Worst Case Scenario – When Your Dog Needs Some Space!

image from http://notesfromadogwalker.com/2012/06/06/speaking-dog-photo-lab/

After I posted a copy of Notes From A Dog Walker‘s DINOS PSA on our own Facebook page, we were swarmed with likes and comments, and over a hundred shares. Obviously this topic is one more than a few of us have struggled with!

As I mentioned in the Facebook comments, I have used a number of tactics to protect my dogs or dogs with which I was working. There are several options available if you and your dog-in-need-of-space are waylaid by another dog and human who appear to be intent on crashing your personal space.

Tell them to stop!

While it would seem obvious that rushing into a “friendly greeting” is rude — I’m a fairly social person, and yet I manage to walk in public all the time without hugging or tackling every new person I pass — the fact is, our American culture often has a skewed perspective on “normal” dog behavior. Many people just don’t know that their dog rushing or pulling toward yours is both rude and dangerous.

No matter how frustrating or dangerous their current behavior, we can’t get angry if we haven’t told them what behavior we want instead. If you spy a human/dog team rushing toward you, hold up an outstretched hand on the classic STOP signal and say clearly, “Stay back! We need some space.”

As with effective dog training, telling them what not to do — “don’t come any closer, don’t let the dogs meet” — is probably useless. The wind or their iPrep earbuds may muffle your words, so that they hear only “let the dogs meet,” and even if they hear it all, they may not immediately think of an alternative by themselves. Tell them clearly what you want — STOP.

Get Out of Dodge*

I started using this phrase years ago with a dog in desperate need of space, whose abuse at the hands of a well-meaning but ignorant family left her with a nasty self-defense routine of bite first, ask questions much, much later. Any fast-moving human or sudden noise could provoke a bite, and while she did not work in public areas or indeed anywhere where she was not surrounded by trained behavior folk, the poor dog still had to urinate somewhere and there was always a chance she would meet something for which she wasn’t prepared. We needed a backup plan.

Pick a behavior that works for your dog. For us, with her head right at my hip level, I trained her to face me, press her chin into my abdomen, and push me forward as I walked backward. This got the sharp end away from the trigger and allowed me to pump cheese straight into her face, while simultaneously I could shout for the trigger to STOP and let us move away.

We practiced this often without any triggers, so that it was fluent and reliable under stress. We didn’t need it much, but it was very good to have.

A Portable Visual Barrier

Despite their astounding sense of smell, many dogs are remarkably triggered by sight — as anyone who has seen a dog chase a biker or jogger knows. I often recommend to clients with recovering reactive dogs that they carry a small pop-up umbrella on their walks. If they are rushed by a strange dog, the press of a button can provide a visual barrier (and, in the worst case scenario, something of a physical barrier), which is often enough to disrupt a tense situation. When neither dog can see the other, both relax.

It is vital to practice with this before it is needed, too! If a dog is stressed by the rushing approach of a rude dog, the last thing he needs is the stress of an umbrella suddenly popping over him. Start gradually, with the umbrella at a distance, and pair the pop with tasty treats until the dog is very comfortable squeezing between you and the umbrella. Then try it on the sidewalk until he is comfortable with it happening on walks, too.

A Permeable Barrier

While anyone who has trained with me or followed my writing knows punishment is not my choice, in an emergency one does what one must. There are still, however, levels of escalation.

One emergency scenario occurred while I was running my Doberman Laevatein alongside my bike, warming up for an endurance test. Laev was on an 18″ leash attached to my bike and enjoying her run as usual. (“I love bike runs! Finally the stupid humans can almost keep up!”) Out of nowhere a German Shepherd came out of a house and straight at us, snapping at Laev’s hindquarters.

My dog was on a very short leash, we were on a public road with an expectation of safe thoroughfare, and this off-leash dog was in violation of law. I had a right to defend our safety. I snatched my citronella spray off the handlebar and shot a blast over my dog straight into the offending dog’s face. I cued Laev to run with me and peddled away, spraying backward. The dog gave up and watched us go.

I don’t feel too bad about using a non-toxic, non-painful intervention to prevent bloodshed. This poor German Shepherd was probably set up for this encounter by his ignorant or uncaring humans — he looked like a classic case of over-stimulation rather than true aggression — but in the moment, I had a right and duty to keep my dog and myself safe. I still prefer people to keep their dogs safely in fences or on leash, but it’s good to have a backup plan.

Once called Direct Stop, now known as Spray Shield, the citronella spray will reach about 12′ with a good stream and won’t harm the offending dog or your own dog if it blows back (unlike pepper spray). It’s great for situations where you’re alone and the rushing dog is off-leash. Find it here!

Note: solo human bikers are better off stopping and freezing, and nearly all pursuing dogs will immediately lose interest without movement. That’s not as likely with a second dog involved.

Other Options

What if the human doesn’t stop, but keeps coming, often with the telling cry of, “It’s okay, he’s friendly?” (No phrase puts more fear and loathing in the heart of a dog trainer!) Sometimes it’s necessary to play hard ball for the sake of your dog.

  • Lie shamelessly. I’ve been known to shout, “My dog is recovering from mange! Keep back!” Often people who simply cannot understand that a strange dog humping another dog’s head is trouble will understand the concept of a contagious disease.
  • Be direct and firm. Too often we feel socially compelled to soften our requests, saying things like, “Actually, would it be okay if we had a little room, please? He’s not really comfortable with other dogs.” And this is appropriate as a first request. But if the other party fails to respond, be firm. “Keep back!” Remember, you’re making a reasonable request; most humans expect to be able to walk down the sidewalk without being groped; my dog walking beside me is entitled to the same.
  • Use a cape. Some suppliers offer a “Dog in Training, Please Do Not Disturb” vest. While this is not and should not resemble a service dog vest, many will respect it when they won’t hear your verbal request.
  • Get physical. I have shoved 3-ring binders between my dog’s head and an approaching rude dog on a retractable leash. I have stepped between dogs. On one occasion, my boyfriend (now husband) body-blocked an illegally off-leash dog as I retreated with my dog. Use your environment — get behind a door or fence, around or on top of a car, whatever it takes. You’re not worried about social acceptability, you’re worried about backsliding in your reactive dog’s training or even preventing a dogfight.

Got more ideas? Leave them in the comments!

* I heard later that the inimitable Helix Fairweather also used this phrase. Great minds think alike? 🙂

About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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