How to walk a “normal” dog

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Things that have happened during my recent mellow meanderings with Mia:

1. A loose dog ran down the middle of a busy street toward us. We crossed the street to see if he had a tag on his collar, but he did not. We walked with him up a cul de sac where we found a neighbor who told us the dog just roams loose all the time. I was not entirely satisfied with this answer, but the dog stayed in the cul de sac. Short of calling animal control, I didn’t know what else I could do.

2. A couple was jogging with a dog across the street. I quickened my pace because Mia and the dog kept sneaking looks at each other. The couple must have crossed the street and slowed their pace to walk behind me, which I only realized when I turned around to go back for a poop bag I’d left behind. When I saw them, I said, “Oh, sorry.” And they said, “No, you’re fine,” walked around us and jogged off on their merry way.

3. While walking at night, we saw a man and a dog heading toward us on the same side of the street. So accustomed am I to veering very far around all other warm-bodied creatures, I swung a wide berth. The man asked if his dog could say Hi, so we moved closer. The man told me his dog’s name and said he was 12 years old. Since it was dark, I hadn’t realized how gray the dog’s muzzle was, or that he appeared to be a pit mix. Our dogs sniffed each other very politely. I wondered later whether the man thought I was trying to avoid him because his dog was a pit bull. He may well have considered it his duty to show me how friendly his dog was, when really, my only concern was that I not make anyone uncomfortable by bringing my scary German shepherd too close.

4. While walking at night, with a reflective light attached to Mia’s collar, I saw a blur of white in the street up ahead. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realized it was a light-colored dog being walked on a leash. Maybe its owner was trying to swing a wide berth around us, but they still passed pretty close. The dog lunged toward us excitedly, so I let Mia sniff hello. Did I have another option? There was nowhere else to go, but I suppose I could have tried to hustle her past the other dog without them meeting.

The other dog reared back its head and yip/snarled (yarled?). Sounding mildly exasperated, and yet also mildly surprised, the owner said to her dog, “What’s that about? Was it the light?” I was 10 steps ahead at that point and wanted to say something reassuring, because boy, have I been there. But I also know the most helpful thing the non-reacting dog can do in that situation is get out of there.

I called back a very socially awkward mumble that was supposed to convey, “You know, maybe it was the light around Mia’s neck. But don’t worry about it. You’re fine. Your dog’s fine. We’re cool. Have a nice night.” I think what came out was: “Huh, yeah, mayb.” (sic. I didn’t actually say the last syllable of “maybe.”)

Now, I don’t know if that’s the first time her dog has ever been unfriendly to another dog, but I do know that saying something like “What’s that about?” is a reflex when you have a reactive dog. One must give the appearance to other dog owners that one knows one’s dog has been inappropriate.

The last incident really drove home the fact that I do not know how to walk a normal dog.

Social mores likely vary among regions. In some parts of the country, I’m sure it’s considered very rude to let your dog anywhere near another person, but here in the Northwest, we are beyond dog friendly. Our local bookstore even welcomes pooches.

That said, I don’t know whether I’m supposed to veer away from other people walking their dogs, as I attempted to do with the man and his pit bull, or let them get within sniffing distance, as I did with the woman and the light-colored dog.

Both felt wrong to me, but either is fine by Mia, because she is a “normal dog.” Her hackles might go up if she doesn’t like what she smells, she might notice another leashed dog at a distance, but generally speaking, she’s not going to bark, lunge, and pull me off my feet. She’s not going to snarl, snap at, or bite another dog.

Leo, on the other hand, is not allowed to walk around our neighborhood, because he would not have handled any of the above situations well. He would have barked and lunged at all those dogs. Actually, he might have made the best impression in that last scenario. If I let him pull on his leash right up to every dog he sees, to let him get a good sniff, I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t bark and lunge at them. Fairly. But I don’t let him do that, because as dog friendly a town as this is, I know better than to let my 100-pound German shepherd get all up in everydog’s face.

What should the rule be? Do I have to call out to every dog-walker I see: “My dog’s friendly. Is yours? Can she say hello?” Because you know there are lots of people who will say yes, even when the answer is no.

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Exercising a Dog’s Mind

John Pilley uses old-school psychology to train his border collie in Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, co-authored with Hilary Hinzmann. What a coincidence that the methods he uses, based on his experience as a professor of human psychology, look a lot like force-free dog training!

