In my book, not much beats hanging out at the park or a walk in the wilderness with my canine companions. I cherish the peace, solitude, and time for reflection it provides for me, and I love to watch my dogs traverse natural open space with freedom, grace, and glee. It can nourish my soul in a way few other things manage to do.
I know I’m not alone. I take my dogs to public outdoor venues nearly every single day, and we always come across other dog-loving explorers taking in fresh air, fog, or sunshine. Yet, there is also a dark side to my daily excursions. For me, and lots of other folks, going to the park isn’t always a walk in the park. It can also be one of the most stressful or frustrating experiences of my day.
Many people worry about taking their dog to parks, trails, and open spaces. People with well-behaved, mild, or fearful dogs worry about their dog getting startled, bullied, or otherwise hurt by other dogs. People with wild, unruly dogs are concerned their dog will jump up on someone, raid a picnic, or hump another dog. People with dogs in training are concerned that unruly dogs will run up to them and interfere with their practice. And folks with reactive or aggressive dogs are, for the most part, doing their darn best to do right by their charges by tirelessly managing them in public in an attempt to both work on better behavior and provide their dogs with a good quality of life which includes exercise and fresh air.
For me and countless other dog trainers and owners out there, the “friendly” dogs are the problem.
The “friendly” dogs I speak of are the ones that are always off-lead and make a beeline for me, generally either with a person hundreds of yards behind shouting, “It’s OK, he’s friendly!” or worse, without a handler in sight at all. These dogs may or may not actually be “friendly” and really that is not the point. It is terribly rude and irresponsible to let your dog run up to meet other dogs or people at parks or on the trail without a mutually agreed upon decision to interact by all parties involved. Unsolicited interactions are a type of assault.
Often these “friendly” rogues run up quickly in a full-frontal fashion that is downright unfriendly and assertive in dog etiquette. Or they approach and stiffen, another sort of challenge. I’ve had numerous dogs freeze and growl at me or my dog, even as the owner insists, from a distance too far to hear the growl, that their dog is “friendly.” These off-lead and un-chaperoned dogs are free to bob in and out of range of a dog that is either on-leash or otherwise under control, leaving the poor well-behaved or well-managed dog at a distinct disadvantage. Not everyone wants his dog to greet or play with every dog it passes. It’s perfectly reasonable for a person to expect to be able to use a public space without being pestered by others. We humans do it all the time. Imagine if every person you passed on the street stared you down, circled you a few times, grabbed your hand and shook it repeatedly, or jumped on your back and gave you a nuggie!
When a person is shouting to me that their dog is friendly, what I really hear is, “My dog is untrained. I have no control.” The use of the word friendly is a sort of mea culpa, because if the dog were trained, the person would call their dog back to their side when I kindly but clearly ask them to do so. (I always start these interactions by sitting my dogs and calling out, “Please call your dog.” Even the people who do call their dog to come generally get no response from their request; this does not instill further confidence in their ability to control their charge.)
All public spaces that allow for off leash dogs clearly post that a dog must be under voice control at all times. Please allow me to explain what that really means: If your dog will not immediately stop what he is doing and either sit or return to you when requested; and if you wouldn’t bet $100 on your dog heeding your wishes within five seconds, your dog is not under voice control and should not be off-leash until better trained.
Some basic goals for proper park and trail etiquette for an off-leash dog include a lightning-fast recall or automatic sit-stay, regardless of distractions such as other dogs, moving balls or Frisbees, kids with ice cream cones, joggers, cyclists, horses, or wildlife. Your dog should either: automatically sit, do so when told to, or do so when anything new comes into view. If your don’t have this level of skill yet, in the meantime, the polite thing to do is to make sure your dog is either always on a long line that you can easy grab or step on or walk up to your dog and leash him when approaching passersby of any kind. Ask for a sit off to the side and reward like crazy for compliance. Teach your dog to look forward to approaching people and animals, not because it’s an opportunity to accost, but rather because it is an opportunity to be rewarded for checking in.
Another tip? Never let your dog out of sight or go around blind corners out of your reach or control. You do not know what is on the other side of that curve in the path or hill. Whatever it is, don’t let it be a surprise.
Training is the key to having a truly friendly dog, so that making use of public spaces is in accord with the needs and wishes of all comers.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, where she recruits and trains the instructors for the Dunbar family business, SIRIUS® Puppy & Dog Training. She is the creator of the SIRIUS Sniffers scent-detection program. Gorman Dunbar is also founder and president of Open Paw and consults on various matters.