leash reactivity, and the often rumpus behavior that occurs while taking what is suppose to be a stress-relieving stroll. Unfortunately, if a dog has not been properly conditioned to leash walking, the saunter becomes anything but enjoyable for the human, and questionably stressful for the dog. While we rely on the leash immeasurably in today’s society, it often creates a chronic series of health and behavioral problems.
In an ideal world all dogs could romp freely about, approaching each other with a natural caution and greeting each other snout to tail rather than face to face. For the I-hate-to-hear-my-dog’s-hacking crowd, who are notably discouraged by their dog’s insistent pulling, aside from the routine asphyxiation caused by learn straining, there is concern about trachea collapse--especially with small dogs--spinal issues, and a recently discovered link to hyperthyroidism.
It is no great surprise to me that many dogs are manic or defensive when approaching another dog or human on leash.
Consider this: I’ve got you on a leash. You’re straining, because well, you don’t like to be tethered—you’d prefer to be free to explore. Approaching at a distance is another leashed human, also straining and looking frantic. As you’re brought together (whether or not you’d choose to interact) the leash holders restrict a normal eye-to-eye social handshake greeting and drag you around forcing you to greet one another from behind.
If you remember nothing, remember this: a dog greeting face to face, head on, eye to eye is unnatural to them as a from-behind greeting would be to you. It brings me to a most fascinating case: meet Max the southern rescue.
Max is unquestionably one of the most adorable southern mixes I ever laid eyes on. While I am normally a mix-breed puzzle master, Max had me baffled. “He’s really cute,” is all I could come up. Friendly and personable, the 6-month-old puppy seemed to have no faults, save one. He was labeled dog aggressive, especially on leash.
How bad could it be, I thought as I popped not one but all three of my sociable pack (Whoopsie, Hootenanny and Balderdash) into the back of the car and drove over for a session.
The phrase heckle-n-jeckle pops to mind. After warming Max up on leash in the house, doing exercises that included “Follow Me” (think modern day version of heel) and "Sit," we went out in the driveway to introduce Baderdash, my massive–but oh-so-sweet German Shepherd Dog.
Petting Max, now restrained on a Gentle Leader, I whistled for my own dogs. On sight of “other dogs,” Max reared up and nearly tore the leash from my hands--my hands! I honestly didn’t see his reaction coming; he let out a screech that wasn’t canine! Even-tempered Balderdash, tucked tail and crept away.
The happy ending to this story is in less than ten minutes I had Max running off leash in his yard with my pack, but to get from point (a) to point (b) was a fascinating look at both our rescue efforts, shelter hold-over scenario and dog behavior.
What we knew of Max is that he was a solo abandon. This means he was shipped from the south without the comfort of his family, at a time when he needed them most to interpret unfamiliar and unpredictable events. Think of a child who naturally references their parents for reassurance. While he is a people-adoring pup, in a transport/kennel-holding situation, he couldn’t initiate a response, as he could have in a loving home, creating it’s own sense of confusion. A puppy, like a child, needs to go through a phase of perceived omnipotence where they empower themselves through interaction.
At the hold over at Northwind Kennel, he was lovingly nurtured by the folks at Ruff Start Rescue, but they had to divide their time between all their charges and were forced to put Max in a holding kennel where the young pup was surrounded by older, likely more frenzied and perhaps cage-aggressive dogs. When brought out of the kennel he was led on a slip leash which slides over his head and restrains as he passes other kenneled dogs frantically barking and jumping in their frenzy to get attention.
Traumatized Max developed coping skills which rose above the fight or flight into the realm of paranoia … kill or be killed!
The biggest obstacle to overcome was to teach Max it is impolite to stare. A dog who stares at anything, squirrel, dog, stroller, bike or child is trying decipher the situation and analyze it’s next move. Dogs, like children need to reference their “parents” and follow their direction. So I taught Max, in what’s known as a "Sarah minute," not to stare at my dogs. It was fortunate that my dogs knew the rule too, as another dog staring at him would clearly set him off.
Once the walk around was complete I had to teach Max (yes, teach him) proper canine greeting skills—which are to greet snout to tail. Telling my dogs to “Stay,” I was grateful that they trusted me enough to allow his approach and to tolerate an occasional defensive snarl. Once complete I knew I had the puppy—who was still every bit a puppy—in need of play and canine interaction, right where I wanted him. “Let’s let them loose!” I exclaimed.
Though my client looked at me questionably, she followed my dictate to stay calm and to pet my dogs as a signal to Max that they were okay. And low and behold I extended the session 30 minutes just to absorb the happiness of four dogs romping in large grassy green backyard!