Fight or flight. These are two automatic reactions that unite us with our dogs as base animal responses during times of intense stress. Just recently Zac and I had exactly the same reaction as two unleashed dogs ran full-pelt towards us. We both froze. Looking back on it now, I certainly could have done better in transmitting more positive energy down the lead.
It happened during a rare break in the late-winter rain and with sunshine clearing the way for a feeling of the spring that was on the doorstep, the Staffy and I headed into the bush for a walk. Ambling along a straight stretch of fire trail with Zac on lead, I saw first an offlead dog, then two horses, one being ridden by a woman with one being lead, then a man on foot and another dog, turn the corner around 100 metres ahead of us.
The minute the two Belgian Sheepdogs saw Zac they started running, gathering their legs underneath them like cheetahs. Time stood still as they bolted towards us, their whole bodies directed forward like arrows. The lady on the horse was shouting and the man was yelling at them but they did not even blink.
It’s really hard to tell what a dog’s intention is when it’s barreling towards you like that. Is it friendly or enthusiastic, are they paired up to attack or to seek out fun with another companion? Anticipatory electricity travelled up and down my dog lead from both ends, it was almost palpable.
When they finally reached us, I came to out of my frightened stupor and looked down at Zac. The bum sniff was in process already (slow reaction of the human being) and Zac was changing his posture from watchful wariness to don’t-mess-with-me and was stiffening up, hackles rising and tail stiff.
“Let’s go!” I called out in my happiest voice, “all good, let’s go” using the catchcry that means good things in Zac’s vocabulary. He started walking towards me and in that moment, the dog’s focus changed as well – immediately losing interest and running back to their owners.
Having my dog on lead on my end certainly gave me the upper hand here. As we continued our walk, I reflected on how I could have handled that differently:
- Getting out of my freeze quicker and putting on my happy voice before the dogs got to us. Keep the whole thing positive and light.
- Really focus on being relaxed while watching the initial interaction, rather than anticipating the worse and unconsciously channeling this stress back down the lead.
- Rather than standing still and waiting for them to come to us I wonder what would have happened if we came to them by walking slowly forward, changing the dynamics from pursue to greeting perhaps.
This is what I love about dog training. And life in general really. Every day gives you a chance to learn and try something different.