14 January 2017

Observations from a Well-Traveled Dog Walker/Owner

As a devoted dog owner, I’ve wanted to write this blog for a long time.  My second award-winning novel, Plenty, spotlights the many ways trained dogs serve people. We owe it to our canine companions to be their best friend.  How to be a best friend and a leader? In my opinion, training, exercise and time build the bond needed to nurture confident good citizens and respectful family members.  Whether obedience or agility, nose work, rally or barn hunt, all lives stand to be enriched. For those who realize the win-win benefit of walking and exploring public parks, among the most useful commands – leave it, heel, come and wait.

Ever been ambushed from behind by an aggressive, truculent, loose, old Black Lab or charged by a loose Pit on the beach with family and canines in tow? I have. The lessons taught and bond forged can make the difference between life and death for your vulnerable best friend.

Some safety insights and anecdotes - for those who dislike suspense and drama- from a professionally trained, experienced dog owner.

Good citizenship involves common sense and common courtesy, chosen by dog owners and the general public.

I’ve walked miles with my German Shepherds and Pyrenees, typically 7 miles a week every week. A promise made to rescue groups, to work my dogs everyday for at least 30 minutes, formalized by signing a contract.  For those who don’t know, a walk can be transformative. How powerful is it? After a neuterectomy, the vet prescribed Ace and later Xanax for my young fit must-be-sedated dog.  After he chewed through two dog kennels and began jumping in the air to snap at imaginary objects, I began to search for another answer. Yes, the long slow walk - more effective than potent prescriptions. Never underestimate the power of exercise or the walk to calm a canine, change demeanor or control destructive behaviors.

Surprisingly enough, it’s not the leaf blowers, concrete trucks or other large dogs that create problems, but, by and large, the thoughtless actions of irresponsible owners – including but not limited to: letting dogs off leash, letting the dog charge other dogs and lack of basic obedience skills such as come, leave it and no.

Let’s start with skateboarders, joggers and bikers, all of which can easily startle a dog.

How to manage the sound of a grating skateboard and a free wheeling teen while walking dogs next to a busy street frequented by city buses? A command to sit and stay off the sidewalk to face the danger has worked for me many times. Add a smile to relax all muscles in your body -important because dogs can sense your fear, anxiety and anger through the leash. Once again, my dog trainer talked me through strategies to deal with life in the big city.  A trainer and desensitization exercises – a sturdy wall against scary surprises and challenges.  As part of the pack’s continuing education a skate board sits outsides the back door; so, that I can use it gradually as a desentizaiton tool.  One of my trainers told me “Be positive about the challenge – see it as a training test at which you’ll succeed. “   

How to best defend against the fall predicated by a shadowing runner?  Mindfulness listening, and tuning into a dog’s body language have always been tactics, but not fail proof. For runners, it’s always a good idea to call out to alert the owner of your presence. For the runner enjoying the day plugged into his favorite music, I recommend unplugging to maintain mindfulness about surroundings – to be aware of another runner with dog in tow or loose vicious dogs who label passerbys as trespassers. In my neighborhood this week, a runner, while tuned into his music, attacked by a loose Pit. His calves mauled and shredded by the angry dog.

How to defend against an eighteen year old jogger who suddenly turns from a blind corner in to a narrow park corridor and runs within a few inches of three protective dogs?  Well, my plan to step away from the sidewalk and park the pack thwarted by dense bushes flanking both perimeters of the sidewalk. Leave it and heel saved the day as only one dog barked a warning. Commands – the great equalizer when common sense doesn’t prevail.

Finally, how to deal with the stealth and silent bikers that whizz by? Listening and watching my dog’s reactions, especially the one that’s 360 alert all the time. The best bikers ring a tinkling bell or call out. The worst don’t do anything but zoom by triggering a negative reaction by the pack and me. Like horses, dogs sense fear and anger. Circling back to desentization training plus leave it and heel work wonders and so do classes with a professional.

Next on the drama list – kids, loose dogs and dog parks

How to defend against kids who run, screaming, up to the dogs? I wave them away or walk in a different direction. Don’t let your kids run at dogs because of a desire to pet the cute puppies.  Most dogs don’t like hugs.  Ask the owner first  - many dogs don’t like the traditional pet/tap on the head, but prefer stroking. Especially, not a good idea, for adults or kids, to run at the protective breeds or large protective breeds. Best not to be perceived as a potential threat.

How to safeguard your family and the pack from a loose charging dog on a touristy beach? How to take control when a loose hapless combative dog and an irresponsible owner cross paths with you? On the advice of my local police department and my dog trainer, I always carry pepper spray.

By the way, I’ve been told many times that if a loose dog attacks a dog on a leash, the loose dog will be deemed culpable and will be viewed as such by authorities. Finding a bodily injury defense lawyer also not a desirable project to add to the daily planner. Keep your dog leashed for his safety. Useful to know if someone wants to see what’ll happen in a dog fight match-up. I’ve met that person too.

How to survive the dog park? Observe the owner group and the dogs with laser like focus. Shadow your dog. If a dog owner brings a prey-driven, energetic, as in waited-all-day-to go-outside, dog to a dog park, the stage has been set for a fight.  Exercise a high-strung dog before the unleashing him in the park. A few sessions of nose work may effectively drain a dog’s energy level as will a game of fetch. Call a local dog trainer for details. I’ve had more training conversations re: dog park danger than any other subject. My trainer also recommends going to the dog park early morning, midday never after 5 pm.  Snapping and straining canines led by grumpy owners never a good mix.

I no longer go to dog parks, preferring to travel the sidewalks. My next post re: a small family pet being attacked at a pet park by a vicious dog in full view of the small children and their horrified mother coupled with numerous stories about dog fights tainted my view forever.  By the way, I’m not a proponent of breed phobia – the owner always responsible for exercising, training and controlling his dog. Unfortunately, some breeds attract “bad owners” given the most minimal standards. Furthermore, most folks don’t have the opportunity to quiz an owner before dogs meet in  “play” at the park. And unfortunately, some breeds have gained popularity due to their fighting skills, bloodlines honed by corrupt breeders and bookies.
Political correctness doesn’t matter when I assess a park or a situation or an owner. My dogs aren’t allowed to play with certain dogs. Loyalty to my pack outweighs any lame thoughtless outrage about my decision. Given my emotional, financial investment and love for my pack, I don’t take risks with dogs designed to do a lot of damage or uber aggressive dogs regardless of breed. 
Aside from hackles, the unwavering stare should send up red flags for some intervening action to take place before blood bubbles.
Finally, your furry best friend depends on you everyday to set him up for a positive safe experience. Don’t fail him by taking unnecessary risks.

And on a final note, if a leashed small dog lunges at big guard dogs, the owner has put his dog in grave danger  - the big dogs may well perceive the little dog as a threat.

To those park-goers, families and pedestrians who think about the welfare of all dogs and dog owners who responsibly share the same space by picking up poo, training and restraining their pets, I owe you my profound gratitude.  

To the aware owners/trainers of prey-driven or aggressive dogs who remain mindful of the concerns of other owners and act accordingly to keep the peace for all, I can’t applaud you loudly or often enough.

Happy Tails and Happy Trails in 2017!!


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