while burning off some of his energy.
In addition, Saint was enrolled in agility and K9 Nosework classes. As his attention and our bond increased, we decided to add dog distractions in the structured setting of group classes. Group classes are great for teaching your dog to focus and play with you when there are other dogs around you—and you both get to learn in class. Group classes allow us to teach our dog to choose to pay attention to us instead of the other dogs in the room.
Saint has completed about a few rounds of nosework and four, 6-week agility classes. Relationships aren’t built overnight, especially with a dog that got a late start in the human-dog relationship department. The process takes time and commitment. You can only build trust with your dog with action–showing your dog all the reasons he can trust you, and why you are just as fun as other dogs.
During our walks, we focused on connecting. I gave my husband one rule when walking Saint: All the attention has to be on Saint—no phones, headphones, or our other dog, Lilu, on Saint’s walks. We constantly praised and pet him for offering eye contact, and started having him sit at the edge of the sidewalk as people passed by. We worked on getting his attention off dogs across the street, and as he improved we started to have him also sit at the side of the sidewalk as dogs passed by (we were very clear in asking the dogs’ owners not to let their dog come up to us). As we started to get to know our neighbors and their dogs, after a few successful sits we started to cue Saint to say hi to some of the dogs. We only allowed a greeting for a few seconds before we cued him to come back to us by scratching at the base of his tail. We’d practiced this at home, first, with Lilu, so he had a lot of practice saying hello quickly before coming back to us. Saint is not allowed to greet every dog we see, of course—only the dogs that I already know are friendly. This is to keep Saint safe and make sure his experiences are positive and enjoyable to him.
On the days Saint had more energy than usual, we would play a quick game of fetch alongside our building before going for a walk. This helped decrease his frustration level once he was clipped to a 6-foot leash, which resulted in less pulling and more focus on our walks. These strategies help you set your dog up for success on a walk. If your dog is stuck at home alone for 8+ hours while you’re at work, and you take him out for a walk (during peak dog times) when you get home, what are the chances your dog is going to pull, want to run, greet another dog, jump on you, bite the leash, want to chase leaves, cars, runners, and so on? He just saved up all his energy and now he’s frustrated because he can’t let any of it out—he’s stuck on a short leash and getting scolded for wanting to have some fun. Guess who is becoming the bad guy in this situation? If you are having any of these problems try finding an area to play with your dog before going for a walk. Set up your walks to be calm and controlled by releasing some of your dog’s energy before you leash him up for a walk or a trip to the dog park. Release your dog’s energy and build your bond by playing with him, one-on-one. Let him have fun with you and release some of that energy before asking him to settle down (a bit!) for his walk.
Once you’re out on a walk, you need to be armed with “If/Then” plans for as many scenarios as possible. On my walks with Saint, I had control over the situation for the most part. If we encountered a person on the phone while walking their dog, or an off-leash dog, we simply avoided the situation and crossed the street. I was very clear with people that I did not want dogs near Saint unless I gave them permission. It is our job to keep our dogs safe; don’t be afraid to be vocal about it. Many times, I have seen dogs greet each other that were not “fine,” as when dog owners let their barking and lunging dog approach another dog, saying that “He’ll be OK after they say hi”—when the dog was not “OK” at all. I’ve learned to take control over the situation and make my own decisions about whether the interaction looks like it’s going to be OK or not. For example, Lilu has very little tolerance for dogs who approach and bark in her face (who can blame her?), and if this happens—if I let it happen—I know she will “check” that dog with an air snap. While this is perfectly justifiable in the dogs’ world, it tends to have two possible outcomes, neither one of which I want. The first possible outcome is that the other dog might actually learn to be more polite, but the owner will be upset and (incorrectly) label my dog as the aggressive one. The second possible outcome is that the rude dog is over aroused and doesn’t respond to Lilu’s warning, instead escalating the situation and eliciting a bigger reaction from Lilu. This is no good for anyone. It’s one of the ways we fail our dogs. It’s our job to understand our dogs and their body language so we can better assess our dogs and not put them in bad situations they can’t quite handle. If you don’t know your dog yet and take her straight to an off-leash area, what will you do if something goes wrong? You don’t know her triggers, her responses, or her tolerance levels, nor do you have a way to communicate with her because you haven’t done any training together.