Don’t Worry, He’s Friendly

Golden Mix Wally smiling on leashNothing beats a long walk with your pup on a perfect summer day, the sun warming your face and a gentle breeze blowing through your dog’s fur. And, then someone ruins your worry-free stroll by yelling at you; just because your sweet, affable dog wants to play with their dog. All you were going to do was remove your pup’s leash like you have done many times before. Everyone else does it.

Sure, the cruising traffic on Lake Shore Drive is less than a football field away and there is no fence. But, all the neighborhood dogs frolic and chase one anothCattle Dog Mix Mindyer here. This is your dog’s outlet. His social time.

And, you have never had any problems UNTIL you reach to unclasp the leash from your pooch’s collar. Then, three people start clattering “they are not friendly”, “get your dog”, “it’s illegal to take your dog off leash here”, “PLEASE, get your dog”; “THEY DON’T WANT TO SAY HI”.

And, you walk away with your happy-go-lucky, loves-other-dogs pooch. Annoyed. Those people were so rude.

No, those people were responsible. Those people were alarmed, surprised and doing your sweet pup a HUGE favor by not letting him rush their dogs’ faces. And, those dogs were really rattled because they never hear their two-legged friends use the harsh, loud tone of voice that they heard when you startled them.

We were these people. From a distance, Mindy and Wally look like nice dogs. And, they are. They are both awesome. But, what you would never know unless you asked is how much work went into Mindy’s training for her to be able to stand three feet away from Wally, sitting calmly on leash and looking at her mom with a soft, knowing gaze that she will be rewarded if she continues stay relaxed. If you would have seen us when we first met dear Mindy; you would have yelled at us from much further away because she was easily startled, nervous and would have barked, lunged and spun in circles if she caught a glimpse of your dog. You would have never been as close as you were with your amiable dog.

We LOVE happy, social dogs. We want them to stay neighborly; to continue to wiggle and squirm at the sight of every single canine they see on the street. We are sorry if we came across as impolite. But, if your dog came any closer to our leashed dogs who were both paying attention to us; they would have barked. Our pleasant pups do not like other dogs in their face. And, if your pooch is uber sensitive, that one bluster could negatively change his behavior, forever. We would not want that for your pup. And, you were super lucky. Mindy and Wally are noisy. But, not dangerous, in any way. If your darling dog rushed the face of a different dog, you might not be as fortunate. Dog attacks can be brutal. And, nothing ruins a delightful walk more than a trip to the emergency room.

When you do not ask the person holding the leash of a dog you do not know “does he or she want to say hello?” a fun outing on a beautiful day can turn tragic, very quickly. And, we truly believe you would not want that for your dog. We want your pup to stay goofy and to always adore other dogs. So, please, ask. Without one question, “does your dog like other dogs?” your life and your dog’s life could change FOREVER. And, not in a good way.

P.S. Mindy and Wally were on leash because it is the law in Chicago. Please keep your dog-friendly dog safe by choosing fenced-in Dog Friendly Areas only for off-leash play.


When Pulling is NOT Naughty

Terrier mix, Daisy Mae learning to brave the mean streets of ChicagoHave you ever come home from a long work day, exhausted and stressed? Adding to your frustration, after being a star pupil every week in dog training class, your dog pulls on leash.

Training a dog to walk politely on a leash takes time, patience and tons of focus for both human and dog. For some dogs, pulling on leash is simply a means to get to their favorite park, beach or buddy’s house as fast as possible. But, for many dogs, especially in crowded, noisy, urban environments; straining and tugging on lead should be handled with much more compassion and understanding than a basic obedience approach allows. Let us take a look at a few types of dogs and how we can alter the “stop every time the pup pulls” technique to help your dog improve faster and make your walks much more relaxing.

Fearful pooches If your dog clings to the sidewalk and looks left to right with eyes as big as saucers whenever a fire engine, garbage truck, skateboard, airplane or other scary monster goes by; your dog is not pulling to annoy you. He or she is afraid, and is trying desperately to get away from the perceived threat. The best way to help a pup who thinks the outside world is out to get him or her is loosen YOUR perfect-heel expectations.

