What’s almost always the key to a dog’s reaction to other dogs it sees? Answer: socialization in combination with training. Training without socialization is not nearly as effective. Imagine yourself walking (no dog) down Fifth Avenue in New York City on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, with the sidewalk literally crowded with hundreds of people. You would hardly take notice of the other pedestrians. Then you turn into a dark alley with nobody in sight. All of a sudden a person appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and heads toward you. Boy, are you going to be focused on that person! Well, that’s going to be your dog’s response after walking through the quiet suburban streets and then suddenly seeing another dog. “Holy cow! Another dog!” Talk about focus. He’ll see nothing else but that approaching dog.
How does your dog react when he sees another dog approaching with a leashed owner in tow? Probably one of four ways:
- Shows some interest but is polite and doesn’t pull, and will ignore if told to do so.
- Fearful, and as the other dog gets closer, panics and tries to get away.
- Barks and pulls like crazy to get to the other four-legged to sniff the proverbials and play.
- Rears up, barks, growls, and pulls like crazy with intent to maim, and rid the world of the interloper.
Rural and suburban dogs invariably present the strongest reaction to other dogs having the audacity to be walking in their neighborhood. City dogs take it for granted that they will encounter any number of four-leggeds, directly or indirectly, as they go about their daily business. However, the countless suburban dogs with their doggy door, fenced backyard, and occasional neighborhood walk are usually the most impacted at the sight of other dogs.
I can’t emphasize enough that training without socialization is not nearly as effective. In terms of training, for a successful encounter with lots of other dogs and distractions, your dog should have the “Heel” and “Leave it” commands down pat. These are two commands that, more often than not, are better learned with the help of a pro. Socialization is accomplished by exposing your dog, on a positive basis, to everything you can think of and manage. Get out there with your dog and help him realize that the world doesn’t bite.
So what I’d suggest, from a practical standpoint, if your dog is skittish or simply not accustomed to meeting a lot of dogs, is to use either an Easy Walk Harness or a Gentle Leader as you enter the crowd of four-leggeds. The Easy Walk attaches at the chest and will reduce 50 to 60 percent of the pulling. The Gentle Leader will reduce closer to 90 percent of the pulling — but Bowser will likely need 20 minutes to be acclimated to it. When you put sunglasses on your face, you want them there. When you put something on a dog’s face, the common reaction is, “Get this crap off my face.” Size it snugly behind the ears, but not tight around the snout. Have him stick his nose through it for a treat and as soon as it’s on, take Bowser for a walk offering people food every few steps, as long as he’s not protesting it. Tell him “Uh-uh” if he paws at it, but keep on walking. Once he’s acclimated, you’ll really enjoy and appreciate the harmonious, slack -leash walks with Bowser. And stay positive. More likely than not, after the initial surprise of being immersed into a crowd of dogs, Bowser’s response is going to be more like yours on busy Fifth Avenue than an empty, dark alley.
Tom Shelby is an expert dog trainer with a specialty in search and rescue dogs, and is the author of Dog Training Diaries: Proven Expert Tips & Tricks to Live in Harmony with Your Dog. Follow Tom on Instagram @DogTrainerDiaries and Twitter @DogTrainerDiary. Come hear Tom Shelby speak about writing a column on Monday, August 6, at “Islanders Write.”