No, not at a bar, you’re on your own there. I’m talking about people, ones with leash-straining, eye-bugging dogs, walking up into your and your dog’s face. I thought it would be interesting for us to have a discussion about how to handle it when others begin a face-to-face interaction that you or your dog don’t want to have.
I have been thinking about this ever since last week, when a couple with a large dog came walking toward us on a trail. Their dog, and ours, were on leash. Jim, who had Skip, and I, with Maggie, moved well to the side to follow good Covid protocol. That’s when I noticed that their dog was laser focused on Skip, eyes as hard as flint, tail up and rigid. Rather than continuing on, the man attached to the leash let his dog pull him closer and closer to Skip.
Skip is good with other dogs. He greets them politely, loves to play and wags his tail loosely when he sees unfamiliar ones at a distance. He has given off a low growl on occasion to dogs whose greeting behavior was equivalent to a stranger at a bar grabbing your face. (Hang in with the bar analogy. I have my reasons.) He is also an intact male dog, and I suspect if another male got truly rude, Skip would call him out on it. But I don’t know, and I didn’t know the other dog at all. I did know that the look on the dog’s face was a red flag, as was his stiff-bodied approach.
Okay. Now what? Maggie and I were ten feet behind the two other dogs; there was no time for me to get in between them. The dog only needed two more strides to get into Skip’s face. Never good at split-second decisions, I blurted out “No! NO! NOPE.” Ah, the eloquence. But it worked. The man stopped his dog’s advance and moved on. As they walked away he said something about how wonderful his dog was, but, forgive me, I wasn’t listening. In hindsight, I wondered why I didn’t tell Jim to back away. I’m glad I didn’t, actually, there wasn’t time for that to work. The dog pivoted toward Skip just as they were passing us, and everything happened very fast. But my NoNONOPE was enough to convince the couple to move on.
This minor incident brought to mind all the times I’ve helped clients deal with people walking up to their dogs when it wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. Most often with clients it’s been with dogs who were afraid of strangers. I’ve had lots of experience with this, lots and lots and lots. Dogs are like magnets to people, including the ones who seem to believe, along with petting the bellies of pregnant woman they’ve never met, that they are welcome to loom over every dog they encounter, grabbing their face in their hands and kissing them above their terrified eyes.
I must have done counter conditioning exercises (CC) with hundreds if not thousands of dogs, often going out and about in public to help dogs learn that strangers aren’t monsters. Of course, safety was always first–the dog might have been muzzled, I was always there to run interference, and the client was well coached and had practiced how to do effective counter conditioning.
Running interference taught me a lot. First, as mentioned, keeping dog-loving strangers away from dogs isn’t for the feint of heart. But you can do it, and at the same time use their attraction to dogs to help your work. You have to stride assertively forward to get between the person and the dog, but soften it all with social graces. “Oh, hi!” I’d say, having observed their attention toward the dog and their obvious intention movements toward it. “You look like a dog lover! Would you help us teach Bunky here that people aren’t anything to be afraid of?” If they nodded, usually enthusiastically, my next job was to keep them from approaching within the dog’s trigger zone.
The most common response when I asked them not to approach any closer–I swear I’ve heard this hundreds of times–was “I’d love to! I have a special way with dogs.” This was said as the person, usually a woman, tried to barge toward Bunky. Or, usually from a man, “Oh, I’m not afraid of dogs,” as the speaker tried to approach.
“Ah,” I’d say, as I body blocked the person from getting closer to the dog and owner standing behind me. I’m so grateful that you clearly are a dog lover and know that getting too close to Bunky will just scare him! People who don’t know dogs often just barge right up and make things worse. I’m so grateful that you know dog well enough to stay where you are and help us out!”
Manipulative? Totally. I make no apologies; I can’t tell you how many dogs learned to love being approached by strangers because they stopped outside of their comfort zone and then, as asked, tossed treats. Or balls. I probably worked with 50 Labradors who loved to play fetch and learned to love unfamiliar people because it turned out they threw balls for them to catch. (As I said in one now infamous seminar segment, while explaining the protocol that I used with my own shy, adolescent Border Collie, “Soon every man walking toward Pippy was preceded by balls.)
