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Proper greetings

The Chihuahua's tucked tail and stiff, backward leaning body tell us he is not all that excited to meet a new friend.

In a perfect world, every dog would be happy to see one of his kind on the street. He would politely walk up to his new buddy with a wagging tail and courteously sniff his rump, then the glands at his neck, and then back to the rump again before inviting him to play or continuing his walk. But in this world, only a fraction of our canine companions fall in to this category. The others are too flush with fear or aggression to respond with anything but barks and growls or avoiding the situation altogether by running the opposite direction or making themselves busy staring at the grass or a far-off fire hydrant. For those with the first kind of dog – the friendly, polite kind – it’s sometimes hard to remember that not every dog is as well-mannered as yours.

So how do you great a new dog that could be frightened or mean?

First of all, if you are in an off-leash dog area and you see a dog on a leash, do everything you can to avoid a meeting between your dog and the leashed dog. That dog is leashed for a reason and it probably has to do with the way he reacts to strange dogs. Granted, most owners of fearful or aggressive dogs will not bring their pups to a dog park but there are plenty of hiking trails and parks where a majority of folks do not have their dogs on a leash. In these cases, call your dog back to your side or even temporarily leash him if you must so as not to stress out the other dog and cause a dangerous reaction.

When you pass another dog on the street there are a couple of ways to tell if they want your dog to meet yours or not.

– If you notice them tensing up or shortening the leash as they approach you, do not greet the dog.

– If the owner switches the side of their body the dog is on or moves farther to one side of the sidewalk, do not greet the dog.

– Listen. It can be frustrating, even embarrassing to have a dog that doesn’t play nicely with others, so some owners will head you off at the pass by speaking to their dog loudly enough so you can hear. Any comments like “be nice” or “it’s ok, Rufus” should be understood as subtle warnings to please keep your dog from getting too close.

If none of these signals are obvious, when in doubt, ASK “can we say hi?” But be prepared for the possibility that the owner will say no. This has nothing to do with your dog – do NOT try to convince the owner that your dog is friendly or gets along with everyone – accept that they know their dog’s threshold better than you do and move on.


Leash Monsters: Part II

Cricket* on a walk in the Presidio.

“Leash monsters” are far from a unified group. Dogs of every size, age and breed are Cricket’s* classmates including a 20lb Brussels Griffon, a Boxer mix, a Shepherd mix, a Lercher, and a Pit mix. Cricket is just as different as the rest – a 3 year old Patterdale Terrier weighing no more than 30lbs. The “monster” form they take also varies. Cricket has a subtle response to other dogs – he freezes, but in doing so, his tail is often high in the air and his mouth open so that, to the untrained eye, he doesn’t look particularly concerned. Many other dogs, including the Shepherd mix in class, have an explosive reaction to other dogs; the Pit mix is attending class because he is so excited to see another dog that he bounds towards them, dragging his owners along, and frightening the dog (and owner) that he is headed for. The Brussels Griffon is snarly and snappish.

The significant variation among Cricket’s classmates makes me really respect Kelley and Pamela’s versatility. As teachers, they can show us techniques that can help to manage a dog’s stress and fear while on leash, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution; every dog is different. This makes it all the more amazing that, this week, every member of the class reported having seen some improvement after diligently working on last week’s assignment. In general, every dog was more tolerant in its walks and had fewer freak-outs. So it was time to up the ante a bit.

Last week, all six dogs (and owners) were placed around the room a safe distance from one another. This week, we created a close circle with each dog only a couple of feet from the next. This raised the tension in the room. Cricket and I sat in between the Brussels Griffon and the Boxer mix but, when Cricket figured out that the Griffon’s mom had yummy treats too, that became his focus rather than the fact that his nose was only inches from the other dog’s butt. Kelley added a new command to our repertoire, sort of grade school level version of what we had learned at kindergarten level last week: instead of just praising the dog for looking at another, we asked our dogs to “Be nice”, praising them only when they looked back at us. Some of the dogs got this quickly but it was a bit difficult for Cricket while we sat in the circle. He was distracted by the proximity of the other dogs and had trouble focusing on me to follow through the whole repertoire. When we worked on this same sequence while moving, he did far better. This, combined with the “blast past”, quickly walking by the scary object, would be our primary homework for the week.

