OUCH – You Stepped on My Foot by Jacqueline Bunn

Exercising a fully-grown, 13 stone Neapolitan Mastiff isn’t without its problems, but some could easily be avoided.

On a recent walk together, Gus, my six-year old neutered, rescued Neapolitan Mastiff, were ambling through the woods, as we frequently do, when we saw a Labrador in the distance on a 5m flexi-lead.

As we approached each other on the path, the Labrador was reeled in tighter and tighter until, when we were only a few metres apart, the owner had the poor dog strung up to the point of strangulation.

The behaviour of the Labrador up to this point had been very open and sociable; wide, open mouth with tongue bouncing, tail wagging in a fast, wide arc, head upright and ears forward with a very loose gait. By the time he was within spitting distance of Gus and me, his body had become stiff, his ears were held tightly back and his tail was almost between his legs. His facial expression had become much tighter and noticeably less open and relaxed.

It is at this point that I normally ask the owner if their dog is friendly, explain that mine is, although a little clumsy, and ask if they can say hello. It is the polite and courteous thing to do these days when meeting an on-lead dog. The owner, by now struggling to reel his Labrador in any tighter, grimaced ‘he’s a bit funny with other dogs actually…’ not taking his eyes off the imposing blue elephant that is Gus jumping up and down on the lead, straining to go introduce himself. ‘Well mine’s a bit clumsy, but he’s on a lead, don’t worry. Let them say hello…’ The other owner smiled and nodded weakly as if I’d asked him for his wallet…

Thirteen-stone Gus had decided that he would very much like to say hello and started his usual clumsy, but infinitely sociable charge towards the Labrador.

Perhaps controversially, I believe in on-lead first contact between unfamiliar dogs. Perhaps more understandably, the lead is as long and loose as possible. Gus has a 2.5m lead which allows me to have the option of control – well as much as one can when the dog weighs the same as the average small pony – but it allows me to keep my distance while he makes his clumsy introductions so that I do not interfere with the greeting ritual between unfamiliar dogs.

At the sight of Gus bouncing towards his dog like an elephant on a trampoline, the expression of the Labrador’s owner was one of sheer horror; the Labrador was subsequently held by the collar so rigidly that its eyes were bulging. Not surprisingly, when Gus got to within sniffing distance, the Labrador attempted to lunge, eyes rolling and growling.

The owner responded with a sharp jerk of the collar and a shouted ‘SIT DOWN NOW. Very bad dog… SIT!’ and forced down with a hard hand pressed down on the Labrador ‘s hips until they hit the floor.

‘No, no, that’s okay; he’s allowed to tell Gus off if he’s not happy. Gus is approaching too fast, but he will back off if your dog tells him to…’

As if to demonstrate this point, the Labrador then lunged and snapped at Gus again and Gus immediately took a step back and dropped his head. The other owner then released his vice-like grip and allowed the Labrador a whole 10cms extra on the lead… Immediately the dog’s body relaxed a little and its tail rose for a wag, albeit a reserved one. The two dogs proceeded to make their introductions in the normal way, sniffing rears, pacing around each other, until Gus accidentally stepped on the Labrador’s foot, to which the Labrador jumped and snapped at Gus. There was no contact (merely an ‘air snap’), no uncontrolled aggression on the part of the Labrador; it simply expressed displeasure at being trodden on by a clumsy fat foot. Gus again responded, wholly appropriately, by jumping back and hitting the deck immediately.

However, the other owner jerked the lead back at this so forcefully that the dog tumbled backwards and when it found its feet again, proceeded to snarl at Gus, displaying lots of very nice dentition…

I tried to explain that it was perfectly fine for his dog to complain at such clumsiness and pointed out that Gus had immediately assumed the ‘Oops, sorry’ position, but the owner merely shook his head and told his dog off again for growling. Of course, this only worked for a nanosecond and the dog resumed its aggression with more vigour.

The dog was then dragged off on a lead-length so short that the dog’s front legs were suspended off the ground, still snarling and snapping at Gus, who appeared to receive these parting comments with a strange mixture of bewilderment and contempt, as is my anthropomorphic interpretation of every introduction that ends like this!

This incident is sadly very common today in public dog-walking areas. Owners, for a variety of reasons including lack of confidence in their own handling abilities, worry about litigation, lack of familiarity with dog communication etc., are restricting their dog’s natural ability to communicate and very often inadvertently creating the aggression that they are afraid of in the first place.

When dogs meet, it is as ritualised a process as shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries is for us. When we learn to trust that dogs will make their introductions in their own way and communicate their intentions/status far more effectively when we do not interfere, the chances are that our dogs will gain confidence in their ability to handle their interactions with other dogs and subsequently engage in play or other pleasant sociable activities.