Loose leash walking does indeed relax the dog’s body, helping with overall confidence. But, it also requires your dog to concentrate, an impossible skill when completely terrified. If your dog is relaxed enough to waltz next to you for two blocks, consider that a benchmark and generously reward your sweet sidekick for that time. At the end of the two blocks, and BEFORE your dog starts to yank forward in terror, give a cue that tells him or her work is done for now like “free” or “mush”. We HIGHLY recommend a harness to keep everyone safe while you work on leash skills. If everything goes smashingly well for a couple weeks, try for three blocks, then four. However, if your dog is completely panicked or struggles with a small distance, you need to shorten your walks so your pooch can boost his or her courage in more manageable doses.

Young puppies To a wee little puppy, EVERYTHING is new. And, everything can be scary. You are new, the screen door is new, the leash is new and feels weird attached to that strappy harness you shoved over your puppy’s head after he or she ran away the third time. We do a HUGE disservice to young puppies when we do not acknowledge how unnerving the flood of sounds, sights and smells can be; ESPECIALLY in the city. So, rather than tugging on that tiny neck because your cousin told you that you have to train your dog now or he or she will never learn to respect you, reward for your puppy for not bolting with wild abandon every time you hear a siren, see a scooter or say hello to a REALLY tall person racing to catch the bus; even if the leash is not absolutely perfect. We bet once you do that, the leash loosens up. And, you better be ready to give a reward worthy of your pup’s gold medal Olympic performance.

Aggressive dogs  Polite leash walking is imperative when aggression is involved. But, the leash is not always going to be perfectly loose when you encounter whatever trigger normally causes an outburst during the beginning stages of training: dog, runner, child, men in hats, the list goes on. Space is your best friend, give your dog lots of it. And, rather than getting super focused on the best leash walk of your reactive dog’s life, set your gaze on the trigger further away than you think the dog sees and reward for calm behavior. Your dog may be a little ahead of you and very well might not be looking in your eyes. But, he or she is not getting better at barking, lunging, growling and snarling. Once your dog is not looking over his or her shoulder at the bicyclist or staring down the man in a wheelchair and you have trigger-free stretch in front of you; loose leash training becomes the priority again. One big caveat, if you are going to focus on “yes” for the absence of bad behavior, do not give your “let’s go” cue. If you give the “let’s go” cue THEN reward for calm, you will be rewarding your dog for ignoring the first cue.

We have to remember that our dogs take in so much stimulus during every step of a walk. Alter your approach with leash walking and focus first on the best behavior your dog is capable of given all that is surrounding him or her. Leash training will be easier to tackle when your dog is not in an unbelievably heightened state of mind.

The Art of Recovery

FullSizeRenderFor many urban dog guardians struggling with serious behavioral issues, there is a moment. An EVENTUAL pause. No matter how capricious the reaction. The pup stops trembling, fleeing, freezing, lunging, barking, growling or any other lamentable behavior that provokes judgmental looks from other pedestrians; or worse, harm and acute affliction to both sides of leash and any other human or animal unlucky enough to pass during a negative reaction.

And, we often complain about how distracted our dogs get; but, our attention is easily led astray too. We worry that our neighbors dislike us because our dog is always pulling and yapping at their children. Or gasp, think that because our pup is laying on the ground; refusing to move, that the stranger heading to work might think we did something horribly cruel to our four-legged baby to cause him or her to flatten like a pancake onto the sidewalk.

When we are working to help our dogs learn better responses to triggers that cause an adverse response; we torment ourselves that we have wasted our time when we hit a progress impasse, or, get stuck in a moment where we know our pup is not ready to handle the challenge that real life tosses their way. And, boy, do we take it personally. Here’s a few tips to help when you and your pup are in a standoff:

