Friday, July 12, 2019

Compassion for other Dog Owners. Mindfulness and A Love Letter To Reactive Dog Owners

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words... Words will rip my heart to shreds.

I recently defended a man on the internet, a complete stranger. Someone who does not know me and I don't know him. I wasn't even there when the supposed "incident" with him and his dogs happened but I defended him. A woman wrote on facebook about him and his "dangerous" dogs about how her off leash dog was just passing by his leashed dogs and stuck it's nose out to sniff and bam a bite. Apparently his dogs were very dangerous and out of control and he looked angry. This woman was astonished that this man would walk his dogs at a park on leash in harnesses with no "corrective gear" since they were obviously very bad dogs and out of control. How these dogs don't belong in a "dog park" if they're aggressive. "Don't take your aggressive dog out if they can't handle themselves".

The whole post rubbed me wrong for so many reasons but the very first one is that the park she's referring to is not a dog park. It's a natural area where on some of the trails it's legal to let your dog hike with you off leash. It's not a dog park and the rules state that dogs must be under voice control. It's common sense to not let your off leash dog run up to on leash dogs, let alone a man who's got three large ones he's trying to walk. You never know why a dog is on leash, maybe that dog is old and prone to over doing it (cough, Zoe, cough), maybe that dog is scared, maybe that dog is a brand new dog to them and they don't want them to take off, maybe they are in training, etc. It's just so rude to expect someone with multiple dogs that are on leash to handle your off leash dog and all the things that go with greetings. Dogs are not able to perform natural dog/dog greetings when restrained on leash and the situation can get tricky really fast, especially when it's one person dealing with three dogs and three leashes and there's a loose dog running amock with your dogs, getting in their faces and whatnot. 

Additionally it really bothered me that she implied his dogs were bad and aggressive and he had no right to be out with them. Any dog can display aggression at any time for any reason. Even the world's most friendly dog can have a bad day. Dogs trigger stack, dogs can get scared of stuff. The dog that bit could of just been attacked by another dog or coyote or maybe the dog was old with arthritis and was scared the other dog would hurt them and was feeling defensive. Shit happens, literally. This woman judged this man and his dogs and she only knew him for 5 seconds. 

I used to have perfect dogs. Well, not really but people thought that. Zoe was perfect. Quiet. Walked well on a leash unless she saw a squirrel. "Loved" all her dog friends. Didn't bark and lunge at dogs. Phoenix, too. Phoenix was "quiet". She didn't like other dogs in her face but she rarely barked or lunged at anything unless it was a huge dog in her face or a threatening human. We couldn't have any of Vince's male friends over but she's still perfect, right? She only liked "Uncle" Jeff but he's a guy so she doesn't have problems with men, right?

They could go for walks and walk next to me. People thought they were perfect and I agreed. My ego was inflated, look at my perfect dogs! Oh and by the way, this one, well this one is a rescue that I rehabbed all by myself with no other trainers to help me. She also saved my life from a near assault, too! She's amazing. Look at that perfection. Except when she "nips" those hyper labs that rush up into her face but that's totally not her fault. Everything really is fine. No blood no foul. Inside though, on the inside both of my dogs were basket cases and so was I  (we were working on it with training) but it didn't matter because on the outside where people could see, they were perfect.

You see, I had that childhood. The one where your parents wanted the perfect child. I had to have straight A's. I was not allowed to make a mistake and if I did I got to pick which belt they would use on me. I was expected to be the best at everything. If I failed and disappointed them very bad things happened. They bought me (I was adopted) so I damn well better deliver the results they wanted. After all, didn't I owe them? Our community needed to believe I was their perfect daughter... My parents were awful humans, so bad that some of our neighbors actually sold their houses and moved away. I wish I had the luxury of doing that.

So as a grown up adult, my dogs needed to be perfect because I'm still that scared little girl who was taught that I had to meet everyone's expectations of perfect. We can't bark and lunge, we can't have a moment of anger, even if another dog threatens you. Reactive dogs are just reactive assholes that aren't trained well enough, right? People that own them just need to do a better job, right? I'm literally the making of a perfect compulsion trainer, honestly. Yep, crossover trainer here and still doing my best to use science based learning and not fear or compulsion.

I used to be that dog owner who walked her dogs around the world and judged other owners, your dog having a meltdown? Why are you letting it act like that? Your fault. Train it. Seriously. I never said anything to any of those owners because I'm scared of confrontation but I was thinking it and my face probably gave it away. 

If it was my dog that was melting down? I was the worst dog owner on the planet and I needed to do a better job training them. I was even harder on myself than those random people I came across. One bad incident would ruin my day and I would be really hard on myself and my dogs, I'm still working on this. Social pressure from other dog owners for your dogs to be good is an intense feeling and I hate it so much.

