It was a gorgeous fall evening and Sarah was delighted to be home early enough to take her dog Oscar on a nice walk before it got dark.
Oscar, a two-year-old that was probably a mix of some kind of terrier and retriever, wasn’t mean, but he wasn’t accustomed to other dogs. Sarah had only had him a few months. She had taken him to a dog park once, but Oscar had almost gotten into a fight with another dog. After that, Sarah was afraid to let him be around other dogs.
He wasn’t the best at walking on a leash, either, but she couldn’t confine him to the house and yard. So when they walked, she avoided parks and open spaces where people let their dogs run off leash.
This evening Sarah and Oscar set off through the neighborhood. They were about three blocks from home when Sarah noticed up ahead that there was a chocolate Labrador retriever off leash in a yard.
Nervous, she slowed down, trying to get Oscar to stop, while she looked to see if the dog’s owners were around. But Oscar saw the other dog and was starting to growl low in his throat.
The Lab’s owner, a woman gardening in her yard, noticed Sarah’s hesitation and called out, “Oh, don’t worry — Jake is friendly. He wouldn’t hurt a flea. He’s just a little nosy and likes to sniff everybody who goes by.” Then she bent over again to continue pulling weeds.
Oscar started to pull harder on the leash. He only weighed 41 pounds, but he was strong! Jake noticed Oscar and Sarah and started loping over to them.
“Really, my dog isn’t good with other dogs,” Sarah called to the woman, her voice filled with fear.
“Just keep going,” the woman said, looking up and then quickly returning to her task. “People walk dogs by here all the time. Jake won’t do anything.”
Oscar growled and barked menacingly. “Oscar! Shush! Come on!” Sarah yanked on the leash, trying to turn around and go back home. But it was too late. Jake was only a foot away.
What should Sarah have done differently? And what should she do in the future? Gary Landsberg, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behavioral specialist at the North Toronto Animal Clinic, offers the following tips:
Stay calm and get out of the situation immediately
The only real resolution if Sarah could not get Jake removed was to calmly and immediately remove Oscar from the situation.
What Sarah was doing by trying to avoid situations in which Oscar might encounter other dogs is called having a prevention program. This is important, not only for everyone’s safety, but to reduce the underlying anxiety that Sarah and Oscar would likely feel when meeting another dog.
However, even though Jake should never have been off leash and never been allowed to approach, there would always be a risk that Oscar would eventually meet up with trouble. So, Oscar should have had no opportunity to interact with other dogs and public places where other dogs might be roaming — rightly or wrongly.
Use basket muzzles and head halters
In the short term, if Sarah really needs to walk Oscar, she could have ensured a greater degree of safety if she had trained Oscar to wear a basket muzzle and had put one on him before leaving her house.
A very useful and productive training technique would have been to train Oscar to walk on a head halter. Then Sarah could have combined a prevention program (avoiding other dogs as much as possible) along with a safety device (head halter and/or muzzle).
While a prevention program can avoid trouble, including injury and anxiety, over the long term, Oscar can only improve if he has some exposure to other dogs. Sarah and Oscar should practice loose-leash walks, and she should teach him “focus” and “sit” commands and “turning” using rewards like Oscar’s favorite treats.
Use graduated exposure and desensitization
If Sarah is calm and confident, she can begin exposure training by setting up meetings with dogs. Keeping the two dogs far enough apart to avoid trouble, she should have walked Oscar by the other dog or have had Oscar sit while the other dog walked by.
After each successful approach and exposure, Oscar should get a food reward. In this way, each “meet and greet” ends on a positive note.
This technique of graduated exposure and making positive associations with other dogs is known as desensitization and counterconditioning. It can gradually improve many of Oscar’s problems. To work, the owner must be calm and confident, the other dog must be friendly, and both dogs must be kept far enough apart to ensure that the “meet and greet” has a positive outcome.
In some cases, when a dog is overly anxious, drugs or natural products like pheromones might help.
Consult an expert
Sarah was doing her best, but sometimes that is not enough. A veterinary behaviorist could help by assessing Oscar’s behavior and helping Sarah implement a rewards-based training program that would help Oscar reliably sit and stay calm, walk on a loose leash, and turn and walk away in a variety of environments in which there are no other dogs.