One of the many joys of living with dogs is heading out into the wider world with them. Walking with calm, cooperative dogs is good for body and mind and watching dogs enjoy themselves, in their natural environment, should be an absolute pleasure. Sadly, for many dog owners this is an area where things can go wrong and the walk instead of being a joy becomes an ordeal.
Excessive pulling on the lead, poor or no recall, general lack of control, aggressive behaviour towards people and other dogs, chasing joggers, lunging at cars, jumping up at people! . . . the list goes on and all of this behaviour can be traced back to the dogs firm belief that he is the decision-maker, the one responsible for pack safety and therefore – in his mind – the Pack Leader!
The role of Pack Leader is a stressful one (ask any parent or Managing Director!) and studies show that levels of stress hormones are significantly higher in the Alpha wolves. The average family pet dog is not a ‘born leader’ as the Alpha wolves would usually be and their attempts to fulfil this role, and our attempts to stop them, lead to an escalation in stress levels, of all concerned!
The result is problem behaviour and the most patient of owners may struggle to remain calm when their dog is dragging them around the park, launching himself at everybody and everything and generally causing chaos. The more agitated the owner becomes by their dog’s behaviour, the more agitated their dog becomes, and we have a vicious circle of stress and anxiety!
As always, the solution is to look at the world from the dog’s perspective and truly understand what he believes is happening, when the pack leaves the safety of the home and heads out into the wider world. From a ‘decision-making’ dogs point of view, when you head out into the wider-world there are important things to do and challenges to cope with! A dogs sense of smell is his primary sense and he will use it to check out the environment and find out what’s going on. Who has been through this territory? How many have there been? Male or female, old or young and what kind of mood they were in – friend or foe!!! . . . and much more! These are all details a dog can obtain through his sense of smell! What a nose!
Although a dog’s brain is only one tenth of the size of the human brain, the area responsible for his sense of smell is 40 times larger! This means his sense of smell is between 10’000 and 100’000 times (depending on breed) more sensitive than ours! And when you think about where they put their noses, it’s enough to make your eyes water!!!
So there’s your dog, busily checking out – and scent marking – this territory. It may be a territory that he visits regularly, perhaps every day, or it may be his first time here and everything is new and unfamiliar. Either way, a dog who thinks he’s in charge and responsible for his pack, must also keep an eye – or should I say nose – out for potential threats to pack safety! Most commonly, these would come in the form of other dogs and people, the other large ‘predators’ that a dog is likely to meet out there! Many dogs are able to manage these interactions in a relatively calm and well-balanced way. Exactly how they do this will vary from dog to dog and depends on a number of factors, including what we do! But for some dogs the stress becomes too much and unable to conceal their concern they may react in a less desirable and potentially inflammatory manner!
The result can be a dog fight, one of the most upsetting experiences that any dog owner can witness and one that can be avoided if we understand what is really going on FOR our dogs – and other peoples dogs too! If we have control of our dog/s and take the right kind of action at the right time, we can avoid dog to dog confrontation and have a peaceful and enjoyable walk, without feeling on edge and without having to avoid other dog walkers completely!
More on this subject next time . . .