A few weeks ago, when I was having a particularly rough morning all on my own (without any help from Maisie) we encountered another dog on our morning walk. We were on a section of the trail that stretches long and straight, with a decent site line, and I could see the dog from pretty far away. So could Maisie. First, her ears perked forward, her tail became a little more alert. And then she started pulling — threatening to but not yet barking — in an attempt to move closer to the dog.
On this section of the trail, there is a marshy bog to the south, birds and snakes and frogs and other amphibious creatures making a delightful racket in and amongst the cattails and lily pads. On the other side, the field is thick with wildflowers — black-eyed susans and heather and Queen Anne’s lace and thistle and other flowers whose names I do not know. Wildflowers made ever thicker this year from the nearly unceasing storms that blow in, storms of a torrential nature, often with more rain than I believed could possibly fall in a matter of minutes.
In other words, on this section of the trail, there is no escape route. No place to turn, to step off the side of the trail, no detour to head off a possible confrontation with a Strange Dog.
As the woman at Noah’s Ark, the shelter where I found Maisie, has said multiple times, “Maisie’s just a vocal dog. She has a lot to say.” But when we first got her, I didn’t understand why she needed to say it so sharply at me as soon as I showed signs of getting ready for a walk. It was aggressive and edgy and really, really loud. In truth, it made me kind of nervous. In the past year and a half, though, I have come to realize that what she is actually communicating is excitement. Her tail wags, she is practically jumping out of her skin. Her bark is actually saying, “hurry up, hurry up, there’s a whole universe out there that might disappear if we don’t leave RIGHT NOW!” Still, when I tell her to sit, when I put my finger to my lips and whisper “shhh”, she does, momentarily, stop barking.
It is the same when we encounter another dog on a walk: she barks from excitement and she strains against her harness to get to the other dog, calling out with her voice and her body language, “my people! my people!” But it is the same sharp bark she will sometimes use at me and sometimes I think other dogs don’t quite know what to make of it. And it can quickly turn to a more aggressive bark when we get closer to the dog. From a distance, she just wants to get to the dog, get to a potential playmate, but as we get closer I can see her stance become less playful, hear her bark get more defensive.
I know what the books say, what the dog behavior blogs say, and what my wonderful trainer Will says. What I should do, always, in this situation is turn the other direction and quickly walk away, with quiet determination and authority, until she calms down. I need to create distance and separation, turning to face the dog again when she is calm, turning away again if she reacts. I have watched Will do that, patiently and repeatedly, with stunning success.
But here is the problem with that technique, at least when it comes to me: first of all, in my oh-god-here-we-go-again moment, I usually forget to employ it. Which means it absolutely won’t work. (And truthfully, sometimes I don’t want to turn around. Sometimes I want to keep moving forward, just get where we are going, so I can get back home and Get To Work.)
But the other problem I often have is that the other dogs and their owners don’t cooperate, because they don’t know that I’m trying to create distance, they don’t understand that they are making it hard for me to calm my dog down, and they keep marching towards us, the distance gap closing, their footsteps with their gentle crunching on the limestone path sounding to me like some kind of explosive countdown, a ticking bomb I know is about to detonate.
I do try, mostly unsuccessfully, to create distance. When that distance gap continues to shrink, I will often call out a warning to the threatening menace that is the approaching canine-human duo, trying to keep my voice calm, sometimes even sing-songy. “She’s a little leash-reactive!” Or “she’s not always great with other dogs.” I think the gem of an understatement I sang out that morning was, “She’s a little barky sometimes.”
To which this particular owner called back, “That’s okay, he’s really friendly, he loves other dogs!” And that, my friends, is a fear-inducing, stomach-turning, panic-inciting thing to say to Maisie and me. It is far more threatening to us than an “oh, he’s the same way” response. Because I know what that really means is that this dog is going to be overly friendly, overly boisterous, overly solicitous to Maisie, who, at this point, may still look like a dog who wants to say hi. It means that the owner thinks their ambassador of good dogs will be welcomed by the adorable little terrier mix approaching them.
Somehow, of course, I believe This Time Will Be Different. After 18 months of knowing how she will be, I remain stupidly optimistic. You probably don’t need even one guess as to how that encounter turned out.
