Walking Terror

Terror made me cruel.
- Emily Brontë Wuthering Heights

As I’ve mentioned previously, dogs are binary creatures:  everything is “yes” or “no” to them.  Just as I can give you a precise location on this planet using only latitude and longitude, “yes” and “no” help a dog safely navigate their surroundings.  It helps them identify threats (either you are a threat or you aren’t).  Unfortunately, this system can result in terrifying encounters.

For example, Sparta, (my crazy beloved shepherd/rottie mix) is very dog-reactive.   For instance, a walk for us might play out like this in her mind:

There’s something up there.  It looks like a dog.  Is it pack/safe?
Is it a potential threat?
Should I make it go away?

And that right there is dog reactivity in a nutshell.  If I don’t answer her questions, she has to come up with her own answers which are always the wrong answer.  So I Pilot her. When she’s asking an important question (“Is it a threat?”) and trying to cipher it out for herself, her body language changes.  Her ears go stiff.  Her forehead wrinkles between her ears.  Tail goes straight up.  She’s about to answer a question for herself, and that’s bad.

Total protonic reversal.  Or in layman’s terms, she flips her lid.

So I Pilot her by answering her questions (learn how here), and we have a nice walk. I don’t always know what question she’s asking in specific, but that doesn’t preclude me from answering “no” anyway.  When I see her tail go straight up, and she stands almost on her toes, head up, that posture means something….she’s asking a question.

We call it "meerkat-ing" or "prairie dogging"

We call that posture “meerkat-ing” or “prairie dogging”

If I start craning my head around to see what she’s asking about, now I’m meerkatting, too!  I don’t care what question she’s asking about.  All of her senses are better than mine, so it could be anything from the man across the street to a butterfly flapping its wings in China.  I don’t need to know what the question is…the answer is “no”.

Now, if I catch Sparta’s questions early enough, the answer is easier for her to accept.  Rather than letting her energy build and build to unmanageable conditions before I answer her questions, I answer them the moment she asks them.  In other words, I’m giving her the respect she deserves by answering a (legitimate) question she’s asking, rather than ignoring her or punishing her for even asking a question.  I am Sparta’s Pilot.  She has every right to ask a question and not get punished.  Answering questions should involve body language, not pain.  Remember, your dog is not bad.  She’s merely asking a question.

Prong collar designed so people can't see you're using a prong collar.

In this case, I truly hope you are missing the point.

So now you’ve been putting these practices in use with your reactive dog.  Walks are so much easier now.  You still have to Pilot them a lot, but your dog’s questions are getting easier and easier to answer because your dog is starting to trust your answers.  Piloting is like a big piggy bank: whomever has the most money wins.  You take money out of your dog’s bank and put it into yours every time you answer one of your dog’s questions. The easy questions your dog asks (“Do I turn left here?”) are almost nothing to answer at all.  Even the harder questions (“Can I chase that squirrel?”) that require more “money” are not nearly the problem they were previously.  But then Something Big Happens.  A question that requires all the Piloting money you’ve been hoarding in your Piloting Piggy Bank.

An off-leash dog comes rushing at you.

Okay.  You can deal with this.   Those same three steps I’ve been going on and on about in previous posts?  Yeah, they’re going to come in handy right about now.  Let’s review:

1) Control yourself.  Yes, this is a terrifying situation.  Acknowledge it for what it is, and move on.  Don’t add energy by yelling, screaming, shouting or flailing your arms about like a windmill.  Calm, confident body language (stand up straight and square your shoulders).  Your dog needs you to be calm.  Now shut up and do it!

Listen to Liz.  She knows.  Except maybe skip the lipstick and drink until after it's all over.

Listen to Liz. She knows. Except maybe skip the lipstick and drink until after it’s all over.

2.) Control the situation.  Meaning, don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Um, yeah.  This one’s going to be a little tougher, but can still be done.  Controlling the situation means you have to respond to the rapid-fire questions your dog is asking, hopefully before the other dog gets to you.  If your dog hits Defcon 6 while the dog is still at a distance, well, you try your damnedest  to control the current situation, while the dog is still coming at you. Your dog WILL ask questions about that other dog.  In Sparta’s case, it’s:

“Permission to engage?  May I engage the enemy? Can I pursue offensive maneuvers?”

all done one after another, like dominoes falling.  She’s like a Klingon defending her honor at Warf speed.

Okay... a bit much, but you get the picture.

Okay… a bit much, but you get the picture.

3)  Add Stimulation.   In other words, what are you going to do? Well, you have a few options:

Look around for the owner. Tell them (don’t ask, tell them) to call their dog off.  A statement from them that their dog is friendly is not an acceptable response.  I’ve heard a lot of people say a lot of things in response when presented with the “my dog is friendly” routine, from “but my dog isn’t!” or “he’s in training”, etc., one of the responses I’ve always found that works is, “my dog is still contagious!”.  Yes, it works.  I found out a few weeks ago from my father-in-law that many years ago he and I were out walking Sparta (who is notoriously dog-reactive), and a person with a dog at the end of a retractable leash, fully extended, came rushing at us.  Apparently I shouted out to the person, “My dog isn’t friendly, and neither am I!”.  I have no memory of this incident, but quite honestly, it sounds like something I would indeed say. I asked my FIL if it worked, and he said they spun around and took their dog in another direction.

