August 25, 2010
A Pet’s Life
I’m a city girl with city dogs. My two pugs don’t want to go to a park and chase a ball. They want to go shopping. It’s usually window-shopping, of course, but they like nothing better than to take a nice stroll along a crowded sidewalk. The more people are around, the more likely someone is going to stop and pet them.
I have always felt sorry for children growing up in the suburbs who can’t go anywhere unless someone drives them. And I feel just as sorry for the dogs that see nothing but the same backyard and the same people every day. Recently, I showed up at the Washington Humane Society’s “Cosmopolitan Canine” workshop ready for an argument. I expected it to be all about the problems of city living with dogs: poor urban pups deprived of that frolicking in the fields that is supposed to be the universal canine vision of paradise.
But Kevin Simpson, the director of the WHS Behavior and Learning Center, was one step ahead of me. His first topic was “the benefits of urban living for your dog.” He reminisced about what was lacking in the small town where he grew up: no dog parks, no pet boutiques, no specialty or emergency 24-hour vets. What’s more, there were a limited variety of people, places and things that his dogs got to experience.
Still, living in a city presents issues for both humans and canines, and one is that we all need to make a special effort to be good neighbors. Modern dog owners have gotten the message that it’s important to socialize their dogs – to get them used to interacting with other dogs and people. But sometimes we go overboard and actually make city life more stressful than it needs to be.
Think of how in a small town strangers say “hello” when they pass on the street. We don’t do that in a big city, because when we share close quarters, we need to feel we still have some privacy. Yet, many of us expect our dogs to meet and greet every other dog that passes.
Even if your dog is the type who loves everyone, it’s important to remember that you can not expect every other dog to love him back. When another dog approaches, ask if it’s okay to greet, and make sure there’s enough room. It is polite dog social behavior not to meet head-on. That’s rude and may cause a dog to try to defend himself. They need room to circle each other and approach from the side.
Simpson says you need to have reasonable expectations about your dog’s interactions. “I do not like every single person I ever met,” he says. “Don’t expect him to like every dog he meets.” This doesn’t mean lunging and aggression are acceptable behavior, but you don’t have to stop and sniff every dog that walks by. “It’s okay to say no,” Simpson says.
Don’t be afraid of a white lie if — as is so often the case — the other owner doesn’t get it that no means no. If you really need to avoid an encounter, a good last resort trick is to call out from a distance, “My dog has kennel cough.”
Exercising your dog can be another issue, particularly for apartment dwellers, and dog parks can be a great urban resource for this. Unfortunately, too many owners tend to drink coffee and chat with other owners without keeping a close eye on their canines’ interactions.
The interaction at dog parks can be great mental and physical exercise for your pup, but for safety’s sake, you need to supervise. This means learning enough about dog body language to know when to intervene. Simpson showed the class some videos that demonstrated a couple of the behaviors to watch for. In one video, a dog approached another head-on with a hard stare, which is a sign of aggression. In another case, he pointed out that you should watch the behavior of the receiving dog as well. A dog standing extremely still when being sniffed is telling you that he’s being intimidated, even if the other dog’s behavior looks okay to you.
Finally, there’s one big favor a city dog owner can do for everyone. If you have one of those retractable leashes (Flexi is the well-known brand), please don’t use it if you don’t know how to lock it! There is a little button on the handle that will stop the leash from extending. Use your Flexi when you’re running around a park or other open space, but don’t use it on a crowded street. In a situation where your dog can get tangled on obstacles or run ahead of you and encounter other people and unsupervised dogs, lock your Flexi at a short length or leave it at home. Your neighbors – both human and canine – will thank you.
Go to http://www.washhumane.org and click on the link to the Behavior and Learning Center for a list of upcoming pet behavior workshops and training classes.
Your Dog’s Friend is holding a free workshop with Robin Bennett, author of Off-Leash Dog Play: A Complete Guide to Safety & Fun, on September 25th. Space is limited; register at http://www.yourdogsfriend.info/Workshop-Schedules.html
A good place to start to learn more about dog play behavior on your own is on this page at the website of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers: http://www.apdt.com/petowners/park/default.aspx