Your Dog is a Jerk . . . and you need to fix it
I regularly hike a trail that is popular with tourists. A few weeks ago, an 80-pound shepherd-mix came barreling towards me. I could tell the dog was not being playful—he wanted to check me out and decide if I was a friend or foe. The owner broke into a sprint, frantically calling the dog’s name. The dog ignored him, and knocked into my arm. The owner caught up to us, mumbled a “sorry” to me, and chastised the dog in a puzzled and exasperated tone while putting him back on leash, as if this has never happened before and the owner is shocked, shocked that his dog doesn’t come when called.
Here’s another example. On my way to the gym, a woman let her poodle-mix out of the car, without a leash, and then spent the next several minutes trying to get the dog to come to her so she could leash it. The dog happily played in the middle of a two-way street (which, fortunately, was not busy at that hour). When the dog approached me, she implored me to grab the dog so she could leash it. I tried, but I was not fast enough, and the dog remained just out of reach. I wished her good luck as the dog continued to evade her. I did not have time to help her “solve” the problem. The problem, you see, wasn’t leash or no leash. It was the fact that the dog was not trained to come when called.
These two are the most recent examples.
I love dogs. I’ve owned dogs. I have two friends who are naturally talented dog trainers. Their dogs are the Platonic ideal of how canines should behave. So I know what well-behaved dogs look like. What I’m about to say comes from a place of love and concern.
Your dog is a jerk if: he doesn’t come when called, jumps all over people, or gets aggressive, hostile, or overly-excited in social situations—and you can’t stop any of it. By the way, don’t say you “stopped” it when all that’s happened is he exhausted himself after fifteen minutes.
If you can’t stop it when it starts, you don’t have the power to stop it. And if you don’t have the power to stop it, then you need to fix the situation – starting with recall. And if you’re not willing to fix it, then your dog should never be off-leash in a public place. Period.
When the dog is on leash, take charge, please. Don’t just let the dog drag you around as if you’re a hundred-pound weight. The point of the leash is to actually allow the owner to control the dog’s movements and direction. But a lot of owners let the dog behave as if he’s off-leash, and before you know it, the dog has dragged the owner to his latest interest, wrapped the leash around someone’s legs or gotten into a tangled skirmish with another dog. That’s Far Side cartoon material, but it’s not funny in real life when you’re just a pedestrian and you don’t want other people’s dogs invading your boundaries or the boundaries of your well-behaved dog who is by your side.
A lot of owners want the status of an off-leash dog. And they think it’s more humane. Fine. Then get that recall down pat. The safety of other depends on whether your dog obeys when you call him. Imagine if that dog who barreled into me on the hiking trail had gone after a 5-year-old instead. Not only would it scare the hell out of the kid, but the kid (who weighs half as much as the dog) could easily get hurt. That is not humane.
Or imagine that the dog playing in the middle of the street causes a traffic accident as drivers swerve or slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. That is not humane.
I regularly see dog fights at the off-leash dog park in my neighborhood. After the owners manage to separate the fighting canines, one of them usually starts blathering about how she is amazed that her cuddly fur-baby would everbehave that way.
I’ve got news: Dogs sometimes do that. Some dogs do it frequently. You cannot always predict how your fur-baby is going to react to another fur-baby it has never met before. As the owner, it is your responsibility to diffuse the situation once it starts. Again, recall is the key.
It’s actually sad and funny to watch the owner call the dog’s name over and over again, getting more exasperated and desperate as the dog completely ignores him. If this happens at home, it’s not as serious. In public, though, the stakes are a lot higher than they are at home because there are a lot more unknowns and a lot fewer constraints.
Your off-leash dog is headed towards trouble, and guess what, owner? You didn’t put in the work to make sure the dog heeds your commands. You just didn’t. No amount of apology (“I’m really sorry, he’s actually very sweet”), no number of excuses (“I’m surprised -- he gets along great with the neighbor’s pit bull”) is going to cover for your obvious lack of work with your animal.
Can’t afford a trainer? The information is free on the internet, including videos on how to positively reinforce the behaviors you want. Take the time to look at what some very talented people can teach you about dog psychology. Here’s one: https://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/sue-mccabe/why-training-recall-so-difficult-dog-owners
And then take the time to train the dog, at home when you both are relaxed and can have a leisurely interaction.
I worked with a marvelous trainer when I had my 80-pound mutt, and I quickly realized that dog training is mostly people training: You, the owner, are being taught how to interact with your dog so that you get results that are beneficial to you both. Not only do you get peace-of-mind with a well-behaved dog, but your dog will actually have more freedom because you can trust him off-leash, even in new and stressful situations. And, he won’t be constantly getting in trouble for things he didn’t know were off-limits. Other people will actually compliment you on your dog’s disciplined behavior, and they won’t mind as much that the dog is in the restaurant or the supermarket.
Dogs sense energy. They want to please you and be a part of the pack. There is nothing sadder than an undisciplined but intelligent dog who has to excluded from social situations because he has not been taught how to behave himself outside of his normal environment. Don’t let your dog have to be quarantined because you’re too lazy to work with him and teach him. Remember: In stressful and distracting situations, a dog will not rise to the level of your expectations, he will fall to the level of his training. Make sure his training is good and consistent.