Gauge if it’s safe to let them meet.  If the owner isn’t around, or isn’t doing much to control their dog, sometimes it’s easier to just let the dogs meet.  Try to read the other dog’s body language. Does it seem more like a “No-No Bad Dog”, or is it a Cujo? Typically dogs merely want to get information from the other dog (as in a derriere sniff). Rarely is a dog out for your blood, especially if you not letting your dog boil over. If you choose to go ahead and let them meet, be aware that your dog will be taking cues from you as to how to react.  You WILL be calm.  Your dog is counting on you, remember?

Use your body language.  Get between your dog and the oncoming dog, essentially body-blocking the dog.  Your dog sees that you are protecting them.  The other dog sees you giving the universal body language for “mine”.  I’ve done this with much success in the past, but you must make sure you feel safe to do this.

Protect your dog by whatever means necessary.  I have had to kick a dog off my dog in the past, and I did it as hard as I could.  The leash laws are on your side.  No, I don’t get my jollies by injuring another animal, but if it means protecting mine, I’ll do whatever it takes.   If the dogs have engaged aggressively, it’s about making sure you’re safe first, and your dog second.  You have every right to protect your dog.  Let me repeat that: you have my permission to protect your dog.  Just make sure you can do it safely. Don’t reach between them with your hand.  Kick with your foot (sole first, like you’re stomping a bug, and then IMMEDIATELY remove your foot like it was burned) use whatever you have around  you, from garbage can lids to a fallen branch.  I’ve heard of someone taking off their jacket and “whipping” the other dog with it until the dog latched on to her jacket instead of her Pomeranian- it’s all about keeping your wits about you.

And remember, an ounce of prevention….

- Carry a stick, umbrella, anything that may help you fend off a dog.

- If you have a certain dog in your neighborhood that frequently roams, call the police. Have it logged somewhere that the dog has been at large in the past.  You may need that evidence in the future.

- Avoid the area if you know there’s a loose dog.  Common sense, yes, but I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Well it’s my neighborhood and I should be able to walk where I want!”….and your little Fifi is going to be mauled just so you can prove your point.  Your dog comes first, your ego comes second.

 Remember, control yourself, control the situation, add stimulation. Pilot your dog. Answer their questions, and you will get through this ordeal.  And when you get home, pour yourself that drink.

Just don't eat the dates

Just don’t eat the dates

Keep calm and pilot on


Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

8 thoughts on “Walking Terror

  1. Just this morning a dog I’ve never seen before came charging us at full speed. It came from behind and we had very little warning it was coming. I immediately dropped Bruna’s leash, turned to face the dog but no amount of body language was stopping him. He knocked me over but gave up chase with Bruna once she started running. The owner got his dog, I got up, Bruna came back to me and we finished our walk. We stopped and visited with a couple other dogs she loves. I wanted to end the walk on a good note for both our sakes.

        • Not at all! You probably did the best thing! If holding a leash made you Pilot, all dog-owners would be Pilots. You dropped it because you figured Bruna had a better chance on her own. I was forced to do the same thing with my Darwin many years ago – it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but it turns out it was the right decision.

          It sounds as if you are doing VERY well Bruna…keep it up!

  2. All very good information. Unfortunately for me and my dogs, we got attacked by a boxer that broke his log chain tie out. No owner in sight. The boxer immediately grabbed my poodle terrier mix. My Russell terrier mix attacked the boxer, while my welsh/ whippet mix joined in trying to protect us, my schnauzer mix curled up crying, and my poodle terrier mix joined the fight. The boxer was frothing at the mouth it was so excited. I dropped the lead to my dogs, stepped on the boxer’s chain & worked my way up to it’s choke collar. I held it tight, picked up my dogs’ lead, they settled down for me as soon as I got control of the boxer. As I was headed to the police station, the owner showed up. I had 3 dogs that were missing chunks of body from the boxer. I know if I hadn’t had my Russel mix with me, I would have had 3 dead dogs. The sad thing is, the boxer had done this before, I found out when I filed complaints. I was the first person to file anything. All the owner got was a loose dog fine. He did pay my vet bills, but has done nothing to get better control over his dog. We now avoid that area.

    • I am SO sorry to hear of this incident. How absolutely terrifying that must have been for all of you! I am not surprised to hear of a Jack Russell defending an entire pack; they make wonderful, formidable Pilots. I am, however, horrified that this has happened previously (an most likely, will again). Anybody who leaves their dog on a “log chain tie out” definitely should not have a dog.

  3. Thank you for this post. Just the other night, I ran into a dog not on a leash, and my dog did her usual crouching, which I know is not good, but then the dog that is 80 pounds heavier lunged at us, the owner did nothing. I pulled my dog up in my arms and screamed at the owner. I wish a cop had been near by. I will try your techniques for next time and I hope they work. It is very terrifying to go through, but I will try to remain calm. I would hate to kick a dog because its the owners fault for not having a leash, but i would if I had to.

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