I’ll tell you anyway. This beautiful, friendly, bigger-than-Maisie border collie stuck his nose right in Maisie’s face and so she did what Maisie does. She barked, loudly and sharply. The dog got closer (why?) and Maisie bared her teeth. Her hackles went up and she snapped at the air. I scooped her up in my arms. The woman pulled on her dog’s leash with an “oh no, that’s NOT okay” and quickly moved away from us, leaving squirming-to-be-set-free Maisie simultaneously panting and barking, and me shaking and rattled and angry — at the woman, at Maisie, at myself, at the whole goddamn day conspiring against me.
Can we go back to the part of this post, the part where I wrote that I was having a particularly rough morning all on my own?
Here’s the deal. I know it’s not okay for Maisie to react that way. I don’t really need someone clarifying that to me, particularly when I tried to warn them. I tried to protect all parties involved, but still I was left holding a pretty wired-up little dog, who was probably not at all being helped by her wired-up mama. Because now I am not only upset about the encounter, I’m upset about the other dog owner’s reaction to the encounter, I’m upset by the judgment I heard in her voice, I’m upset that my rough morning has just been made rougher, and I’m upset because I don’t know how to handle it anymore.
And so I turn that judgment inward. Turn what I heard in that woman’s voice on myself, because she’s right, it’s not okay, and if I were a better dog owner/trainer/person, my dog would not behave in such an atrocious way.
I know pets often reflect their owners. I know that, and I know I was in kind of a defensive, barky mood myself that morning. But I also know that, in spite of my own barking-at-strangers issues, Maisie came to us that way. She wasn’t a sweet, gets-along-with-everyone, submissive little thing when we adopted her and she isn’t one now. And I wonder how much I am helping her move towards the sweet, gets-along-with-everyone dog that lives inside her, the dog who eventually really does figure out how to play well with others. I’m wondering how to help her access her inner-puppy, how to regain some open-hearted innocence and how to drop the defensiveness.
Here’s what I want to tell all the owners of sweet, open-hearted, playful dogs: just because your dog is a charmer, doesn’t mean mine is. Just because your dog is a delightful, popular little thing at the dog park or on the trail, doesn’t mean mine is. She needs her space. She needs time and a safe way to get to know your dog before she can trust that your dog is not a threat to her, not someone who may cause her harm. If you give her that space, she will cautiously let your dog in, and she will never forget your dog after that. She will always be over-the-moon to see your dog, no matter how long it’s been since they last met. She still may bark, but it will be one of excitement and joy at seeing her friend.
I don’t know why Maisie is so other-dog reactive. The conventional wisdom is that reactivity is fear based, but I don’t know what caused her to have that fear; I don’t know what her life was like the first couple of years or so before she found us.
I do know, however, that walking a dog like Maisie is not easy. I have to admit that one of my chief strategies is to avoid times when other people with dogs are likely to be out and about. And so this is the other thing that I want to tell other dog owners: please don’t make snap judgments about my ability to manage my dog. We are doing the very best we can. We are working on it, but we — and I mean Maisie and I and all owners of prickly-at-times dogs — need your help.
If we say to you, she has trouble with other dogs, please believe us. Please don’t think your dog is the exception to the rule because your dog is so sweet and friendly. If you see us trying to settle our dogs down, do us the favor and rein your dog in. (Retractable leash users please pay extra attention: letting your dog come at us as far as that damn leash will allow, particularly on a narrow trail, is not going to end well.) If you really want to help us, you might even ask us what you can do to help, because every challenged dog is a little different.
I realize that Maisie’s issues are not anyone else’s problem, that working with her to overcome her issues is no one’s problem but mine. We’re just asking for a little help, a little patience, and, more than anything, a little compassion and understanding.
Will told me about an effort to help dogs like Maisie, a project called The Yellow Dog Project. The idea is that dogs like Maisie, who need a little space, wear a yellow ribbon, to let others know she needs that space. I don’t know how many people would understand if Maisie wore Cautionary Yellow on her collar or her leash. But maybe it’s time for me to give it a try, maybe other people with space-issue, leash-reactive dogs will pick up on the trend, maybe those who have no comprehension of what it’s like to deal with a dog like Maisie will start to get it.
In the meantime, if you see an adorable little Corgi-Terrier-Spaniel mix bounding towards your dog, being walked by a woman whose demeanor suddenly changes when she sees you, maybe give us a little space. A little compassion. Right now, that’s all we need from you.
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So, lovely readers, do you have experience with a space-needing pet, yours or others? Can you relate to little Maisie’s struggles when she encounters strangers? (I sure can.) I always love to hear from you, so please feel free to leave a comment below!