Communication during walks

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Feb 1, 2016, 11.17 PM IST

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Peanut and Butter are two adorable dogs. But they carry a burden – they live in the same house and don’t get along too well with each other. This has had a profound effect on their lives. Butter has become a nervous dog needing a lot of space. Peanut has become dog-reactive. Peanut was also injured early in his life, which left him with a permanent limp. And that has repercussions on his entire constitution. His nerves are frayed, quite literally. His skin ripples to a touch. A dog in such discomfort and stress will understandably be on edge. As expected, he is quick to react to the first sign of confrontation from any other dog.

Just to illustrate Peanut’s dog-reactiveness, let me give you an example. I was walking him one evening when we passed by a beauty parlour. The place was shut and the closed door was made of reflective glass. Peanut’s own reflection caught his attention. He went up to the reflection to examine it. As he recognised the silhouette of a dog, he became agitated. His lips curled and he let out a low growl. His reflection growled back at him. He backed up and assumed a menacing position. He sniffed around the “other dog” and started to wonder if there indeed was a dog there. We finally left 10 minutes later when he had confirmed that there was no dog there. But all it took was a reflection to set him off.

Peanut and Butter have dog walkers who are so nervous to walk them that they carry a big stick with them to ward off any stray dogs that might approach. They don’t know how else to handle Peanut’s dog reactivity. So when I offered to walk Peanut and Butter without a stick, it left the humans around quite unsure and surprised. I started by walking the dogs one at a time, because dogs need that kind of attention during walks.

As Peanut and I started approaching a fork in the road, we encountered our streeties. At the mouth of each of the two roads in front of us, there were two dogs each, barking and growling and asking us to stay away. Confronted with four streeties, I tensed up a bit at first. I tried to signal to Peanut that we were going to turn around and head back. Peanut resisted. I remembered my teacher’s advice and took a deep breath. I eased up, stopped instructing Peanut and loosened the leash. It does take a little skill to be able to keep the leash short but loose. But it’s an important skill worth learning. As I did that, I realised Peanut was busy sniffing the ground. In the dog world this is a signal to ask other dogs to calm down. He was communicating with them. Gradually, he meandered around a bit and entered the street that was guarded by two frantically barking dogs. Eventually the dogs stopped barking and signalled back to him. Once he had established good communication, he turned around and we walked back.

However, it’s easy to see that such subtle communication completely breaks down if we are instructing the dogs or yanking on the leash. Hence the skill of loose leash walking with minimal instructions is important. Dogs, left to themselves are great at conflict resolution. Even the dog-reactive Peanut could manage that. But they need to be given a chance. I’ll let you in on the most important lesson I have learnt through my education – the best “dog training” tool that exists is the ability to self-train ourselves by getting more observant about dogs.

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