Running out of Cheese


In my last post, I wrote about a de-facto off-leash area. If everyone else’s dogs are off leash, why can’t ours be?

For me, it’s an issue of manners. People who don’t have reactive dogs (or people who don’t KNOW their dogs are reactive, especially those whose dogs are small) think it’s perfectly fine for their dog to run up to a person or another dog. When other dogs are off leash and my dogs are off leash, there is no problem. In that situation, Leo doesn’t have much interest in the humans. Unless they’re moving particularly fast. Or on wheels.

Even so. Leo probably would not run up to a jogger or cyclist (or cross-country skier) and bite them if he were off leash. Probably not. But that’s not a risk I can take with a 98-pound German shepherd. Unfortunately, when he is confined to a leash, he is extremely likely to bark and lunge and act very scary as one of these fast-moving humans passes by. See my problem? Everything would go better for everyone if Leo were off leash (probably). But since I can’t assume that everyone we meet will be okay with my dog running up to them, I keep him on a leash.

Last year, we took the dogs to play in the snow on Mount Baker and didn’t see another soul on the trail. This year, the little parking area was full, so we knew we wouldn’t be alone. I was not overly concerned, because the trail is fairly wide, with good visibility, and I had cheese. When I saw people approaching, I called Leo back to me, leashed him, and cheesed him until they passed. It worked brilliantly. Our counter-conditioning has been a terrific success.

It became clear that this was a de-facto off-leash area, so I stopped calling Leo to me when the people approaching had a dog. Except this one couple who took one look at Leo from afar and shouted at their own dog. Their doodle retreated behind their legs, and Leo stayed frozen, staring. Several hundred feet away from the dog. (Mia was close enough, and we leashed her). I called Leo, and omigod, he came right back to me! As I cheesed him, the couple passed, and the man said, “We just had a bad experience with a German shepherd,” explaining their panic.


I felt that we and our dogs were behaving very appropriately and responsibly. It’s so rewarding to take them on outings that are more exciting than a walk around the sports complex or half an hour at the dog park. Everything was going just splendidly.

Until we ran out of cheese.

Not a problem at first. When a pair of slow-moving snow-shoers (actually, one was carrying her snow shoes) passed us, I moved Leo off to the side, plopped down in the snow and scratched his chest and told him what a good dog he was. He stayed calm, saw them, unconcerned. I was as proud as I could be.

After that, there were two or three incidents that did not go so well. The kind involving my holding onto his harness while he barked real scary-like. It’s not his fault. We ran out of cheese.

You know the spoon theory? It’s kind of like that. Also known, in the parlance of dog training, as trigger stacking.

While Leo was regressing, so was I. I had a flashback to the emotional, desperate, discouraging times when I felt like I couldn’t take Isis anywhere. To running up ahead of Rob on the trail to warn people that we had a dog with us that was freaking out. That nervous, awkward “ha ha ha, sorry about that” exchange, when really what I’m feeling is mortified and guilty. Why did I think we could bring our dog with us to a public trail?

That feeling faded once the cross-country skiers were out of sight, and we were back in the car. I reassured myself that we are allowed to take our dogs for a walk in the snow. Other people had off-leash dogs. Leo didn’t hurt anyone. We were responsible. And I tucked that little seed of a question away in the back of my mind: What if we just let him off-leash the whole time? Wouldn’t everything go better for everyone? Because no. I’d be less embarrassed, but I’d still be rude.


Published by Kari Neumeyer

Writer, editor, dog mom, ovarian cancer survivor

5 thoughts on “Running out of Cheese

  1. So glad that your dogs had a chance to run and frolic in the snow, and that you’re a responsible dog owner. I really believe that dogs need to run off-leash, they need to sprint and stretch their legs and feel free. At the same time, when I’m running and dogs bound up to me, well, it can get a bit annoying. If I’m running up in the mountains, I welcome dogs running up to me because I know that they’re probably used to trails and frankly, sometimes it’s nice to stop and pet a dog and take a short break. But on the paved city trails I’ve had encounters with dogs that have jumped and growled at me, and each time the owner insinuated that it was my fault. Whatever, eh? Take care, and happy walks with the dogs.

  2. Even though my Boys are not reactive, I always panic when I see other dogs around. Congrat’s to you. It must have made you smile the rest of the day. I will remember the spoon concept too – my dogs are so friendly, sometimes I worry that they are running up to a dog that’s not of the same mindset. Great post!

  3. No matter how many treats I pack, it’s never quite enough 😉 I know the feeling of running out of cheese (and jerky and hot dogs) well. I’m glad that you had so much success before that, though! Barley is the opposite–she is so much better on leash than off because she knows she’s working when we’re on leash. I could NEVER let her off leash anywhere other than our nice fenced yard because the second she saw a kid running or a biker or anything moving, she’d be on top of it as fast as possible.

  4. The leash condundrum is so real and it’s so frustrating to me when people act like having the dog on leash is the cure to all ills. So many dogs are so much ruder on-leash than off-. It’s a very useful tool, but not a magic bullet, and I really struggle with the tapdance with Lilo (who is quite dog-reactive on-leash and quite good with other dogs off-, but who can be vocal in a way that dog-savvy people generally understand and pet-dog people generally find alarming…).

    Sounds like you handled it as well as you possibly could have done. I’m sorry that doesn’t always help with the emotional component, though.

    1. Yes exactly! It’s always awkward trying to determine how dog-savvy the people are when your dog starts barking in their dog’s face. I can tell it’s perfectly appropriate communication, but can the woman who just told me her dog likes to play but is “a little nervous”?

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