Expert Advice for Troubleshooting on Your Walk
On your usual morning walk with your dog, you turn a corner and see a small dog trotting along off-leash.
You turn back around and walk into a team of high school track-and-field students running all around the both of you.
As much training as your dog may have, situations like these may still cause a reaction: barking, pulling, and/or lunging, for instance. When we go out on our walks, we don’t have control of the general environment or other people’s actions. But dog walks are important. So how do we troubleshoot when things out of our control happen on our walk?
Orange County, California dog trainer Sherry Nativo, a Karen Pryor Dog Training Certified Training Partner, Certified Professional Dog Trainer—Knowledge Assessed, and founder of All About Training Dogs, has some tips:
The Honest Kitchen: Tell us a little bit about why you decided to become a dog trainer.
Sherry Nativo: When I walked my dog Sadie, she would bark and lunge at other dogs, either across the street or when they passed by us. I thought it would get better if she met the dog she was barking at, but it got worse. She also started to snap and bite at my other dog after she barked and lunged. It was a horrible mess. I hired a few dog trainers to help but they either didn’t know how to address the problem or they wanted to use a collar that would hurt or punish my dog for doing something undesirable.
My dog was little, 14 pounds at the time, and I wanted to prevent her from barking and lunging, not hurt her. One of the dog trainers recommended that I attend a dog training conference…. One of the speakers at the conference talked about the same problem I was having with Sadie. She wrote a book and referenced a few other books on dog training so I bought them all and several more. I followed the techniques—without using a prong or shock collar—and was amazed by the results. I could finally walk both my dogs in peace and without stress and embarrassment. Attending the conference uncovered my passion and I decided to change careers to help other dog owners. I went through the Karen Pryor Dog Training Academy and worked at a training facility for years before starting my own business.
THK: What are some of the problems that can happen on a dog walk?
Sherry Nativo: Dogs off leash running up to your on-leash dog. Dogs barking behind a fence or gate. Children running towards your dog, or zooming by on their Razor scooters. Dogs barking and growling at your dog.
THK: Can trained dogs react badly in situations like these?
Sherry Nativo: Yes, absolutely. However, a dog trained with positive reinforcement will have more tools, options, and confidence, so reacting is less likely.
THK: How can situations like these go wrong?
Sherry Nativo: Dogs can become frightened and get defensive: bark, lunge, bite, snap. An off-leash dog is probably the most dangerous [versus other examples above] because one, you don’t know the intentions of the off-leash dog—does he want to play or fight? Two, the dog on-leash can become [defensive] when a dog runs into their personal space. This can easily start a fight.
Think of it this way, if you were at the mall and a stranger came running towards you, how would [you] feel? Would you run the other direction? What if you couldn’t run away, then your only option is to fight.
There is also a size difference in dogs. A 100-pound Labrador retriever running towards a 15-pound terrier is going to look like Shaquille O’Neal running towards a 4th-grader.
THK: How can situations like these go right?
Sherry Nativo: The problem is avoided or doesn’t occur. If you know that your dog will bark at a child on a scooter, then you can avoid that situation. If your dog is regularly in situations where they are uncomfortable, then hire a certified positive reinforcement dog trainer to learn how to help your dog be comfortable in those situations.
THK: What are some do’s and don’ts?
Sherry Nativo: Do give dogs space.
Do know when your dog is likely to be uncomfortable and prevent problems when you can.
Do ask before approaching a dog.
Do keep your dog on-leash.
Don’t assume all dogs are comfortable with other dogs, children, strangers, etc.
Don’t get upset at your dog, or the other dog/child. Things happen, no one is perfect.
Don’t assume your dog would never bite.
THK: What are some tips for dealing with problems that may arise while on a walk or ways to prevent them?
Sherry Nativo: Always be aware of your surroundings. Stay off your cell phone while walking your dog. I know that is difficult and I do it too, but our walk with our dog should be an activity we do together with the dog, so when we’re on our phone, we’re being rude to our dog. You wouldn’t go on a walk with your best friend and be checking social media or texting. The same goes for your walk with your dog.
Use a 5-foot leash and get rid of the [retractable] leash. You can’t control the dog when he is 10 feet ahead or around the corner 2 feet ahead of you. Have a plan. If a young child decides to run toward you, or in your direction, know where you can go. Can you cross the street, move off the sidewalk into the grass, or move into a driveway? If you know that your neighbor’s dog will run to the fence and bark at your dog, cross the street instead of walking past or walk the other direction. Know your dog. For example, if your dog is nervous around children, then walking through the kids waiting at the bus stop may be too stressful for your dog. Walk around the kids, giving your dog a lot of space, or walk at a different time. Give your dog space. Most problems can be avoided by giving your dog more space from other dogs, screaming children, or barking dogs. Hire a professional for help.
THK: Sometimes things just go wrong as much as you try to prevent it. What’s the best way to deal?
Sherry Nativo: Have a plan. We practice fire drill, earthquake drill, so it’s a good idea to figure out what you would do in case that situation occurred. Years ago at a dog training conference, the speaker said, “You need to decide if you will take a bite for your dog.” Her question was in reference to an off-leash dog running up to your dog, which may result in a dog fight.
If an off-leash dog runs up to your leashed dog, you can use your body to block the other dog. Put your dogs behind you, and face the running dog straight on, or step in between the dogs using your legs. Bites happen when people reach in and try to grab or pull the dogs apart. Your legs are less likely to get bitten if you use your body and not your hands. You can also face the dog and walk right into them. There is risk that you might get bitten, so be careful….
Stay calm. If you start to scream, then your dog will definitely get upset. And don’t get upset at your dog for reacting. Again, if Shaquille O’Neal was running towards you yelling, then you might yell back, out of fear.
We do our best to train our dogs and keep them well-behaved and safe. But sometimes things we can’t control happen out on our walks. Follow these tips, and remember to try to remain calm, and have a plan.