“Would you please leash your dog?”
That’s my go-to line when we encounter other dogs off leash. Almost always this happens when we’re hiking, because we don’t go to parks where we know there may be other dogs. All of a sudden there it is, the distant jingle-jingle of dog tags through the brush. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to have their dogs off leash in the woods (or anywhere really), but it puts us in a tough spot. I try to give the owners a shout, hoping they can call their dogs back in time to avoid a clash. Be it a golden retriever, a pit bull, or a Yorkie like the one we met yesterday, Bubba’s going to flip out. At least if everyone’s leashed we can prevent an actual fight. Ideally we’re able to change direction and take another path to avoid a meeting all together, but a lot of the time there’s no choice but to cross paths on the trail. If the other people can get their dogs leashed, we step off trail and Bubba growls and barks and lunges at the dogs and people as they pass, then we get back on trail and he frantically pulls for a while, following their scent or trying to turn around and get back to them.
I should say that Bubba has never bitten another dog, but the potential is there. If a dog runs up to him, he’ll freeze for a few seconds before becoming aggressive and trying to scare the dog away. This of course never works, and the situation quickly turns into two (or more) agitated snarling dogs, with me on the end of a short leash trying to prevent a big fight and not get myself bitten in the process. I develop tunnel-vision and see only what’s happening right there. I have to physically restrain Bubba because nothing else is effective in this state. I’ve been knocked down, jumped at, tangled up in leashes and trees… in general a frustrating and embarassing and anxious experience until the other dog is brought under control and they’re separated.
Other people’s responses to this are all over the place. We try to tell people that he is a shelter dog, we’ve only had him a few months and we’re working with him, but that he’s obviously not good with dogs. Some owners take it completely in stride, pass quickly and are friendly as they go on their way. Other people seem appalled but don’t say much. Some people chose to make comments about how out of control Bubba is, which may be true, but at least he is leashed and in that sense I feel like I do have control of him… more control than someone whose unleashed dog doesn’t respond to voice command and come back to them when called.
So, I try not to take it personally. I also have to try not to develop tunnel-vision whenever this situation arises. I see a dog coming and I’m already anticipating the fight, the point where Bubba is too gone to respond to direction. I need to focus on keeping my energy calm throughout the experience. Every meeting with another dog is a learning and socialization opportunity for Bubba, and while these exposures are stressful, the calmer I can be, the more normal it will seem to him. I also think that having us step off trail and trying to make him behave while another dog passes is an unrealistic expectation for him at this point. I should start carrying a big stick when we go hiking, to use as a barrier between the dogs so maybe sometimes we can stay on trail and try to just keep moving. It also wouldn’t be bad to have in case a real fight does break out.
Recently I read this blog post about aggression in dogs which talks about the role genetics can play in behavior. It was refreshing to read because it’s very easy to get discouraged and take Bubba’s behavior personally. In reality, there’s a limit to what we can influence, and we need to keep focusing on those things and hoping that in time, this will improve. So we keep working on using positive reinforcement, avoiding physical corrections whenever possible, and trying to build his all around confidence and comfort levels so he is better able to deal with the stress of meeting another dog. It’s a nebulous, slow process of change, but in these past few months we have seen it unfold in a lot of ways. The absolute biggest challenge is maintaining my own patience and committment to training him properly- not taking short cuts, not allowing bad behavior to go unaddressed. I also need to recommit to socializing him as much as possible. We haven’t created opportunities for him to be around other dogs in a controlled environment since his adolescent obedience class ended. Dog training classes are expensive, time consuming, and stressful (in our case). What he really needs is regular one-on-one time with stable dogs. Unfortunately sessions like these with the trainer we were working with are cost-prohibitive for us. I need to recommit to trying more walking dates with our friends who also have dogs. We have been semi-successful in making this work in the past, but it needs to be a regular thing in order to be effective.