Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: A friendly dog still needs to be kept under control in public
My dog Kochi doesn't like other dogs. He'll avoid them, if possible, but if they approach too close to either try to sniff him, or otherwise interact with him, he snarls, barks and lunges. If I didn't control him with his leash, he would probably try to bite.
This behavior - as with most dog aggression - is purposeful, designed to get the dog to move away, to increase social distance. Kochi doesn't look for trouble and happily participates in dog agility, running off leash around other dogs. As long as they ignore him, he ignores them.
As Kochi's owner, trainer and advocate, his behavior is my responsibility. My first duty is to keep him safe, avoiding putting him in positions where he would feel it necessary to protect himself. For example, when we're around another dog, I'll create enough distance and reinforce him for his good, desirable behavior.
My second job is to train Kochi to control his own behavior when another dog is around. He used to explode and exhibit aggressive behavior if a dog came within 10 feet. Over time, with behavior modification training, he is now able to tolerate another dog as long as it doesn't try to interact with him. There is a specific distance outside of which Kochi is fine, but if that boundary is crossed, he explodes. The boundary is a "behavior threshold," and as long as he's behaving well, he is "under threshold." If he exhibits explosive or aggressive behavior, he's "over threshold."
When working on modifying a dog's behavior, it's important to avoid going over threshold. Doing so puts the dog in a position of "practicing" the undesirable behavior. Consider that if Kochi blows up at a dog, and the dog moves away, that increased distance reinforces the very behavior that we're working so hard to improve. Which brings me to the subject for this week's "Dog Tracks."
Kochi and I walk on a lovely wooded trail. As with other public trails, posted signs read: "Notice: All pets must be on leash." Most of the time, we don't see anyone else on the trail, and since I know he'll come when I call him, I let Kochi free to enjoy normal dog behavior (shhhh ... don't tell anyone). Kochi loves chasing squirrels and investigating the woods. Because of his attitude toward other dogs, I'm always watching and listening for evidence that someone might be heading toward us on the trail. If I see or hear another dog, a runner or other walker with or without a dog, I call him and leash him. It's my responsibility to keep him from bothering anyone, but my efforts are often thwarted by other dog owners.
Last week on our walk, I heard and saw two large dogs heading toward us, ahead of their owner. As I put Kochi on leash, I alerted the owner, asking her to please call her dogs. "They're friendly," she (typically) replied. "My dog isn't. He doesn't like other dogs," I responded - as I have so many times over the years. "I'll keep them under control," she assured me as they approached. I moved Kochi to the side, off the trail and tried to keep him focused on a handful of treats, so he wouldn't go over threshold.
Despite her assurances, one of her dogs approached Kochi to try to sniff his rear. Kochi was really trying to do his best to ignore the dog - I was so proud of him. But he should not have had to work that hard, and I think I said something rather unfriendly to the owner, who then called her dog. As we moved away from each other down the trail, I waited a couple of minutes before taking Kochi off leash again. No sooner had I done so then the other dog came running from behind, and Kochi blew up. I hollered and heard her call her dog away. So, while I guess you could say that her dogs were under her control, but she certainly didn't execute that control preemptively.
Another time walking this trail, a man approached with an adolescent puppy on a retractable leash. Again, I moved off the path and tried to distract Kochi, letting the man know my dog wasn't wonderful with other dogs. Despite my saying that, he didn't lock his 26-inch leash, allowing his gangly teenager to gambol toward Kochi as I very obviously tried to get between them. This young dog was likely to both see and feel Kochi's displeasure, which wouldn't have been good for either dog.
I don't understand how "My dog isn't friendly" can possibly mean "but it's OK to let your dog come over and sniff him." It galls me that Kochi is repeatedly put in a position he shouldn't have to be in, and I wish other owners would use common sense and meet their responsibility. I know I'm preaching to the choir in this column, but if you know someone you think would benefit from this information, please pass it along. Kochi and I would appreciate it.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.