While my friend was in town, I took her to my favorite close-by forest preserve for a nice hike. As we were walking the trails with Rufus, we came across a Newfoundland and a Great Pyrenees running around off-leash, no owners in sight.
There are two things to know about my guy: 1. He has some leash reactivity, and 2. He has a MUCH harder time keeping his cool around dogs 3x his size.
So of course, the two dogs rush up to us to say hello. Rufus stiffens and I keep a loose hold on the leash. I know from past experiences that if I tighten up on the leash or try to drag him away, he will start acting like a rabid dog – it is much better to just stay calm and deal with the situation in the moment.
With the two dogs surrounding us and sniffing the heck out of him, Rufus let out a low growl as a warning. The Newfie took this as an invitation to play (silly dog) and leapt above Rufus. Well, this just scared Rufus even more, so he growled and lunged. Luckily I know my dog very well and he is all talk. Luckily the two dogs were incredibly docile and had no intentions of reacting to his empty threat. Luckily.
But what would have happened if any three of these dogs had acted differently? What if Rufus really was aggressive and wanted a piece out of one of the dogs? It wouldn’t have been my fault, as I was obeying the leash laws of the park. What if one or both of these giants reacted negatively to his warning growl, starting a very unfair fight? What if, right? Ugh…
Dinos (Dogs In Need Of Space) is a campaign that is very close to my heart. It’s hard to explain to a person with little dog experience that not every canine wants to be best friends with every human and living creature they meet. Giving a fearful or anxious dog space is so very important for their behavioral health, and negative or forced experiences can mean major setbacks in training.
After years of training and learning to understand my dog, I know which environments help him to thrive and which ones set him back. I know what type of dogs he has no problem greeting on-leash and which ones will make him anxious. I know he looooves children, but if that child is accompanied by a very tall and boisterous man, it can make him react negatively. I DO NOT want to deal with my dog growling at a child simply because the parent makes him nervous…that’s not a situation that is positive for anyone involved.
So what’s my point? The owner came rushing up to us, yelling “They’re friendly!” Ugh…really? So I explained to her that my dog is intimidated by larger dogs and that it would probably be best that she leash them and walk them away from us. I then politely reminded her that the park has a DESIGNATED area (an actual dog park! come on, lady!) in which her dogs can play with other dogs off-leash. She just breathlessly apologized and walked off, unleashing her dogs as soon as they were far enough away from us.
20 minutes later, we ran into them again. I distracted Rufus with a treat and shoo’d them off.
Now listen, I totally get that it’s super fun to hike with your dog off-leash. There is one park in which I indulge in this act with Rufus. It is always deserted an the only other person I ever see there has a dog that Rufus has met properly several times. They greet each other with a sniff and play bow and then we all go on our merry way. It’s quite nice, actually. However, I always scope out the area first. It also doesn’t have any leash laws.
At the end of the day, know your environment and know your dog. If your dog has poor recall or wants to meet every single dog he spots, it’s probably best to keep him leashed. All it takes is one chance meeting with a dog that is not so friendly for something to go horribly wrong. And wouldn’t it be awful if it was all your fault?