The above incident highlights with sinister clarity the way that a dog, perfectly adequately equipped with the skills to interact with other dogs, learns that any communication perceived as negative by its owner is responded to with positive punishment (the lead jerk and verbal reprimand) and negative punishment (being dragged away from social interaction).

The owner, had he understood that it was perfectly acceptable for his dog to show its displeasure at having one of his metatarsals crumpled by a pseudo-elephant and not reacted negatively to the Labrador’s ‘air snap’, he would have given his dog a message that he had confidence in its own ability to interact with another dog and also not incited the subsequent aggressive reaction by vicariously associating the unpleasantness of positive punishment with the close proximity of another dog.

The next time the Labrador met another dog it probably took one less step before using an aggressive display to communicate with another dog.

That is how fear aggression towards other dogs can escalate. Doesn’t take much, does it?

However, there are things you can do to ease the tension that you feel, that subsequently your dog feels when meeting a strange dog on a walk:

  • Ensure that you can hold your dog steady; if your dog has the ability to physically pull you about, investigate methods of control that aren’t affected by power to weight ratio such as head-collars and anti-pull harnesses. If your dog has punctured skin by biting or snapping in the past, then a humane muzzle will be necessary to prevent the risk of injury to another dog; it will also make you feel a little more relaxed when in proximity to another dog. It cannot be overstated how much difference this can make in your reactions to dog interaction.
  • Invest in a lead at least 2m long, preferably 2.5m. Practice the art of keeping the lead slack, but being able to take up the slack to gain control at a moment’s notice.
  • Try to set up your dog to succeed. Before getting close to the other dog, ask if it is friendly and say that your dog is a little clumsy, which is why it is muzzled/on a head-collar, but would like to say hello. Reassure the other owner that you have your dog on a lead and will be in control, however, if the other owner responds that their dog isn’t friendly or ‘a bit funny with other dogs’, thank them for the info and calmly lead your dog past without interaction. Only allow your dog to meet friendly, sociable dogs that are confident in their ability to communicate with others.
  • BEFORE THE DOGS MEET start ‘Happy Talk’, i.e. lots of light-hearted, happy, smiley talk and keep babbling inanely throughout the interaction. It helps disperse any tension and gives your dog some confidence that you are happy and relaxed, so he can be – even if you aren’t!
  • Allow the dogs to approach, preferably as ‘side-on’ as possible or even better, rear-to-rear. This is less confrontational to a dog than a nose-to-nose approach. Encourage your dog to sniff the other dog’s rear if they will allow, praising your dog verbally if they do this.
  • Keep as far away from the interacting dogs as possible. Don’t be tempted into thinking that you need to be right next to your dog to prevent a fight – you have control via a long lead if necessary – STAND BACK! Let them get on with it. This may involve some ‘maypole dancing’ in order to keep the leads free of tangling!
  • Watch the dogs communicating avidly. Look for signs of escalating tension; if the two dogs do not decide to either play or go their separate ways and neither dog displays submissive gestures such as play bowing, rolling on their back, lowering their head etc., after a short amount of time, i.e. 10 seconds, then call your dog away happily and enthusiastically, perhaps with a slight twitch on the lead, then start walking away. When your dog comes to you, praise lavishly, play a game, give a treat, etc.

Learn to be confident in your ability to read how dogs communicate and trust your instincts about when to call your dog away. Try and get hold of some videos on dog behaviour (NOT wolf behaviour!) and learn to recognise certain physical signals that will tell you whether the dogs have communicated adequately, i.e. play bowing, walking away from each other (and possibly immediately urinating).

Trust in your ability to be able to calmly control your dog at the end of its lead if tension escalates. A couple of large steps back from each owner should be sufficient to get the dogs apart. This is an entirely more safe and efficient option than wading in with arms and legs that will undoubtedly get punctured.

It’s perfectly natural for dogs to have a little grumble or snap at each other or put a paw over the other dog’s shoulder, etc., to establish status. Don’t over react to this – it is dog communication! It is important to watch the reaction of the other dog; if they display immediate submission (i.e. Gus lowering his head and hitting the deck), then be assured that these dogs are communicating perfectly fine without your help and continue to just observe.

Our pet dogs look to us for all manner of things, food, shelter, affection, exercise, etc. One of the lesser-known elements of dog care is the freedom to communicate with other dogs without our prejudices. Our dogs are not children and do not require our ‘protection’, although they can benefit from our guidance. They possess a highly ritualised process of communication that we must not interfere with if at all possible.

Our guidance comes in if dogs’ confidence in their natural rituals have been muted, then that’s when to gently guide them as to appropriate behaviour when meeting other dogs. They can then ‘rediscover’ the rituals they will have learned as litter mates and subsequently develop the confidence to accept a snap from another dog as nothing more than ‘Ouch, you stepped on my foot – be a bit more careful you big oaf – then I might play with you!’

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Jacqueline Bunn for the CFBA, the CIDBT, and their students of Dog Behaviour & Training

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