I was out working with one of my clients one day and we were talking about handling her dog’s dog aggression when she said, “It’s like stop, look, and listen!” (She works in a school; I’m guessing this sort of thing comes up often with kids!)
It was an epiphany for me. A hilarious epiphany, as I immediately started laughing.
If you have a dog with an issue — any issue, whether or not it’s aggression related — these are excellent steps.
1. Stop. As soon as you realize there’s a trigger around, STOP WALKING. Do not get any closer to it until you’ve assessed the situation! So often I see people, most often with dog aggressive dogs, keep moving forward while they’re trying to check their dog, fix the collar, adjust their grip on the leash, check for treats — it’s too much! Especially if you’re using new techniques to get your dog to behave; now you have new techniques to remember on the move. Stop! Stop your feet so you can assess the problem and situation, figure out what to do, and react accordingly.
2. Look. Look at your dog. Looking at the problem isn’t going to tell you if your dog is going to react or not. In addition, dogs have a shared gaze; whatever you’re looking at, they’ll look at. If you look at a problem and you smell like fear or stress, all the good body language in the world isn’t going to help. Your dog will follow your gaze, smell your stress, and think, “AH! Mom/Dad is worried about that thing! I’LL DEAL WITH IT!” Not good. Look at your dog. See what they’re doing.
Now, I know that dog trainers are always saying, “Shoulders back, chest out, walk with confidence!” and part of “confidence” is typically “look where you’re going.” But sometimes, especially when you’re just learning, it’s more important to look at your dog, to see what they’re saying, and to respond accordingly. (When I’m walking with dogs and I see a problem, I glance at them, react accordingly, and when I’m confident I look PAST whatever issue is up ahead. I still don’t look at it, because I know my dog has a shared gaze.)
3. Listen. “Jenna,” I hear you say, “dogs don’t talk.” Maybe not with words, but boy, do they communicate! Dogs have extremely nuanced communication. Are you listening to what your dog is telling you? If your dog is getting over a phobia and they’re trying to be brave, you need to reinforce that. If they’re dealing with aggression and they’re being naughty, you need to be aware of it NOW and start addressing it before you get any closer. If they’re dealing with excitement and they’re trying SO HARD to hold it together (and you know in another minute they’re going to fail), get their attention at that moment so you can do whatever you need to do. Listen to your dog! You can’t guide your dog through life if you’re not aware of what she’s doing.
So next time you encounter a problem? Stop, look, and listen. It’s not just for schoolhouse emergencies!