Q: When walking Jonas, my male shepherd mix, we sometimes meet people who want to pet him. Sometimes he is OK with a stranger petting him, but sometimes he growls. Yesterday he snapped at a very nice man. How do I fix this?
A: Is there really anything that needs to be fixed, Ken? It seems Jonas is working hard to tolerate the direct contact of strangers, but doesn’t really enjoy it. Growling is simply his way of communicating his unease. When this information is ignored, Jonas feels he isn’t being “heard,” so has to amplify the message, which is the snap.
Many dogs dislike the direct interaction with strangers due to breed tendencies, poor social skills, fearfulness or shyness, previous rude encounters, etc. This doesn’t mean they are aggressive or bad dogs. We seem to have collectively forgotten that dogs are not small, furry people, and that they have different wants and needs. But we ignore those needs and force our dogs to accept the sometimes inappropriate or rude advances of others, with no escape option (on leash), and corrections if they dare to do anything other than submit. Even the most kind and gentle approach can be a stressful event for the dog that doesn’t wish to interact with strangers.
You already have all of the information you need – Jonas has done a good job of “telling” you in the only way he is able. Therefore, your job is to be his advocate. I suspect that what he appreciates most about his walk is enjoying the environment and, of course, spending time with you. So continue to provide this without subjecting him to the direct approaches of strangers. This will take some practice for you, but here are some options: When someone asks to pet your dog, say something like, “No thank you,” or “He really doesn’t like to meet with strangers,” or “He’s in training,” or every dog trainer’s favorite, “No, he’s contagious.” As you are replying, take a few steps backward, away from the approaching stranger. You might even give Jonas a treat or two during this time, to keep him focused on you, and to reward him for tolerating the presence of the stranger while you are working on getting space between you. Once the stranger gets the message and backs off, you can continue forward. If it’s a persistent stranger, change course and keep moving in the opposite direction. This is how we parent our dogs – with consideration of their needs, wants, likes and dislikes.
Q: Which is better, walking my dog Sophie on a regular leash, or on a retractable one?
A: Depends on the situation, Sonja. If I want to give my dog some extra distance, to explore while hiking or in a wide open space like the park, then a retractable leash is super, as it gives my dog additional freedom while still having her safely attached to me. If I’m walking in an environment crowded with people, other dogs or obstacles, I switch to a shorter lead and have my dog walk at my side.
A retractable leash can be a great way to give Sophie some additional exercise, as it allows her to explore and move at her own pace, but it can also be dangerous if not used properly. First, never ever grab the line with your hands, as it is made of nylon and can injure you with just a bit of friction. Instead, apply the brake when needed to stop your dog from moving forward. Second, retract all of the length of leash before allowing your dog to interact – if she wishes – with other dogs or people, to prevent tangling of the line around legs, which can result in injury.
One of my favorite ways to exercise a young or exuberant dog is to use a retractable leash, and then increase the amount of distance they cover, while decreasing my own. For example, I can walk very little while my dog explores at a distance. Then I call her back to me, treat and reward her, and then give her a cue to begin exploring again. Back and forth we go, she essentially running laps, and lazy me not moving a whole lot at all. Plus, I’m getting some good training repetitions in of the very valuable recall. Sometimes I’ll even hide from my dog while she is at a distance. When she realizes she’s lost sight of me, she’ll come looking for me, and there is a big, happy bit of play that occurs when she finds me! So go ahead and use that retractable leash, Sonja, and practice using the brake and reeling in all of the line on occasion, so you can keep you, Sophie and others around you safe and unharmed.