With one exception: Like Ted Kerasote in Merle’s Door, Pilley turns to an aversive method to curb Chaser’s “chase drive.” While Kerasote used a shock collar, Pilley uses a mighty jerk of a long line and a stern “No.” It’s hard for me to say these techniques are wrong, wrong, wrong, because as far as reported, they prevented the dogs from chasing things, and neither Merle nor Chaser developed aggressive or fearful tendencies as a result. I can say that knowing what I now know, I would never use either method on a dog.

Otherwise, the book is a joy to read. I love that this retired professor refers to himself as Chaser’s “Pop Pop” (because that’s what his grandson calls him). Throughout, Pilley emphasizes how much fun it is for Chaser to learn new words. He turns down an offer to let another scientist work with her, which would have meant more academic acclaim, because that would mean having Chaser live with someone else temporarily. Above all, Chaser is a family dog.

When Chaser appears on the Today Show, Pilley feels bad that Chaser doesn’t have a chance to play with her toys after fetching them by name for Matt Lauer. Chaser is supposed to get to play with her toys as her reward for fetching the right toy.

I’ve heard dog trainers brag about how many words their dogs know. How do they really know? I wondered. Beyond their names and basic obedience commands, most dogs know “outside” or “walk” or “dinner,” but how do you keep track of the number of words? Pilley set about it scientifically, by giving each toy a unique name. He has a list of 1,022 different toy names that Chaser understands. He also teaches her categories of words: she knows a racquetball by its name “Blue,” and also knows that it is a “toy” and a “ball.”

Like Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls — One Flying Disc at a Time, Chaser is a book about a dog of extraordinary achievement. While both dogs are special, neither would have been a superstar without the devotion of the “handler” (owner…trainer…Pop Pop, whatever you want to call them).

Pilley works with Chaser for hours a day. With that much dedication, I bet any dog of above average intelligence could learn quite a few words.

As I said in my post about Wallace, I wish I’d known about flying disc, or at least been able to turn catching soccer balls into a “job” for Isis. Reading about Chaser makes me wish Leo and Mia had that much enthusiasm about anything. Leo especially. Mia is content to sit in the backyard with her Jolly Ball and bark at us. But Leo’s still young. He needs stimulation. We took him to a nose work class, and he liked it all right, I guess, but not enough for me to keep at it. It seemed like a lot of money and effort to drive to a class where each dog only gets instruction for a few minutes at a time.

I wish Leo were as passionate about play as Isis was. I’m as devoted to my dogs as Wallace’s and Chaser’s people. I would gladly spend hours a day working on something Leo loved as much as Isis loved soccer. Sometimes in the evenings, especially during the winter when it’s cold and dark, I look at restless Leo mouthing the sofa cushion and think, “What? What is it that we can do that would keep us entertained for hours? What would hold your interest, Leo? Tell me!”

Any thoughts, friends? Remember, Leo is leash-reactive, so long walks are challenging, but I think that’s what he enjoys most: excursions. It’s kind of nice on really cold evenings. I take him somewhere well-lit, where no one else is out who will incite his barking and lunging.

Aside from that, he loses interest in fetch fairly quickly. We have agility equipment, but like everything else, he goes over the A-frame once, maybe twice and is done with it. Same with Rally-O. The kid only wants to practice his sits so many times. Then I get a blank stare. Honestly, I don’t think he’s as bright as Chaser, otherwise, I’d start acquiring hundreds of toys.

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Could Isis have been a flying disc contender?

In the prologue for my book, Bark and Lunge, I describe Isis spinning and flipping while catching a soccer ball. She was partial to soccer balls, but reading Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls — One Flying Disc at a Time made me wonder if I could have transferred that drive to a Frisbee.

While I think Wallace might have the best subtitle of all time, the title doesn’t address the aspect of Wallace’s story that I most relate to. Wallace started out dog aggressive. Maybe he was just experiencing barrier frustration when he lashed out at other dogs while in the shelter, but he was in danger of being euthanized. Lucky for Wallace, Roo and Clara Yori stood up for him. Lucky for us, author Jim Gorant (who wrote about the Vick fighting dogs in The Lost Dogs) wrote their story.

By channeling Wallace’s drive into flying disc, Roo Yori effectively gave his dog a “job,” something trainers will tell you dogs need to keep them from developing bad habits and behavior problems. From that point on, Wallace seems never to have another aggressive episode.

At one point, Yori worries about throwing the disc in the direction of the grandstands. What if Wallace runs too far and wins up confused in the middle of the bleachers? As an ambassador for pit bulls, if Wallace got into any scuffles at all, it would be bad news for the breed.

