dog socialization

TO LEASH OR NOT TO LEASH…. THAT IS THE QUESTION

It is raining and cloudy – a typical Vancouver morning in the fall. I am happy as I am about to take my dog out and these kinds of mornings are often quiet. My time with my dog is my ‘zen’ time; I love to spend time with her in a meditative calm with no one around. I put on her harness, her leash, and a coat that says, ‘No Dogs. Please Give Me Space’ and grab a bagful of her favourite treats and head out the door.
Unbeknownst to me, my peace will be disrupted as a lady is walking a small dog on a retractable leash and they are headed close to my house. As I step onto the sidewalk, I hear my dog, Molly squealing and swing my body around in front of her to protect her and command her to sit in front of me. I am not sure what is upsetting her but suspect it’s a dog close by (or a bird or squirrel she wants to chase). Molly sits and looks at me while I give her treats. She is agitated and is looking around my legs but happily is taking treats too. I have worked hard to get her here; she is not pulling or lunging as she used to and knows she will be rewarded if she sits and watches me rather than a dog. Still, I have my leash firmly bundled up in my hand. I can hear a lady mumbling behind me and a dog yipping madly. I don’t see them until I can tell my dog is relaxed and it is safe to start walking again. I can see the small dog pulling at the end of the long leash. ‘I don’t like small dogs, and I don’t like retractable leashes,’ I mumble to both Molly and me and we begin our walk again, happily in peace this time.

Molly is a 12 ½-year- old Labrador retriever. She has been with me since she was 6 months old. My last 2 shelter dogs did not like other dogs, and I was relieved to have Molly who loved to play and was a social, friendly dog. A couple of years ago, while on a trail walk, I noticed Molly growling at a puppy who was licking her and very much in her space. I was shocked! My friendly dog growling?? What happened?
Through word of mouth, I found a wonderful dog trainer (Shannon from yogadog.ca) who came over to my house. ‘I have an aggressive dog!’ I proclaimed.
After working with my dog and having her dog around Molly, she responded, ‘Molly is not aggressive. She is just older and sick of off-leash dogs, and puppies charging at her.’

I get it! I am older too and have less tolerance for people.
Molly has less tolerance for dogs- especially small, and younger dogs who often don’t have any dog manners or respect. Molly is more comfortable with big rottweiler dogs who respect her space than small and fluffy constantly barking at her. It makes sense. Since then, I have been on a crusade- to convince people to leash their dogs.

I have learned a lot about dog socialization as well. We expect dogs to be able to handle various social situations yet, as many of us know from workplace situations to hanging out at parties, not many people have REALLY good social skills. There is a wide variety and even the most socially skilled gets tired out and looks forward to heading home. We need to forgive our dogs for feeling the same.
I went to dog socialization classes with Molly that surprised me. The classes consisted of dogs, on-leash walking around, not bothering any other dogs or people. ‘This is dog socialization,’ Shannon told us. Dog socialization taught dogs to give other dogs their space and to be calm in the presence of other dogs. Dog socialization was not at dog parks, allowing dogs to run, bark or nip at other dogs with no one watching or intervening. This was a structured class that Molly excelled at. The other dogs did well too; they were leashed and thus, bonded with their owner and knew their space was respected.

I will admit, I miss walking on the forested trails with my dog. Given Molly reacts to puppies and small dogs, I can’t take the chance of allowing her off-leash. I am surprised, however at the plethora of dogs allowed off-leash not only in on-leash areas but on busy roads, sidewalks, and around other on-leash dogs. I have seen dogs run across streets at other dogs, people, and squirrels, and I am horrified. If a car had gone by at that moment, or if a person walking did not feel steady on their feet, an off-leash dog rocketing towards them could have disastrous consequences.

So, my advice is this: keep your dog on leash and teach them to be calm. Teach them to watch you and to sit before you cross a street. If your dog is small, don’t let them bark at big dogs- teach them to trust you and to not fear large dogs.
Never allow your dog to rush at other dogs or people. If you want to take your dog off-leash, go to designated areas only. And watch your dog- if you suspect they are beginning to feel uncomfortable at dog parks, for example, get them out of there. You are responsible for keeping your dog feeling safe and supported. And always carry a leash; a leash is your dog’s bond between you and the world and a signal that you are a team.

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I am a teacher in the lower mainland, juggling teens and living ethically...

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