This time of year teems with a lot of good stuff: the sun rising earlier and setting later, slowly unfolding warmer weather, and activities that come with all that. With witnessing what feels like an unfurling from a cocoon as the confines of the pandemic begin to loosen, it’s clear that people are even more ready to get out and about. With more families beginning to feel comfortable enough to actually plan to indulge their wanderlust, visit family—even return to their physical workplaces—that means that I’ll be regaining a sense of normal as well.
And I realize that in some ways, things will look different than before. Just as there are changes with my feline and canine charges, there’s most definitely bound to be a shift in the dynamic of their respective neighborhoods, not to mention trails, dog parks and other areas that our canine friends frequent. That can be a good thing, though when it comes to looking at things through the lens of a seasoned dog handler, we know there are likely to be some added challenges, and serious ones at that.
One of the things I routinely do prior to a consultation with a new family or I’ve a reservation coming up with a household with canines that I’ve not seen in awhile, is to go to their neighborhood and do an assessment. Yes, I drive through. Then I park, get out and walk around the neighborhood and any surrounding trails. I pay close attention to how any handlers are navigating their outings with the dog or dogs on the other end of the leash, and any interactions with others. What kind of equipment are they using? Are they negotiating space with others thoughtfully? I also watch the body language and actions of the dogs when they see other dogs, humans or the random bunny or squirrel. I take notice of which homes have obvious occupancy with dogs. Any signs of electric fences? Who has a physical fence? Do I notice any off-leash pairings or solo dogs running about?
You get the idea. This kind of thing pays off: I know areas or streets to avoid, and I recognize which dog/handler teams have a hard time.
One thing that’s impossible to ignore lately are the number of electric fence systems that have been installed in recent weeks. Most dog handlers understand their usefulness, though we all-too-often see how they negatively impact dogs and the safety of others. Dogs can breach them, and we professionals see that they often do. Let me say that the close calls I’ve had personally because of electric fences have been more numerous than in times past. Having a dog come running from out of nowhere in their yard to the very edge of a sidewalk or street, barking and carrying on or worse is never a good feeling.
Wireless fencing systems are only the tip of the iceberg though; one situation that I found myself in a couple of years ago made me grateful for my skills, despite my one error. Thankfully, the dog that I was chaperoning wasn’t geriatric, though many are. Those dogs tend to have visual and hearing deficits, not to mention limited mobility and sometimes cognition changes and anxiety. In many cases, they’re terminal, and yes, some of those terminal dogs don’t look like it: they’re young—too young to be meeting their end—and despite their appearance, they’re physically compromised. Others are recovering from TPLO, spinal or other surgery/injury even though they often don’t show it. Some of the dogs in my care are living with behavioral challenges or anxiety, treated by a professional or not. Just as I carefully review every aspect of a dog’s history to ensure they’re not only healthy enough to be in my care from a health and behavior standpoint (ask any family-of-record—it is complete!) to ensure they have the best experience possible, it’s also my responsibility to ensure that I’m doing my due diligence to protect them (and myself) no matter if we’re in their yard or out on an adventure, short or long, and their right to have that. And that requires preparation.
Earlier this week, I caught the latest episode of The Bitey End of the Dog, hosted by Michael Shikashio, the brains behind AggeessiveDog.com. He and his guest, fellow credentialed dog behavior professional Laura Monaco Torelli, talk about an important topic and one not unfamiliar to dog handlers of all backgrounds: dog attacks. In the segment, Torelli chronicles a brutal attack (and its aftermath) that injured both her and her dog, Vito while they were out on an ordinary walk in their own neighborhood.
The poignant conversation brought memories of my own dog attack experiences and the many times I’ve used my skills to steer out of near misses. That said, Shikashio and Torelli include helpful tips on products and strategies to keep you and your dog safe, so the episode is worth a listen. The tips are ones I employ and then some, and so as we all re-orient ourselves into more frequent outings with or without dogs, I wanted to include my own strategies like:
•carry citronella spray, and use it properly: aim at or near the nose of the attacking dog, avoiding the animal’s eyes. The aim is to distract and dissuade the dog from continuing the approach, not to hurt them. And please, pepper spray isn’t necessary and any resulting mist could blow back into your face and disable you—not the goal.
•having a whistle attached to the zipper pull on my winter and summer outerwear, which when sounded can elicit an audible distraction for the other dog in hopes to either maintain distance or arrest an interaction in progress. It can also draw attention from other humans quickly and act as a distress call of sorts
•abiding by a policy of situational awareness, which means constantly paying attention to what’s going on with the dog on the other end of the leash, and what’s going on around us, and adjusting as necessary. This includes not talking on my cell phone and never wearing earbuds. Though my device (which I always maintain a full charge) can be a lifeline in so many ways, it should never be a distraction.
•keep a handful of high-value dog treats in my pocket/pouch to help navigate out of unwanted approaches by other dogs
•swiftly and thoughtfully decline on requests by other humans to pet your dog
•my case (and policy) for walking only one dog at a time
•and in the video below, another quirky tip and my top equipment choices and why.