From the description of the disc arenas, it sounds like other dogs were shielded from Wallace’s view while he was competing. Even so, I wouldn’t have been able to take Isis to such a public place. She would have barked and lunged at everything. Even if she never could have competed, I wish I’d figured out a way to make catching soccer balls her “job.”

Another aspect of Wallace’s story that resonated with me is that even when it seemed like the sport was rough on Wallace’s body, Yori kept playing disc with him. Yori recognized that Wallace’s love of/drive for the disc was so strong, that Wallace would play long after the lights at the park went out.

Isis was like that. Here she is with Rob, practicing weaving, hurdles, and what I call the “high jump.” You can see after she finishes, she runs right back to her ball.

And here’s a highlight reel of Isis catching the ball. Doing what came naturally to her. Just think what she could have accomplished if we’d actually trained her for this sport.

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Separate Walks

Remember how eight months ago I vowed that I was going to conquer Leo’s bicycle reactivity? Well, I’ve finally started cracking down on that.

All spring and summer, it felt like enough to let the dogs run around the backyard and take them for the occasional romp at the off-leash park. But as the weather turns, I feel guilty about how much time they spend cooped up. It’s too dark to walk them around the neighborhood after work, and even if it weren’t, we’d get derailed by a bicycle.

I took a page from the Isis playbook and started taking Leo to parking lots where we are likely to see bicycles. We can practice walking near stimuli, but at a far enough distance to keep him under threshold. I’m employing some functional rewards techniques from BAT. We’re having success, and I’ve lowered my expectations. My goal is not for Leo to be a bomb-proof dog, simply for him to stretch his legs and get a change of scenery, and if his reactivity improves, allowing us to take him to a wider variety of places, so much the better.

Mia’s recent escape attempt alerted me that my focus on Leo’s problem behavior caused me to neglect my perfect dog. Mia just wanted to get out and see the world. She’s been watching forlornly from the window as I take Leo on training excursions. Even though we’re not gone very long, she sees Leo going on an adventure while she has to stay home. Sure she’s a senior dog, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need exercise.

Quite a dilemma. I can’t walk both dogs at the same time and still focus on Leo’s training. What to do?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I chewed on this for a couple of days before I remembered that I can walk Mia around our neighborhood.

See, the old pattern was, I’d take Mia to work, so she’d get a midday walk or off-leash romp on a ball field. Leo would go to daycare or I’d walk him around the neighborhood before work, strategically timed to avoid the bike commuters. I was not in the habit of walking Mia by herself closer to home.

Once Leo became “trustworthy” enough that he didn’t need to be crated while we’re out, I stopped bringing Mia with me. Who knows what kind of trouble Leo could get into without his big sister to keep an eye on him?

What better way to find out than to leave him alone while I take Mia around the block? On Wednesday, I walked Mia before it got dark, and then took Leo for his training in a university parking lot.

Walking Mia reinforced how unsafe our street is for Leo. It also reminded me how bicycle reactive I am. Me, not Mia. As we walked, I saw a bright yellow raincoat on the horizon, whizzing toward us on two wheels. Mia has never expressed the slightest interest in a bicycle, and yet I tightened the leash, thinking, “Oh god, oh god. What if she’s learned from Leo that she’s supposed to bark at those things? Oh god, oh god.”

Of course she was perfect when the bike went by. And she was perfect when we passed a dog who strained at his leash to get to her.

The amazing part? Walking Mia calmed me. “That’s right,” I remembered. “Walking dogs is fun.”

Mia’s positive reinforcement was so powerful that on our next walk, I didn’t flinch when a bicycle rode toward us on the sidewalk. I took her on the windy wooded trail where a mountain bike came at us out of nowhere. And we passed Isis’s nemesis’s house. Not only was the golden in the front yard, but her neighbor, a black dog, was loose in his yard, and the same dog that strained at Mia the day before was headed our way. It was a collision of four dogs. Mia’s hackles went up, but she sniffed politely and we went on our way.

My next post will deal with some of the calming tools recommended to ease dog reactivity and anxiety. Can you tell Leo is wearing a Thundershirt in the top picture?

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What’s your biggest fear?

People overuse the term “biggest fear,” but mine is having something terrible happen to the dogs. Specifically, I worry about them escaping the yard and getting hit by a car. I saw that happen once in Olympia, or rather, I heard it, a dog running out a front door onto the busy street in front of the newspaper where I worked. I remember the owner’s scream as the dog ran out, and her scream after the dog got hit.