It wasn't until I started working with dogs and specifically working with folks who were dealing with some of the same problems that I had, that my opinion on dogs displaying unwanted behaviors changed. I learned that a lot of the time genetics and the environment rule the behavior. I learned that most people with dogs who overreact to stuff were just as desperate as I was for their dogs to be good and they were doing the best they can. I've met people who's dog was the love of their life and they still couldn't fix them, no matter what they did or how much money they spent on vet behaviorists and training.

The reality is there is no such thing as perfect and there never will be. Dogs are dogs, not robots. They do dog things, sometimes their behavior can be scary to humans but not allowing them to ever get mad? That's like telling someone to drive through Portland at rush hour and you're not allowed to get upset if someone cuts you off. People have meltdowns, people display aggression, too! Everybody gets upset sometimes. It doesn't mean that a person isn't training their dog or the human that's melting down is a bad person. It just means that right now that dog or human can't handle what's happening to them and that's okay. Maybe the dog owner made a mistake (and we all make mistakes, I am the mistake Queen) but we need to realize these owners, they are doing the best they can.

Years have gone by and despite a lot of training my dogs are still dogs. They aren't perfect robots. We've had so many incidents with other dogs. Some of it was my fault. Like going to the dog park too much and just letting whatever happened there happen because "socialization" and "that's what dogs do". We stopped going to the dog park, I don't know if I will ever get the courage to take Alice to an actual dog park. We've had incidents hiking, loose dogs running up to us and jumping them, we've had loose small dogs run right up to Zoe and bite her in the face. Zoe has been attacked by several dogs. Phoenix was attacked after trying to herd a running dog (chasing/nipping). We stopped taking them off leash hiking and slowed way down on the leashed hikes. My dogs main activities were little trips to my work to demo for classes and play after. We also spend time walking around in our neighborhood, where there are dogs we know. Occasionally we'd go to a park but I hate going because there's always loose dogs. 

Then Alice entered our lives like a wrecking ball. This tiny 15 pound teacup of a dog threw herself into our lives and said "You will love me and provide activities". Suddenly I have a young puppy with so many needs. This little dog has got to be a terrier, she needs an activity and she needs it right now, dammit. She's also big into her feelings. She has opinions and they will be heard. One of her opinions is that leashes are frustrating and the whole world is exciting and she needs to get to it. If she can't get to it then the world needs to hear about it. She's actually not truly reactive, she doesn't bark at lunge at everything but occasionally something will get her.

Over the past year both of the older dogs have become even less tolerant of dogs than they were and we've seen some outward leash reactivity. The reactions are typically from Zoe who will scream/whine at loose dogs. "Is that loose dog going to run up and bite me?" If they are leashed she doesn't care and doesn't display that behavior. Phoenix is still pretty silent but "deadly", meaning she will lunge and nip a large dog if they get in her face. If Alice is upset or overly excited she will bark and lunge. The one great thing about Alice is she redirects easily or I can pick her up and she stops but she's one of those dogs that can get worked up and doesn't let something go (cough, terrier, cough). At this point I don't feel like Alice is actually fearful of other dogs, I think she is typically barrier frustrated. She greets dogs well on a long line and gets along great with most of our neighbor dogs. All of these things we are continually working on and training. I train my dogs every single day, rain or shine.

Which brings me to the most insulting incident I've ever had in my life with my dogs. Yesterday we were having a weird day. If you've been reading my blog you know that I've been through a lot in the last couple of months and we recently got more bad news, I have to have major dental surgery. It will be very expensive and we are really stressed out about all the things. The morning just started out bad. The dogs had been doing really well walking together but that morning they were attempting to drag me all over the place, I kind of wonder if the coyote had been back and they could smell him. All of the dogs were overly aroused about something. I've had so much going on that I just didn't think my next move through. I had an errand that was near the park I like to take them to, so I threw them all in the car with me and I did my errand then took them to the park.

We got to the park and the first thing I hear was a dog losing it's mind across the pond from us, this immediately had all my dogs up in their arousal again. I could literally see the adrenal dump. I was trying to figure out where the barking was coming from and if we should just turn around and leave when suddenly a small dog rushed right up to us. I think I said something like "Oh CRAP! ...and you're off leash, too". As soon as my dogs saw this dog, they lost it. Zoe did her scream/whine, Phoenix lunged and Alice I think barked. I have no idea. I just knew I had three whirlwinds happening and the only thing I could think to do was drag them away from the off leash dog. I'm so glad I had the older dogs on gentle leaders because I would of been on my ass if I didn't. As I'm trying to collect them and get them out of the situation the other dog owner says, "It's okay, my dog can handle being off leash. He's TRAINED. Unlike yours."

I was in complete shock. No joke. I could not believe this guy had the audacity to say that to me, especially when he was completely at fault. The ponds where I walk is a nature reserve, it's illegal to let a dog run loose there. His dog caused all of this drama to happen and in the 5 seconds this guy knew me, he judged me to be the world's shittiest dog owner and I was devastated by it. It only took three sentences to ruin my entire day, I didn't even sleep last night thinking about this dude and how unfair he was to me. 