We also learned how to distract our dogs while walking by another scary canine. Counter-intuitively, the dog should be on the side of you that is closest to the scary object, not farthest away. This is because when you distract your dog with a delicious treat in your far hand, he turns his head away from the other dog. If the dog were on the far side of you, looking at the treat in the near hand, he would be forced to stare straight in to the face of his perceived enemy. Eye contact between dogs is often the spark that ignites a full-on brawl so avoiding that possibility is crucial.

When Cricket and I ran in to Kelley with several dogs on Clay Street the next day, we got a chance to practice our “be nice” for the teacher and I realized one of the limitations of dog reactivity – how do you stop and chat with someone walking a dog when your own pup might flip out? Trying to work out a solution in my head, I pulled Cricket over to the side after our first two runs through “be nice” and did a distraction technique when I should have practiced our “blast past.” Cricket didn’t mind, though, he kept his eye on the treat and, afterward, merrily continued on his way.

Leash monsters: Part I

Cricket* pensively surveys Baker St.

I was introduced to Cricket* nearly two months ago. He had just been reluctantly let go from his daily group walk after sinking his teeth in to the ear of an overly excited puppy. Cricket, a Patterdale Terrier (described to me as a “Jack Russel on crack”) had a history of tough times. A sensitive little guy, Cricket is afraid of loud noises, occasionally aggressive with other dogs, and highly suspicious of strangers. Cricket is also intelligent, eager to learn, playful, and loving. There is no such thing as a bad dog but there are also no perfect dogs; far from it.

Cricket’s owners have been through a lot with their sensitive little man and their devotion to him is amazing; Cricket got so lucky on that day that they picked him out of the litter. They have spent endless time and energy on his training under the guidance of Pamela Wyman, trainer and partner at DogEvolve. Fear is something you can never completely train out of a dog but, with Pamela’s help, Cricket’s fear reduced and he went from a terrified critter to a dog that takes pleasure in life.

I met Pamela when I first took Cricket on as a client and she showed me some of the techniques I would need to help him manage his fear. When she and her business partner Kelley Filson decided to offer a public “Leash Monsters” again recently, it sounded like the perfect opportunity to learn more about how to work with a dog with issues of fear and aggression that are heightened on-leash. Pamela and Kelley agreed to allow Cricket and I to observe and participate in the class.

The class began last Wednesday. Cricket, along with five other “leash monsters” were introduced to DogEvolve’s positive, reward-based training. In other words, well-timed and skilled delivery of awesome consequences like praise, treats, and beloved toys are a major aspect of building your dog’s confidence. treats are king in this class and one of the objects of the game is building your dog’s confidence. So, for example, whenever Cricket looks at another dog instead of averting his eyes to avoid something he perceives as frightening or frustrating, he gets a treat. This is classical or Pavlovian conditioning (remember the dog that salivates every time a bell is rung?) for which they used a great analogy: if someone paid you $100 every time another car cut you off, you wouldn’t mind being cut off so much…you might even come to enjoy it. Same thing with your dog, if he is rewarded every time he sees another dog, he may start to think that other dogs are pretty great.

Kelley, who is leading this class, also helped us to remember that there is absolutely no shame in turning around and going the other direction when you see another dog coming. Your dog will remember a negative confrontation with another canine so why not avoid it all together? If you never let your dog get upset and over his “arousal” threshold, he will be calmer and more confident. This is critical for the first stage of training: giving your dog’s brain a break from what is likely long history of bad associations (and thus bad behavior) to other dogs.

Although Pamela had already taught us some of what we learned in our first class, something clicked in for Cricket and I. The next two days we had a rhythm in our walks that felt great. Whether it was all the hotdog bits that Cricket got during the hour-long class, the way the class reinforced and increased my knowledge of how to properly handle Cricket’s fears, or just the simple act of learning together, Cricket and I bonded in a new way.

For more on DogEvolve’s classes, visit their website at!