While home sick, I let the dogs into the backyard while I watched Tattoo Nightmares. After the dogs had been out there a while, suspiciously quiet, I expected to find them sitting right by the back door, but they weren’t there. I called out “Doggies!” into the empty backyard. Nothing.

Oh, god. Is this the day they get out and something terrible happens? Is this going to be another saddest day that ruins our lives?

I put on my boots and a jacket and started up the hill toward the chain-link fence that separates our yard from Interstate 5. Leo’s red skull-and-crossbones bandanna peeked out from behind our martial arts studio building. Phew. At least Leo was safe. I worry less about Mia getting out, because I don’t think she’d go anywhere. I imagine her being like my mom’s Lhasa apso, Barney, who would sit on the front porch and wait to be remembered if you accidentally left him out there.

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Leo zoomed around me and the gazebo a few times, kind of like Mia does when Leo is getting into trouble, except Mia usually barks too.

Where was Mia?

There isn’t much space between the studio building and the chain link, and most of that space is pierced through with blackberry branches. I held onto the chain link as I crept along the retaining wall on the dirt barely-a-walkway. Mia was back there, at the very corner of the yard, digging under the fence … LITERALLY my biggest fear. She ran toward me when she saw me, but I kept walking to the edge of the yard to see how much progress she’d made.

Not much, as it turned out, but enough to reinforce my fear that given enough time, she could escape under that fence and onto the freeway.

Mia, why? Why would you try to escape? You, whom I trusted!

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And Leo’s just going to stand there and watch. What a bad influence Mia is on him.

How about you? Any of your biggest fears ever come true?

Stay tuned for Big Fear, Part 2: Spiders!!

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Adventures in Pet-sitting

One of the many perks of BarkWorld was a magnificent swag bag, which included $25 gift cards for pet-sitting via Rover.com.

Rover.com is Hotels.com for your dog, connecting you with pet caregivers in cities all over the United States.

I’m giving away two gift cards. That’s $50 of pet-sitting!

Enter to win both by:

  • Posting a comment right here on Rhymes with Safari

and

Adventures in Pet-sitting

Before I had dogs, I was the single mother of an iguana named Emerald. He moved with me from Los Angeles to Chicago, to Alexandria, Va., back to L.A., to Burlington, Wash., then Olympia and Bellingham.

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In Chicago and Washington, I had friends to stop by and feed him when I was out of town, but I moved to Alexandria just before Christmas and knew no one who would be around while I was back in L.A. for the holiday. The year was 2000 and I found my pet-sitter in the phone book (the Internet had already been invented but I don’t think it had replaced phone books yet). After meeting her briefly, I wasn’t remotely concerned that this stranger would steal of my stuff; I had just moved there and didn’t have any valuables (aside from Emerald). Worst case scenario, she wouldn’t feed him and I’d come home to a very hungry lizard. She definitely came by at least once, because she left behind a pair of leather gloves.

Nowadays, of course, you’d find an iguana-sitter online, and that’s what Rover.com is all about. You can find dog walkers, doggie daycare, sitters to stay at your house, and people who will take your pets into their homes, all for a range of prices. Older couples, college students, teenagers. Take your pick. Even though I don’t have an iguana anymore, I was delighted to find a listing near me for a sitter who cares for exotics as well as cats and dogs.

Like anything online, you want to make sure you’re dealing with trustworthy people, so you’d want to meet your sitter face-to-face before giving them a key and your itinerary in Barbados. Rover’s reviews also are helpful in that regard.

Usually, Rob’s parents stay at our house with our dogs while we’re gone (so when I tell the Internet we’re going to be out of town, be advised that breaking in during that time will not go well for you). But a few years ago, they treated us to a trip to Hawaii. When they first invited us, my ungrateful reaction was, “Wow, sounds great. Who’s going to watch the dogs?”

We boarded Leo at a place with a big fenced yard, because he’s such a handful, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that to Mia. We’d only had her a few months; how could I explain to her that she wasn’t being abandoned again? So we had a pet-sitter stay with her, and that worked out perfectly.

Rover CEO Aaron Easterly spoke at BarkWorld about the changing trends in pet care and technology. The biggest takeaway for me was that a recent poll found 76 percent of people with dogs considered themselves to be dog parents, rather than dog owners. Makes perfect sense, then, that people prefer for their babies to stay in homes, rather than cages.

To win $25 toward pet-sitting through Rover.com, comment below and tell me about your Adventures in Pet-Sitting. Then, “like” the Facebook page for Bark and Lunge, and enter there to win a second $25 gift card. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 11. One winner randomly selected from each list of comments will be announced Thursday, Sept. 12.