Social distancing for dogs

Happy Good Friday everyone. For those of you who follow a Christian tradition, it’s a day for quiet and reflection, which just seems like a normal day during this period of lock-down! For me, the day was only few hours old when I was given a lesson that certainly caused me to stop and reflect.

I was out with Jenna, our pretty red collie, up our local hill, keeping my distance from other human beings and dogs. Normally, I don’t walk Jenna much, I just take her out for a toilet walk and back in the house. When out with her in the wider locale, I always have her on the lead. I would only let her off if I knew it was safe to do so, and was confident that she would come back to me straight away if I called her. There are too many dangers around our area as well as dogs running off the lead. This morning it was quiet, with the birds out practicing their spring choruses. There were one or two other dogs up the hill, but they were a couple of hundred yards away and far enough to not be of concern for Jenna.

My job as pack leader is to protect my pack from danger. I want Jenna to feel safe with me when I take her out, she has to trust her life with me otherwise she won’t accept my leadership skills. It’s a bit like going in a car with a reckless driver. If you’d had one scary experience would you want to go out with them again?

The gods were waiting though to give me a lesson. I made the cardinal mistake of answering a text on my phone when out walking Jenna. I took my eyes off watching out for other dogs whilst I replied to my friend. A movement made me look up, there was a small, black French bulldog about 20 yards away. He’d just appeared from the side of the hill and was way too near to where Jen and I were. Certainly too close for social distancing stipulations. I needed to move away. As I walked Jenna in the opposite direction, the black Frenchie started to run towards us, only to be joined by a white one. They started barking and Jenna started pulling towards them, growling. Jenna is not good with other dogs, she has a big personal space (and personality!), and I have to make sure that when I’m out with her that we maintain a good gap. This was far too close. The other two dogs were closing in, barking aggressively. Jenna was now pulling towards them and hurling a volley of warning barks.

As I try to block the other dogs with my body (they were now circling us), Jenna’s lead slips my grip and she is on the offensive. Most humans watching this scenario would see it as a shouting match between two wee yappy dogs and a bigger collie. To Jenna, however, she is a wolf that has been cornered, she has taken over the decision making, and is protecting her pack with her life (because her owner has failed her abysmally). I am still trying to keep my body between a rapidly moving Jenna and the other two dogs. I avoid the temptation to put my hand into the middle because a hand is a delicate instrument and likely to get bitten. I shout at the dogs, hoping that this will frighten them off. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference but it does bring the owner running over. I then manage to stamp my foot down on the end of Jenna’s lead and snatch it up. I back away with the snarling Jen as the owner of the Frenchies does the same — the black one still throwing Parthian shots as he is dragged away. As the distance increases so do the energy levels drop.

I call to the owner that he should keep his dogs on a lead, that they shouldn’t run up to other dogs. He said that they were only being playful(!) I say that I’m a dog behaviourist  (not something I tend to yell at others as it isn’t the best approach) and that his dogs were being very aggressive. He mumbles an apology and moves away.

Once I had calmed down, Jenna’s pulse had dropped, and we’d moved a good distance from the scene, I did some ‘SSCD’ or ‘stop, start, change direction’, to re-establish who was the decision-maker. As I walked back along our street I reflected upon the current situation that we are all in. Because we’re all in lock-down, more people are out along the cycle track and up the hill. We’re all carefully practicing social distancing, I even saw one dog owner with a face mask on — but we’re not doing the same for our dogs. Think about it folks … apart from the risks of transmitting the virus from one dog to another, if an owner has to come and collect their dog they may have to come within the 2m distance limit.

So, I learned two lessons today:

  1. A reminder not to look at my phone when I’m out with Jenna, and
  2. That it really is just too busy and too random to take her out at the moment. I should just stick to the garden for toileting and play or try to go out with her when it is quiet.

Every day is a learning day even for trained and experienced dog behaviourists! So can I finish with a plea to all dog owners. As well as keeping social distance between us humans please remember that our dogs also need to maintain their own personal space – which is much greater than 2 metres. Thank you.

2 thoughts on “Social distancing for dogs”

  1. Sorry to read this Colum. Must have been distressing for you both. Memories of Jake being harassed in the park by a deerhound many years ago.

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    1. That’s really hard, Ian. There is also a collie in the end house that tends to charge out of the house at any dog walking along. My difficulty is that I want Jen to feel safe when she’s out with me…

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