Max walks the line

A week ago I switched Max*, a four-month old puppy, from a flat collar to a Sense-ation harness to stop him from pulling on the leash while walking. It is unbelievable what a difference it made immediately! The week before I couldn’t go more than three steps without him pulling ahead with all his bounding puppy energy; with the harness, 80-90% of the pulling magically disappeared.

Ok, magic is a bit of an exaggeration. There is actually nothing magical about the way it works. The harness is fitted tightly under the “armpits” of the front legs and where it crosses the chest, the harness is loose and has a metal ring for connecting the leash. The harness appears to restrict the dog’s movement but, as long as he is walking nicely at your side, it no more restricts his movement than a bra restricts the way a woman moves her arms. When he pulls ahead, the harness stops the dog’s forward movement, pulling the loose chest piece over the shoulder and back towards the walker. The dog quickly learns that if he stays nicely at your side, his walk continues; if he pulls forward, he is stopped in his tracks.

Because Max learned to walk on the leash with a flat collar, he understood that the hand holding the leash was pretty flexible. It gave him leeway when he pulled forward. I wanted Max to think of walking with the harness as a totally different experience so, instead of holding the leash in my hand, I wrapped it around my waist. When he pulled forward, he did not get the push-and-pull of an arm, he was stopped immediately by a static object.

By the end of the week, I switched the leash from my waist to my hand to see how he did. Max took advantage of the softness of my arm but in general, he did very well. In no time, this exuberant puppy went from a pulling machine to a well-mannered walker!

What to look for in a dog walker

Buddy* on an off-leash walk in San Francisco's Glen Canyon.

Our dogs are a major part of our lives. Unfortunately, so is work. And it’s not just us that are caught up in the drudgery of an 8+ hour work day, it’s our fur babies. There’s only so much a dog can do in a day without the stimulation of his people – lay around, drink some water, maybe play with a toy; if he’s really bored, he may also work getting in to the garbage, digging up the backyard and chewing on shoes in to his daily schedule.

We know that lots of exercise goes a long way towards curbing destructive behavior; a daily outing with a dog walker will help to provide this. Your dog will also benefit mentally and emotionally from a mid-day walk through human attention, dog-to-dog socialization, and just the simple break-up of a long day alone. Plus he gets a chance to do his business (can you imagine holding it all day when you really have to go?)

There are two kinds of dog walkers out there: those that see dog walking as an easy way to make a living and those that are genuinely concerned with the health and well-being of dogs. And in this second group is a special sub-section of individuals who have sought to educate themselves about canine behavior, to volunteer their time for local shelters and rescue groups and to assist (or lead) dog-training classes for the general public. These are the dog walkers you should seek out.

A truly responsible and prepared dog walker should also be pet first aid and CPR certified, as well as bonded and insured. With any luck your dog will never be involved in a situation in which first aid or insurance are required, but better safe than sorry!

Do some research on the internet before settling with a dog walker. The presence of a website can mean the difference between a serious business person or someone who is potentially flaky. Other things to look for? A Facebook page, a blog and/or a Twitter account. Your should also be able to find your walker on Yelp; reviews posted by others will give you a good sense of who the dog walker is and how they treat their human and canine clients.

There are probably lots of dog walkers in your area but remember that the cheapest walker probably isn’t the right choice. Typically, rates differ only by a few dollars and slightly higher prices reflect a walker’s experience, education, and level of commitment. Your dog may be furry but he probably means as much to you as any family member; make sure he is in the hands of someone you trust.

Dog professionals often offer two walking options: personalized or group walks. Personalized walks are private and often cost more than group walks. Personalized walks are a good option for dogs that need a little more attention or that aren’t always the best with other dogs. Private walks are also good for young puppies that may not be ready to join an energetic adult group. Group walks often have anywhere from 4-10 dogs (although San Francisco is considering a law that would cap the number of dogs in a group walk at 6). Depending on the area in which you live, group walks may take place in off-leash areas or on leash in the neighborhood or local parks. Make sure you know your walker’s basic routine, how many dogs are in each group, and whether your dog will fit in with the others in the pack.

And now for a bit of shameless self-promotion…

Looking for a dog walker or trainer in San Francisco? I’d love to meet you and your furry friend! Learn more about the services I offer at

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