I am working on getting back into the swing of running, having been on much too long a break from physical exercise. Yesterday morning, I took my dog for an early walk to avoid the heat and, to my surprise, it was fairly busy on our walk. We passed many different people and a few dogs. I noticed the first person we passed caused a change in Relic’s body language, in a way that was very slight but noticeable to me, a self proclaimed dog nerd and hyper-aware of body language. I noticed but did not think much of it as it was a little dark still and the man was staring right at her the whole time. German Shepherd’s tend to be a bit “guardish” and Relic can get a bit vigilant around strangers with me in the dark.
So, on we went and I closely observed her and then started to notice a trend: when any person got within 20 feet or so walking towards us, she would very slightly tense, ears would go a bit forward, breathing would change, and she would go just ever so slightly, almost imperceptibly, toward them. I was taken back and began thinking “oh no, we are not going to start this habit of finding all strangers on the trail a threat!” I was rolling thoughts around in my head on why she was offering these different, not desirable, behaviors and what I needed to start working on right away to prevent this behavior from gaining traction.
I am relaxed on our outings, feeling very safe and happy to be out with her, so I knew I was not putting off any signals. Or so I thought. I should point out this trail is a common sidewalk width and many people seem to find Relic a bit intimidating. I had noticed very early on in our lives together that people gave her a lot of space and some even avoided us all together. Not wanting anyone to feel uncomfortable, I tend to shorten up my lead and draw Relic closer to me when people are coming close. I also walk with headphones and while I am normally very chatty, I never speak to anyone other than my dog during these outings. As I was thinking this, I observed two ladies coming towards us on the trail and as I normally have begun doing, shortened my leash and drew her close to me. Immediately, she switched gears and I observed the same change in her body language.
And there it was: I was communicating something to her via my leash. So, I tested my theory. Once we were alone with no others around us, I shortened my leash, which communicates a micro amount of tension from me to her. She immediately changed body language and started scanning the area despite the fact that no one was around. It clicked, yep, I was teaching her to alert on people passing on the trail.
I work with reactive dogs every day and have for a very long time, so I know the causes for most leash reactivity: human leash behavior. And here I was going down that same rabbit hole – not because I have any anxiety about my dog or my inappropriate use of inappropriate tools, but because I am trying to prevent others from feeling anxious or crowded on the trail. I suspect I would have had a behavior issue rear it’s head had I not had the experience to notice these micro-changes in her behavior long before the issue ingrained in my dog. I am fortunate to have noticed this change on this particular morning.
So, the next time you are out with your dog, take notice of what you do when others come close or want space from your dog. Do you tighten the leash to draw your dog closer? Are you, in your effort to be polite, signaling your dog that this person coming toward you is threatening or making you feel uncomfortable? I plan to work on this right away with her and will tighten my leash in different places and in different circumstances because this may happen sometimes. I will also work toward a verbal command of “get close” so I have no need to put the tension on the leash at all. I am also going say hello to people and avoid any odd behavior on my behalf. All of this will be done in an effort to head off what I likely would have caused in Relic: stranger danger reactivity.
Stay tuned as I tell you all how it works out and make sure you are not making these same micro-errors with you own dogs! Train a verbal command while desensitizing them to micro-tension.