Saturday, May 18, 2019

Off-leash interactions can turn dangerous for dogs and their handlers

One weekend evening earlier this month, I was on a typical outing with one of my charges -- a shepherd mix -- in her neighborhood. Dinner was a few hours before on that gorgeous spring afternoon, then a walk, and now, she was getting tucked in for the night. The weather was still hard to pass up at that hour, and the sun would be dipping low soon, so off we went for a walk before bed.

Walking my charges in neighborhoods, as I’m sure my colleagues will exclaim, can be a challenge: too many humans thoughtlessly staring into the blue screens of their handheld devices, one [is] too many dogs hitched up to a retractable leash, and far fewer humans on the other end of any leash who understand canine body language and behavior. That imbalance of mindfulness has led to more unwelcome and tense, off-leash approaches between the dogs in my care than I care to think about. Thankfully, most instances can be quelled quickly with the training I’ve sought, and the fact that most handlers get jarred from their laissez-faire cloud in a hurry once the cacophony of snarling dogs begins. Yes, they snap to attention when that happens.

But that’s not always the case.

I was cautious, as I always am in neighborhoods on weekends like that: warm, sunny temperatures on a spring evening after a long winter that didn’t want to let go. The bustle of busy families could easily be heard through garage doors left open, and entry doors to their inner walls that could have been unintentionally-but-carelessly unlatched, the possibility of dogs inside those homes that don’t have the tools to regulate their reactions when they see the increased foot traffic outside, which invariably includes other dogs.  

As a Certified Professional Pet Sitter who has additional education in understanding animal behavior, I can tell you it’s one thing to hear the familiar sounds that indicate there’s a dog in the area who’s probably not-so-good about managing themselves around other dogs that raises your alertness. But it’s another to hear tense, uneasy voices directed at a dog who has escaped their home through an entry door and to see them running straight towards you and the dog you’re charged with taking care of. You toss a handful of high-value dog treats directly at her in an effort to buy a few seconds of distraction, but it’s met with indifference. You then take inventory of the tense facial expression and clear body language of the dog, and the body language of the dog who’s connected to the other end of your leash. And then you look up and see two older people who despite understanding your clear, calm, authoritative cues to get control of the dog, who are physically nor emotionally equipped to intervene, and you note a minor child running into the house. Your full attention then goes back to the two dogs at your feet, because you realize that you’re pretty much on your own with finding a way to diffuse the situation, which is escalating. Repeated attempts to calmly and slowly gain distance from the dog prove useless -- they keep approaching aggressively despite your charge following your calm lead -- and you realize when reaching toward your waistband that the citronella spray that’s usually on your person for situations like this is on the kitchen counter. The dog who’s approached you and your charge has clearly been pushed over their behavioral threshold; vocalizing, snapping, biting, rearing up. And with repeated calm-but-audible cues for assistance unheard and seeing the helpless and terrified expressions from the elderly adults who are coming into and out of your view, you know that your next step is to let go of the leash you’re holding and hopefully find a trash can lid or a wooden board or a blanket to put between the two dogs to diffuse what has now become a dogfight complete with a bite to one of them -- and then, the face of the (pre)teen who disappeared just minutes before comes into view holding a dog harness. Somehow, he gets the dog’s attention.

The dog fight breaks.

This is a cautionary tale, and in it I detailed not only what I experienced, but what everyone involved did, as best as I could.

This entire interaction probably lasted three minutes (though as you might expect when you’re at the helm it seems much longer), and it was one that could have been avoided. The dog could have been safely confined behind a baby gate or closed in a room until the guests made their way out of the house. Able-bodied and familiar adults could have been at home to supervise the dog and after the escape, and on hand to safely keep an unfavorable interaction from escalating.

I didn’t use my body or limbs to intervene. I didn’t yell at the dogs. I stayed calm.

In fact, I followed that training and everything else that I was trained to do to maintain control and extinguish the
situation with the exception of one thing: I was remiss in not having my usual citronella spray, in this case, PetSafe Spray Shield with me on this outing. This likely would have easily and humanely disrupted this interaction altogether. (It’s not recommended that pepper spray or other products are used. The accidental contact with my own eyes could have rendered me completely useless in this situation and put me at significantly higher risk of a dog bite.)

Thankfully, the dog in my care is well-centered and followed my lead to the best of her ability. That was a huge help.

Situations that are allowed to escalate to this degree -- as I indicated, these kinds of interactions are rare -- are dangerous for many reasons. They put the dogs and humans around them at risk of bites and other injuries. In this case, one of the dogs required medical attention. And in my ongoing dialogue with the owner after the incident, it was discovered that the other dog had a lapsed rabies vaccination. Thankfully, understanding the inherent risks but following up on those with the Michigan Department of Community Health, I knew any risk to me and my charge, who was vaccinated, was extremely low. I felt confident with that.

Because of the speed at which the dog’s behavioral threshold was breached when she had escaped and approached us, not to mention factors that I indicated and others that I’ve decided not to go into, I ultimately decided to file a report with Washtenaw County Animal Control. Though the team there was amazing and professional, I hope to not have to do so again though I wouldn’t hesitate if I needed to. Honestly, I’d rather have more dogs in our midst who can behaviorally manage themselves better, and in following up with the family, I made that my focus. In being a good steward in the professional pet care industry, I noted:

I know from experience this is a busy neighborhood in terms of foot traffic with humans and dogs. That can be really hard for some dogs (actually, many and the majority of those are easily triggered by seeing other dogs) as it’s too much to handle and it’s easy for them to go from calm to hyper-aroused in no time. It really puts them in some risky situations and puts their own safety in jeopardy, and sometimes that in itself can exacerbate any existing behavioral challenges. I see it in my work frequently. If that describes [your dog] and you feel like having some solid support to help her gain skills to navigate situations like that would be welcome, I’m happy to recommend a couple of certified canine behavior consultants, if you’re not already working with one. In any case, I’m glad that [your dog] is okay!

In reading this post, it might give you pause as you make your way out on your next outing on your own or with your own dog, and maybe even seek training on how to manage a dog fight. If you’ve a dog who has trouble managing themselves, I hope this inspires you to find the right help and taking the right precautions so that situations like this can be avoided. I’m grateful that I hadn’t been chaperoning one of my geriatric charges, one that’s in hospice or recovering from an injury or surgery -- the ones who would be easily be (re)injured or killed in an interaction like this. And if you’re fond of using a retractable leash or letting your pet go off leash altogether, I hope this cautionary tale changes your thinking.    

Lorrie Shaw is a Certified Professional Pet Sitter, Certified Pet Loss and Grief Companion, and owner of Professional Pet Sitting, where she specializes in ancillary pet palliative and pet hospice care. She's also a member of Doggone Safe (where she completed the Speak Dog Certificate Program), as well as the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, Pet Sitters International, Pet Professional Guild, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (supporting member) and Ann Arbor Area Pet Sitters. Lorrie can be found at She tweets at @psa2.

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