Sunday, July 11, 2010

What to Say to Keep Strangers at Bay

Summer was my Newfoundland dog Baywolf’s favorite time of the year. Not for the reason that we took him swimming more often, but because we’d encounter many more humans on the trails and beaches. Baywolf loved summer cause, as a good Newf is supposed to, he loved people, especially young ones. He was the big, hairy, muddy-pawed embodiment of the word gregarious.
In my line of work, dogs who happily socialize with just anybody are the exception. Many of my clients’ dogs are a tad xenophobic; cautious of strangers and timid at best, reactively lunging at worst. What was a pleasurable season for us, creates real problems for the owner of an unsure of people pooch. When school’s out for the summer, and tourists are flocking streets and parks, it can be a real struggle to keep the shy dog at a safe distance away from touchy-feely humans eager to pat, hug or kiss him. It is this time of year, every year, when dog owners ask me what to say to keep people at bay.
Most have already figured out that the terms “aggressive” and “biting” are not part of an ideal explanation. Firstly, some people are not deterred and do approach closer, often assuringly stating that they “know dogs” and don’t mind to get nipped, and secondly, one very quickly gets a reputation of owning a dangerous dog – a label nobody needs who simply enjoys her canine’s companionship on a walk or hike.
Equally ineffective is saying the pooch is shy and fearful. Those are magnet words for folks to close in, maybe with a cookie in an outstretched hand, to “prove” to the pooch that they are a friendly primate. Typically the scaredy dog goes all limbic at that point, barking and bucking on the leash, at which point the “nice” person walks away shaking her head in disbelief why anybody would own a dog that out of control.
I think it was Sue Sternberg, the rescue queen, who recommended telling overzealous greeters that the dog has ringworm. I have never tried it, but am sure it works. People fear nothing more than catching something, and I can visualize how quickly they’d pull their hand and child away from a dog who’s a pesty critter carrier. Even though it probably is very successful, I find it a bit offensive.
My goal is to not only convey to my dogs that I protect them, so that they don’t have take matters into their own paws, but also to use every opportunity to kindly educate the public, especially children, about respecting space and proper socializing.
Unlike our affable Baywolf, the dogs I own now, Davie and Will, don’t care for anyone else but us, and a few selected friends.
When someone asks if she can pet, I praise her for asking first, and follow with a “no” and the explanation that the dogs are being trained to walk politely and attentively on a loose leash. And I demonstrate that with pacing back and forth a bit, the girls happily performing a heel. I never encountered anybody who disrespects a dog in training. Adults usually move on, and children often ask if they can help. The answer to that is yes – by keeping a, comfortable for my dogs, distance while observing us. That way, the kids are on my dogs' radar but they don’t feel threatened and will acclimatize to them, and the children feel good when I compliment them how great of a trainer helper they are. Plus they learn that there is more to do with a dog than hands-on touching and stroking.
A variation of that is asking if they want to see a trick. Teach your dog a bunch of cute behaviors you generously reward him for. Once he loves to perform to elicit your attention and interaction, or a food reward or toy, cue the tricks in the presence of strangers. People he meets on walks, even if they stop, are put in a really positive context. They become part of a game, an associated cue that precedes a known, fun activity. Often, to be able to observe the tricks better, the person backs up a little, and that is doubly reinforcing for the insecure dog. Not only does he get to perform and is rewarded, but the maybe worrisome stranger increases the distance, and that is extra payoff for his calm, non-reactive behavior.

When people ask appropriately if they can approach my dogs, I invest time and effort to create a positive situation even when the answer is no. If someone has the audacity to touch them without asking, and in my experience adults do that more than children, my good manners fly in the ditch. In no uncertain terms, with a stern voice and face, I tell them to back off. And I do not see the need to offer any explanation. I mean, would they give me details why I couldn’t hug their child I never met before?

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