But this method requires two people, one with the dog on a leash, the other running interference and able to body block approaching strangers with a smile on their face. What about when you are by yourself? One of the most useful exercises I’ve used is the Emergency U Turn. Beginning with no distractions, teach your dog to whip around 180 degrees with you as you pivot away from something you want to avoid. Make it like a circus trick, with lots and lots of reinforcement. Lure your dog around at first; avoid a leash jerk on your dog at all costs.
When I was seeing clients I also got good at saying “Stop!” to people approaching, even holding my hand out as if telling a dog to stay in place. Usually they were startled enough to stop for a second, giving me time to say “Oh, thank you SO much! Bunky here is frightened of people he doesn’t know (or dogs he doesn’t know) and I’m so grateful to you for helping him out! I also learned to carry a tennis ball in my pocket, because almost no one can resist catching one if you toss it toward them. Once you do, their hands are too busy to pet the dog, and if the dog loves to play fetch, even better. The stranger can toss him the ball and you’ve got a great CC session going. (Just be very careful not to let the person try to get the ball back from the dog. Again, body blocks are your friend here.)
What else? What have you done? I’ve known people who yelled “My dog has rabies/kennel cough/mange.” I’ve heard numerous requests for sensitive dogs to be identified by red bandanas, but I fear the general public is not aware enough of what it means. What about you? We’re all ears.
And, that bar analogy I’ve made? That’s my excuse to show you one of my favorite ads, related to unwelcome approaches. I’ve played it often in seminars, including Lost in Translation, as an example of the power of visual visual signals, even tiny ones, if they are salient. You absolutely want to watch it to the very end, trust me.
You might want to watch it again, because the woman in the ad was clearly communicating availability. (Glance with a small smile, touching her hair.) Just not up to the level of “I’d like to come to your room now.” It’s a great primer on visual signals (not to mention good music).
MEANWHILE, back at the farm: Lots going on here today, and for the next two weeks. Ever since I moved here in 1982 (is it possible I’ve been here 38 years?), I’ve been trying to save the barn. It’s a standard Wisconsin dairy barn, built into the side of a hill. The downstairs, where the milking parlor was, is cool all year long, insulated as it is by two sides built into the earth. This also, however, puts it in danger of collapse, which it did in part, just a month after my ex-husband and I bought it. Ever since then I’ve put more money than I am willing to tell you to save it, and this year Jim and I are going all out to have an entirely new foundation poured for three of the walls.
I have heard “It’d be a lot cheaper to take it down, lady, and put up a pole shed” more times than I care to, and I am grateful that Jim spent almost a year trying to find someone who knew what they were doing to fix it. He finally did, and they arrived this morning to begin work. Wooden barns are a threatened species in Wisconsin, and one of the things I’m grateful for is that we can afford to save ours. It’s going to be noisy, disruptive and expensive, and I can’t wait to see our healthy, happy barn after they are done.
Here’s one of the worst corners. You can see the huge crack in the foundation wall. There is dirt on the other side, and if water isn’t managed correctly (which is wasn’t before I moved here), the soil freezes and thaws and causes the cement to crack.
This is what’s left of the door that led into the bottom of the silo, which is long gone. I had to have it taken down after it began showing signs of collapse.
This is right outside the photo above. The silo used to be where the dirt pile is. (Nice looking soil, hey, say the gardener . . . ?) It’s going to be an interesting two weeks, cross your paws the weather cooperates and things go well.
I took these next shots two evenings ago on our after dinner dog walk. The sheep were up in the main pasture, and I asked Skip to move them down toward their hay outside the barn. What you see in the photo is truly and actually what the sky looked like. It was awe inspiring. I must have said Wow ten times, just to myself. I don’t remember the skies being as beautiful lately as they have been in the last few weeks. Not just the sunsets, which have been other worldly, but the cloud formations during the day.
Skip. Mr. Handsome.
I will love hearing about your experiences avoiding unwelcome advances. Choose your species, context or outcome, why not? (Should I include the guy, my first day in college away from home, who said “You sure sweat a lot for a skinny girl” while we were dancing?) May all the advances you encounter this week be welcome.