It's not fair to judge another dog owner when you've only met them for 5 seconds or 1 minute or had one interaction. It's not fair to judge a dog by the meltdown they are having. There's no way to tell how much time and effort someone has put into their dogs in one interaction. Absolutely none and when people judge other dog owners they are doing real mental harm to people who desperately want their dogs to be good. 

That man I defended on the internet, I feel his pain so much. I've been where he's at. My three dogs acted out, I'm by myself just trying to deal with them. If you had seen my face after the incident occurred, I bet I looked angry as hell, too and I was. I was really mad at that guy for letting his dog loose and I was really mad at my dogs for not being able to handle themselves because I've spent years training them (Zoe and Phee). I was mad that I had to deal with social pressure from some asshole who had only known me for 5 seconds and didn't know the crap I've been through with these dogs, or the work I've put into them. 

So this is my love letter to reactive dog owners everywhere. I see you and I know you're trying. I know you love your dogs and just want them to be good. The struggle is real. I have your back if you ever need it and I'm sorry if people have been mean to you. We've all got to stick together.

Kindness is everything. You have no idea what someone else has been through or what they are going through. Words can rip people's hearts to shreds.  

Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.


  1. Oh, I'm so sorry that this happened to you - at any time, and especially this week when you're already under too much stress. Having lived through those meltdowns myself, I too see you, and I know how hard you're trying, and I appreciate your hard work!

    May the weekend and next week go much, much better!

    Hugs, Chris from Boise

  2. OMD, Ma LOVES YOU!!! You knows I am a reactive doggie, and I can lunge and bark at doggies I don't know, or who tell me I have a fat ass. Yes, I am THAT dog. Ma had many trainers try and teach Ma, butts thousands (yes, you read that right, THOUSANDS) of green papers later, none had thing different that the other 10 trainers didn't try. Ma knows this is on her, and at 10 1/2 she decided that this 60lb terrier is just a bitch. I have never bitten a doggie, or even snarled, just barked. Ma has her tricks when we go on walkies, butts things like dog parks and off leash areas were never even on the menu. When we go to the vettie, they block out a time where there are no doggies around, or we play 'musical exam rooms', so I don't interact with doggies I don't knows. Anyhu, you gets the picture. I have never had anyone do what that guy said to you. People probably THOUGHT it, butts Ma lets off leash dog owners know if I ate their dog, it would have been THEIR fault. She gets really pissed off. ☺ I wish she was there that day for you, cause she also would have stewed on it for days.
    Sendin' you lots and lots and lots of {{{hugs}}} from one reactive doggie owner to another! ♥
    Ruby ♥

    1. Thanks Ruby! It's wonderful that your Ma has some good tricks on your walkies and also super of your vet to play musical exam rooms. We have to do that, too! Yes, I was very upset about that man and what he said. People are so mean sometimes.

  3. I see myself in a lot of what you've written here. It is so true that we have no idea what is going on with other people. Kindness trumps all. And, we all know just how hard you work at having your dogs be good citizens. As I am learning with Hachi, he is a living breathing being with his own feelings that I cannot control. He does things that make me hang my head in shame. So, I now really and truly "get it" as to how scary the world can be for reactive dogs and their humans. I love your attitude that kindness to all is the best way to go.

    I am rooting for you and your girls. Hugs from KB.

    1. Thank you, KB! It is really hard with reactive dogs. I recently came across someone who claimed that people where lying when they said "he's never done that before". I don't believe that. My dogs, even after knowing them for years, have still done stuff that has shocked me and made me hang my head in shame, too. Dogs can be unpredictable, even the best trained ones! I think it's really easy to forget they're dogs and they can't process stuff like we do.

  4. What a wonderful, heartfelt post. Our world is way too "judgey" these days. I won't lie, I sometimes judge people, probably unfairly too, but you know what? I keep those judgments to myself, because I don't know where that person, or that dog, is coming from. Having a reactive dog really opens our eyes to the realities of canine behavior. Everyone should have one, and then they'd understand the rest of us much better.
    Jan, Wag 'n Woof Pets

  5. I so so so relate to this post! I used to think Buster needed to be perfect too, and that no reactions were allowed. I thought if he had a reaction, then I failed him, and that did make me a horrible owner. It really isn't until recently that I've let go. We try to prevent reactions and still work on training, but you're exactly right - sometimes unavoidable and unpreventable shit happens.

    You know though, 3-4 years ago, I mainly ran into people that were nice, would immediately leash their loose dog, would apologize, would maybe give Buster a bad look, but that was the worst of it. In general, people were nice and wouldn't say anything. The past few years though? It's been nothing but self-absorbed people who don't give a crap about anyone else and anyone else's dog. And that sucks. That makes me worried for the future.


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