The Bane of Our Lives! Strategies to deal with unwanted attentions when out with our dog

May 15, 2020

A thorny topic that many of us find difficult is how to deal with the unwanted attention of other people and their dogs. Whether it is the “Dogs love me” person who wants to stroke your fearful dog or the out of control or over-exuberant dog who is trying to reach yours, most of my clients say that without other people, living with their dog would be so easy. “They are the bane of our lives” is a frustrated cry I have heard many times! 

The trouble with other people often starts with our response to them. We feel apologetic so we try to explain our dog’s behaviour. We are embarrassed so we try to make them understand. We feel it is our responsibility to educate them. And most of these attempts fall on deaf ears – and sometimes get an abusive response. 

But our priority when dealing with other people on walks is not them, but our dogs. And the strategy we adopt depends on the type of person we are dealing with. 

There are four types of people we will meet on our walks.

The first is the informed and considerate guardian who, seeing you from a fair distance, recalls their dog and puts them on a lead or discreetly turns onto another path. These are the people we rarely even notice because they have taken action well in advance and they never allow their dogs to bother ours. We don't have to do anything with these guardians because they are proactive in handling things themselves. But just because we don’t notice them as often, we should never forget that they are there. It helps us keep perspective!

The second are the less informed but essentially cooperative guardians who don’t take automatic action but have good control of their dogs and are willing to act if we ask in good time. These are people we may misunderstand because they see the world differently to us. Their dog may be social and like nothing better than to play with other dogs or get a fuss from strangers. All the dogs they have ever lived with have been the same. So they genuinely believe that dogs all want to play together. They don't understand that some dogs need space. They may not recognise the signs of pain, discomfort or fear.

We can't assume that everyone sees what we see or knows what we know. So we need to tell people exactly what we need them to do – and this strategy works well with this second group.

Stay back. Don't touch. Call your dog. Wait a moment.

We don't have to be rude but we do have to be clear if we want action. We need to be firm and explicit and not apologetic. Say it with a smile and a please but not while sharing your dog's life story. Explanations can wait. When we do this, without anger or blame, people who can almost always do as we ask. Why would they not call their dog, when they can?

Those who don’t usually fall into our third group: the ones who can’t. These range from the “My dog is friendly” ones who are trying to retrieve their dog (and that phrase can be an attempt at reassurance – it is not always an indication that they want their dog to play with yours!) to those who, in their own embarrassment, resort to abuse.

Many people simply can’t recall their dog – and you can often tell by watching how the dog is with other walkers or how engaged the person is with their dog – or indeed you may have prior experience of them! We can rage that they shouldn’t have their dog off lead if that is the case, but the truth is many always will so we need to be prepared for them. In this case our priority is different. We are not going to interact with that person at all if we can help it. We are going to be proactive and get out of their way.

Our priority, our main concern, always has to be our dog: keeping our dog feeling safe.

So when you see them coming, turn and walk in another direction. If your planned route is going to bring you close to them, choose another route.
When planning your walking routes, try to choose places with multiple options, different paths, open spaces. Be prepared to change your plans if it will keep your dog feeling safe. 

The fourth group of guardians is the absent ones. These are either physically absent – their dog is out alone or they are so far away from their dog as to be no help at all or they are so unconcerned that we are on our own sorting things out. When another dog is trying to come up to our dog, one of our best strategies is to use a barrier.

When something feels threatening, putting a barrier between us, makes us feel safer. Barriers are not always about hiding - they are about protection and increasing our sense of safety. Having a barrier can help us build confidence.

You have quite a few options for barriers to help your dog. 

There are environmental ones. Look for fences, gates, cars, trees, even bollards. Note where they are on regular walks so you are aware when you are near one. Where you can, position yourself behind something physical.

But sod's law means the dog always runs up to us in the middle of an open field. So what then? 

You can use portable barriers. My good friend, Tracey McLennan, in her wonderful book "Canine Aggression" (if you haven't read it yet do!), talks about how she used a pop-up umbrella to protect her dog Calgacus from stray dogs. Popping up an umbrella before the other dog reaches you provides a physical barrier for your dog and a visual block for the oncoming dog - genius! Of course, you need to train your dog to be comfortable with the umbrella being opened first or you may do more harm than good!

Or you can be the barrier yourself. The advantage of this is you are always there and you don't need to get anything out so it is quick. Teach your dog to "Go Behind" or teach them "Middle" (to come between your legs). That way you can shield them from oncoming danger.

So plan what barriers might work for you and your dog and get practising! 

Remember no one strategy will work for every situation so the more we have in our tool kit, the better prepared we will be!

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