What may seem like a harmless question creates a multitude of insecurities and reactions for other dog owners.
This is the situation, your walking with your reactive dog in a park trying to work on them being around other people, dogs, kids, etc. When suddenly an off-leash dog runs up to your dog and disaster ensues or the owner off the off-leash dog asks if your dog is friendly which forces you to become uncomfortable because you either say “no” or “we are working on it”. Then the other person who owns at off leash dog gives you a look like something is wrong with you because you brought your dog to the park when it cannot be free. This then scars you from going out into public to work on your dogs issues, which then compounds the problem. Let me give you another situation, your dog is again working on being calm and controlled in public when someone rushes to your dog because they are cute and they want to pet them, now your dog is put in a uncomfortable situation and is forced to make bad decisions. If the person asks your if your dog is friendly, it then puts the owner in a nervous tense state of mind and nothing good will come out of that. Good dog trainers and clients are trying to work on the dog only to have it take two steps back because of a situation that could be avoided completely.
How do I know this happens? The first way I know this happens every single day to dog owners is because I was one of them. I had recently adopted my extremely dog reactive dog with a reactivity also towards some adults and children. I had been working with her for about a month on relationship building and teaching commands that needed to be enforced in public. What happens when I had done a big hike that went so well with her, at the end we were rushed by an off leash dog with the owner staring at a cellphone instead of her dog. Thus setting back months of progress in our training plans. Second, as a trainer who does a lot of hiking training sessions for my clients and socialization, I have had sessions ruined by off leash dogs who are not coming when called to their owners. I see it at least once a week in our parks. As anyone knows, I am a huge fan off off-leash dogs but the key is we need 100 percent control of our dogs if you decide to put them off leash. We need to stop arguing over training tools and start worrying about public and dog safety. You think you have 100 percent control over your dog until they want something more than your treat which is another dog, or wildlife. This ignorance is getting parks taken away from dog owners because people are being chased and dogs attacked. If you are not 100 percent confident your dog will come when called no matter the distraction, do not let your dog off leash, it is as simple as that. Sorry for the digression, but back to our topic!
How should we be helping our fellow dog owners and making sure everyone can be happy and successful in public
1. Do not go out in public wanting to have your dog interact with everyone and every dog
When we go for a walk in the park or out in public, we should not be going out wanting to have our dogs interact with other dogs or people unless we are at a dog park or with a planned group of people. Please do not have your dog running free or even on the leash running up to every dog or person that they see. Some people do not like dogs but love the outdoors and other dogs are not always friendly. Does this mean they should not have the same fun we do? No way! They deserve to be able to enjoy their walk, run, hike as much as anyone with a dog or who loves dogs. We should be able to control our dog so that they do not cause other people discomfort and may cause any stress or anxiety. If you really need to have your dog interact with people or other dogs, go with a group of people who is planned and you know. You never know if someone if ok with your dog so do not let them rush everyone.
2. If you see a dog with a muzzle, do not stare or ask why they have a muzzle.
This is a huge problem we have. Great dog owners take the big step to take their dog out to public to make them better and put a muzzle on their dog for their comfort. They are having a nice walk, but they notice everyone staring at the muzzle or people asking you their dog has a muzzle, like they are terrible owners. These are the best owners! they want their dog to be able to do these things with them and are putting in the time and work to get their dog comfortable, do not run away from the dog or act strange, that is not helping them. They are there to achieve a training goal, please let them enjoy their dogs progress and do not give advice even if you are a fellow trainer, let them be. If they want your help they can ask for it. I feel it is extremely important to advocate for those who perhaps are nervous in these situations, they are really trying to help their dog, they should not be felt looked down upon for making these huge steps in their dogs training.
3. Be Helpful
If you see someone who is working with their dog in a public setting, if you must ask questions ask how you can be any help! Encourage your fellow dog owners to bring their dog out. If you see a dog with a muzzle, tell them how cute their dog is and how their dog is doing so well, or even give them a smile. These little body language signals go a long way to help bring the owner confidence and comfort then working with their dog. Ask them if they need you or your dog to be apart of some training, or what you can do to help them be successful. Do not ask “is your dog friendly?” and if they say “no we are training” do not take it the wrong way. Wish them good luck or offer to help. As a canine community we should be supportive of every single person in it, I still support fellow trainers who may even use totally different tools or methods, we are all on the same team for the dogs!
Im writing this simply as dog owner and trainer who has been in the clients shoes with a reactive dog, that wants everyone to be able to enjoy what we have to offer in our wonderful parks. I want everyone to feel empowered to train their dog and know that they will be safe and secure. We should not even have the issues of off leash dogs not coming back to owners or dogs and people being attacked by off leash dogs. The message is simple: Help your fellow dog owners, and if you do not have 100 percent off leash control of your dog, keep them on a leash. Parks are being taken away from dog owners and bad publicity is happening as well for dogs. I know of 3 parks in the news in the northeast that are raising off-leash dog fines or banning dogs from parks completely, be apart of the solution not the problem.