Conversations in the Park

How to Support Your Dog Whilst Walking

By Toni Shelbourne


Every day I counter dogs of all types in the park. They have their own personality and idiosyncrasies. Each deals with greeting other dogs in a unique way. Your dog's reaction will very much depend on what they get from the other dog. Does the approaching dog have good communication skills or are they lacking in the art of canine conversation?  How can you shield your pooch from the rude or dangerous dogs or what should you do if it's your dog that is causing all the problems?

Many dogs are deprived of the time to interact with those of their own species on a regular prolonged basis. Therefore they can crave interaction and social play. This can promote boisterous behaviour which is often misread by other, more socially aware dogs. Dogs on first sight should have the skills to suss each other out long before they get to the sniffing stage. If both have good communication skills, each would have performed a whole range of signals to calm and reassure the other. These signals which we sometimes call calming signals, include averting their eye gaze, licking their own nose, yawning, blinking, sniffing the ground, sitting down, urinating, slowing down, stopping and waiting for the other dog to approach and sniff, arcing in from the side. If you have not noticed these subtle signals before, the next time you are in the park watch out for them. You will be amazed at how much dogs talk to each other.

In the park, if unsure my own dog will stand patiently by my side, knowing that I will deal with the situation. She trusts I will protect her but she also gains confidence around more boisterous dogs through my actions. If I interact with them and they are ok then she feels she can too.

The one hundred mile an hour dasher

These dogs pelt towards you at a great speed, usually from across the park with their owner shouting from a distance. Usually these dogs mean no harm but occasionally they may be aggressive. The key is to look at their faces. Are the facial expressions wooden and the eyes hard? Are their bodies relaxed or do they look like a coiled spring. When I see a dog approach in a fast manner, I ask my dog to stand behind me and in a long low, drawn out voice, accompanied by a hand signal which clearly means stop I say 'steady'. I draw it out to last several second and keep my voice in a singsong tone, like steeaaaaddddyyyyy. Nine times out of ten the approaching dog stops in its tracks metres away from me and calms down. I can then either redirect their attention toward the owner or I can interact with the dog myself, defusing the attention directed towards my dog.

If you are the owner of a hundred mile an hour dasher, think about how you would feel if another human came running up to you in this manner. Re-train your dog to stay by your side or direct them towards a toy to avoid them doing this. If you can't prevent it, teach a strong heel command and put them on leash until they are close enough to walk calmly towards the other dog. Warn the owner your dog is boisterous but will not harm their dog and let them make the decision whether your dog can interact with theirs. Also go back to basics and teach a strong recall command. I've managed to stop these types of dogs in their tracks and recall them with the right motivation.

The avoiders

These dogs go out of their way to keep their distance from all dogs. They are sometimes seen focused on their owner or a toy, or nervously dashing around the edges of activity. They give off nervous signals or might growl or snap if your dog approaches. Give these dogs lots of space; they are uncomfortable in social situations around dogs they don't know. Don't let your dog approach them for their own safety. The nervous dog might easily flip from flight to fight.

If you own an avoider there is lots you can do to boost your dog's confidence and improve their social skills. Supporting your dog with Tellington TTouch tools like the body wrap and body work in the park can really help to lower stress levels and start the process of changing their perception. With simple techniques you can support them going into, during and coming out of a situation. Using treats with these dogs is best avoided as this inhibits them from dealing with the situation, a bit like comfort eating can make us feel better but the underlying problem remains.

The on leaders

If you have to keep your dog on a leash in the park for whatever reason, it is still important that your dog gets to be a dog and is allowed to sniff and do doggy things. Use a long line or flexi-lead to allow them more freedom, which will encourage more mental stimulus. It is best to attach the long line to a good fitting harness, to allow you dog to feel more comfortable and prevent neck injuries. As an owner you need to be patient and give them time and space to be a dog. Route marching around the park or the streets is not good physically or mentally for your canine companion. If your dog shows aggression towards others then train them to wear a muzzle and follow the same steps as for the avoiders. Some dogs can learn to be more confident around others or at least stay calm in their presence. The presence of the muzzle will also make other owners more aware and hopefully less likely to let their dog approach yours. If they do, at least you have been responsible in taking precautions.

If you come across a dog on lead and you can't keep your dog from rushing over, then pop them back on leash while you pass by. When near enough to the owner of the other dog I always ask if it's ok for my dog to interact or if they prefer me to keep my dog away. If on a narrow track, I never let my dog pass an on leash dog without talking to the owner first. So many problems occur in narrow spaces, why take the risk.

The playful puppies

Dogs of any age can be playful and naturally gregarious. My dog has learnt which dogs mean her no harm when they bounce up to her and those she needs to avoid. These dogs have a zest for life, are joyful and fun loving. However some dogs can misread these signals, especially if your dog has asked them to calm down, but the other's happy go lucky nature prevents them from reading the signals. This type seems so surprised when they get snapped at. I try to intercept these out-going characters and play with them myself. After a while my shyer, quieter dog usually comes to join in once she can see this boisterous buffoon has no ill intent.

If I've just described your dog then remember, just because your dog is happy it doesn't mean every dog in the park wants to join in the game. Again it's about directing that exuberance and ensuring your dog's behaviour is not intimidating to others.

The entire male

If you own a female dog you'll know the type well. They are in your girl's face, drooling over her and trying to mount even if she's not in season. These male males, as I call them, can be really intimating for your girl, so protect her. It was through rude male behaviour that I had to teach my girl to come and stand by me for protection instead of running off, which only heightened the male dog's attention. If I see this type approaching I call her to me and do some TTouches. As the dog approaches, if I can't defuse the situation myself by talking and interacting with the dog then at least I am near enough to intercept them until the owner arrives to retrieve their dog.

If your dog has a high sex drive, whether castrated or entire then talk to a conventional or homeopathic vet. There are lots of remedies which can tone down your dog's unwanted behaviour. It can be very scary for a female dog; think about how you would feel if a human came crashing through the undergrowth and jumped on you. Of course some entire dogs will behave aggressively towards other male dogs so be aware of this behaviour too.

Human communication

We humans can be just as bad at not communicating to each other in the park as our dogs. I always make a point of saying hello and starting a dialogue about my dog's needs. Everyone in my local park knows what I expect from them and their dogs because I've had a polite conversation with them if needed. If I can't get what I need for my shy girl then I avoid meeting them, I simply walk in a different direction. Sometimes it's just best to think 'if my dog can't be successful in this situation then I'm just not going to allow her to fail and possibly come away from it scared'. After all, behaviour breeds behaviour, so many fearful traits have been started in dogs because of what has happened to them, why risk it.