  • Stop talking so much. We humans love to chatter chatter and often do not realize our mouths are constantly moving. If you are frustrated and your dog is constantly ignoring you, chances are you are ranting.
  • Give feedback when your pup stops doing whatever it is that is causing you to be annoyed at your otherwise perfect creature. Do not treat. Verbal praise is sufficient. A dog who ceases to jump, bark, snarl, chase squirrels or yank you down the street is WAY better than a dog who continues those undesirable acts.
  • Go home or get out of the situation for a few minutes. Hitting the reset button can give both of you a moment to regain your focus and restore your emotions. If you and your dog are in an unbelievably heightened state of mind continuing to stay in your current disturbing spot is not going to do either of you any good.
  • Keep a log of your dog’s behavior. It often helps to track how frequent and how long the dreaded behaviors occur to remind you that your dog is doing much better today than a week or two ago. When we put a lot of effort into training our dogs, one doggie outburst can send us into a spiral. But, if your dog’s barking and lunging is now lasting five seconds vs. ten seconds, you are making progress. Humans tend to latch on to the ONE bad behavior and miss the multitude of tiny successes, especially in very distracting environments.

Remember, dogs are very “in the moment” beings. Recognizing and commending your pup for making better choices, even if they are not perfect, will help his or her behavior continue to improve and prevent you from getting an ulcer in the process.

Under Pressure

Senior Chocolate Lab "FInn"There we were, making our way up the back staircase to my condo; Finn stopped and started to pace. I cheered him on and motioned a “go on up” hand gesture as he looked at me, then fluttered his grey eyebrows while he glanced towards the next landing; eager, yet tentative. My Lug halted a second time and as I swung my arms again to encourage him, Finn started panting.

The gravity of slower stair trips was there, three times, then, twice a day, everyday; even though I tried SO HARD to hide the emotional burden of what I knew less and slower treks meant for my admiringly independent Finn. Even in the midst of those deeply poignant moments, I knew exactly what I would say to a client if I were standing behind him or her and watching the same attempts with their own dog. So, instead of continuing to walk back and forth or swaying my arms around like I was in dance class; I sat on the stairs and waited. And, when I saw Finn place one paw on the first rung to move forward, I slowly followed in case he tripped. As calmly as possible, I whispered “good boy” as my Lug trucked ahead.

What I have learned from Finn’s senior-born anxiety, Gavin’s sidewalk standstills and years of helping nervous, fearful and worry-wart dogs is how a little adjustment in our own body language can make a big difference.

Hovering and large gestures often discourage sensitive dogs. If you have a dog who is terrified of going outside and you are standing directly over him in the doorway, and trying to coax him to join you; he is going to stop in his tracks. And, if you are trying REALLY HARD to get him moving along by emphatically waving treats around, he is going to sit against the closest piece of furniture for protection and drool is going to start flowing from his mouth in record amounts.

Instead, try to soften your shoulders back, crouch down (unless the dog has shown any aggressive tendencies) and stop moving around so much. Wild, flustered motion makes dogs anxious. If your pup sees uneasiness in your body language, it will likely make him more apprehensive.

Our furry best friends do us the favor of learning our language. I am continually mystified and in utter awe at our canines’ comp ability to understand us crazy humans; and, mesh into our technology-obsessed, multi-tasking, NOISY lives. Dogs watch our actions and attempt to tell us that they are uncomfortable, scared or completely at ease with their gestures, faint bodily adjustments, change in eye gaze or slight movement away or towards us.

Leaning forward while asking a dog to perform any task, even basic obedience like “come”, go to their “bed” or “sit” will often cause pups to pause. Why? Dogs are masters at visual communication and a hovering human screams “do not come into my space“; no matter how oogly-googly, sugary-sweet the words might be.  The more delicate the dog’s personality, the looser and lower you have to be to encourage trust that steps towards you or the end goal behavior, even teensy strides, are welcome and rewarded.

Our tendency when we meet a new dog is to reach for his fur, to stroke his adorable head. Because, we as dog lovers, know that petting that four-legged whipper snapper would make US feel good. But, for hand-shy pups or pooches recovering from past trauma; taking a slow step away can be a very powerful tactic to build a bond and a much better way to help the dog learn to trust humans. For a scared dog who FINALLY or occasionally takes a step towards you, take one quiet step away from him and you will see his whole face soften and body relax.

Watching and listening to what our dogs need is not always intuitive. But, if you make a couple small adjustments in your posture and physical approach, your new dog interactions will be much more harmonious and your pup might give you the “YOU GET ME!” smile WAY more often.