I barked up the wrong tree

If I had a tail, I would have returned home from the dog park this week with it tucked firmly between my legs. Let me share the lessons learned from an awfully awkward encounter with you.

I was exercising Zac by throwing a stick for him in a quiet part of the park, taking advantage of a break in the rain. Soon I was joined by a lady with an older German Shepherd Dog and then a man with a beautiful red Border Collie, which for the purpose of this story we’ll call, say, Rover. I closely monitored Zac’s body language because he can be dog reactive but all was well – the GSD was just standing at a distance more interested in the ball she was carrying and Rover, while, attempting some herding behaviour around Zac, kept a good distance and Zac was relaxed while he lay down chewing on his stick.

The lady and man struck up a conversation behind me, talking about their dogs while I kept throwing the stick and keeping an eye on my dog’s body language.

The man was saying things like: “I tried to take him to agility but he was badly behaved and would run off into the creek”; “I could tell he wasn’t really wanted there”; “he can be quite unmanageable” and “he is intimidated by some other dogs, particularly large females”. It went on and on all the while him not taking any action to monitor his dog or protect it in any way from the others that had joined us by then including a large, female Labrador and a Jack Russell.

I then also noticed that while this dog was watching Zac, his mouth was open. Not in a hot, panting way, but in a fixed angle and within a minute I saw him yawn three times – a sure sign in body language that the dog is stressed or uncomfortable.

With the owner still banging on about the dog and this is the point – it was all about the dog and the mistakes he was making – I felt myself walking over. I just couldn’t help myself.

“Your dog’s body language is showing to me that he is stressed around other dogs,” I said. The man agreed with me, repeating what he’d told the other person that he’s intimidated by older females. I then launched into my view that he should bring treats to the park, cut out dinner and make the calorie intake at the park around him doing good recalls and being rewarded for calm around other dogs. Take responsibility for his dog’s wellbeing in other words.

But before I could finish and step off my soap box, a whirling dervlish of teeth and growls broke out at the side of the park. The Jack Russell had clearly not kept his distance from Zac and entered his uncomfortable proximity zone, tried to jump on him or tried to take his stick. Either way, Zac had reacted.

I rapidly made chase after Zac, only after a few attempts managing to grab him and put him back on lead. There was a lot of teeth baring and growling, most of it hot air but not pretty or pleasant to hear or see.

Let me be clear here. This was my fault. I had taken my eyes off Zac when I was responsible for being in control of him when he was off lead, the condition of using off lead parks. While he’d been calm around the other dogs because they didn’t come into his personal space, while I’d been delivering my sermon about good behaviour I didn’t notice that the variables around my own dog’s calm had changed. The Jack Russell had broken into Zac’s personal space bubble.

Oh dog trainer heal thyself.

The life lessons I was reminded about the hard way from this experience:

  • Don’t offer advice, no matter how well intended, unless it’s asked for.
  • Remember to weed thy own patch before tending to those of others.
  • Don’t make any assumptions about anything while your dog is off lead.
  • And lastly, always love your dog, no matter how much they embarrass you!
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