Off The Leash (A Confession)

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I let my dogs off-leash sometimes in our neighborhood in Houston, along the walking path by the drainage ditch. I bring treats and practice recall. I get ahead of them when we pass access points where other dogs might emerge. I keep my phone in my pocket. I watch them. But here’s the deal. Every time we take off our dog’s leash in the name of giving them a chance to run wild we put them in danger. Real danger. I know this.  And I’m sharing my confession so that you’ll know it too. Letting our dogs off leash in public places is dangerous to our dogs. 

A few years back a woman called me to ask about training. She’d been walking her large (80 lbs) mixed breed dog on a leash. A small chihuahua mix had run up off-leash barking and nipping at her dog’s legs. Her dog picked up the little one, shook it twice, and dropped it. The chihuahua mix was dead. It was that fast. No fight. No fuss. Just dead. That could be our dog. Not the big one on leash. The little one. The dead one.

But Michael, you might be thinking, that’s a rare thing. I’d like to think that, too. Unfortunately, though, I know better. Dogs killing other dogs is a real thing. Even if they are similar in size it can happen. I recently worked with a person whose dog bit another dog. It was relatively minor, just a couple of punctures. But the wounds got infected. The dog got sick. And, then the dog was dead.

I’m not here to tell you that letting our dogs saunter or trot along side us (or ahead or behind) off-leash is wrong. Of course, we already know that. We know it’s illegal too. That’s not the point. I’m here to remind us what we so often choose to forget. It’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to our dogs.

Humans who are walking their dogs lawfully on-leash can get mean in a hurry, let me tell ya. They yell and they curse if your dog runs up to theirs uninvited. They will defend their dogs and their righteous position vociferously.

  • But my dog is friendly. “I don’t give a f”.” They will yell.
  • He just wants to say hi. “Get the f’ out of here.” They scream.
  • He’s well trained. “Really? Call him the f’ back to you.” They retort.
  • We do this all the time. “That doesn’t make it okay,” they claim “it just means you’re a f’ing repeat offender.”

Always the F-bombs. That’s pretty standard. They are angry, they and their leashed dogs barking like crazy.

But here’s the thing that’s really dangerous. Humans walking their dogs on-leash will actually hurt our dogs, especially if a fight breaks out. They will kick our dogs. They will spray them with citronella or pepper spray. They will throw rocks. And seriously, a lot of folks are armed. They will shoot our dogs. It’s happened. Don’t think it hasn’t.

But Michael… That’s illegal, you might be thinking. You can’t discharge a firearm in city limits. Fair enough. Take them to court. But dead is dead. There isn’t a judge in the county who’s going to bring our dog back. Hasn’t happened yet. Never will.

A few days ago we were walking our dogs here in Arizona on a trail in the shadow of the red rocks. They were on-leash. A couple of women on horseback rounded the bend. Their two large and beautiful dogs wove ahead and beside them. It was like a scene out of an old western. We stepped far off the trail to let them pass, hoping their dogs would saunter along with them. But, that’s not what happened.

Their young, unfettered dogs ran right toward ours. “It’s okay. They’re friendly,” one of the women hollered from atop her horse. Tim, my husband, picked up Stewie, our chihuahua mix, and stepped farther away. I stood with Stella, our old arthritic retriever, yelling for them to call their dogs back, afraid of what was going to happen, angry, wishing I had a stick or a rock or some pepper spray. Or a gun. I wish I could say I was cool in the moment, eloquent, acerbic and wry. I so wanted to set the scene right with some perfectly placed F-bombs and a mic drop at the end. But that’s not the way it went. I was just the sputtering guy gripping his dog’s leash while a collective 130 pounds of I-don’t-know-what’s-about-to-happen ran towards us.

Life happens fast. We are all caught off guard. Even when we think we are being safe, there are always cracks in the plan. I’m a good trainer. But, no matter how well our dogs’ recall is trained, there’s always a breaking point. Always.

Dogs are fast. Very fast. They approach too fast; the leashed ones are ratcheted back too fast; the fight starts too fast for us to see it coming. The dogs get hurt. People get hurt. I’ve had clients who showed me photos of gaping wounds on their own arms. They were trying to pry a dog off their dog – or their dog off another.  In that moment, I’m told, no one thinks about the justifications for what they did or what they failed to do. It’s just a scramble. It’s an uncoordinated rush to get the dogs apart. It’s a f’ing mess.

On the trail the other day, the approaching dogs slowed to a trot, circled around me and Stella once and approached politely to sniff her. They really were good looking dogs, big, strong, elegant.I know better than to yank up on Stella’s leash. So, I let out a bit of slack and let her sniff them as well. Then I called her away to follow me. The other dogs wandered after the horsewomen, if not into the sunset then into the shade we were still throwing at each other as they plodded off.

But Michael, what are you trying to say here, you might be asking. I don’t know, really. Confessions are tricky that way, especially the personal ones like this. I’ve had many clients and friends, too many to count, who’ve stood terrified and vulnerable just as I was on that trail. They endured incidents like this one but not like this one because they did not end as well. Dogs were hurt (some killed). People were hurt (some seriously). There was physical and emotional trauma. Behavior care for the dogs. Therapy for the humans. Lawsuits. Lives turned sideways and upside down. Suffering all around.

Our dogs have never run up to another dog when they were off leash. That’s the truth. But here’s the other truth: a lot of our success has been good luck and luck aways runs out. So, maybe this is a cautionary tale with a stretch toward empathy. I’ve been that guy – the one with the friendly dogs romping off leash – and the one white-knuckling the leash bracing for the dogs romping toward him. And honestly, I don’t want to be either of those guys again.

Confessions and cautionary tales and empathy all have this in common. In our best moments each is impetus for change, real change, a change in our behavior. I love my dogs. In fact, I’m fond of most of the dogs I meet. And when cooler heads prevail I actually like most dog people, too. So, when all is said and done the only real questions left are: How to we keep our dogs safe? How do we help keep other dogs safe? How do we get to know and enjoy the other dog lovers who come into our lives?

But Michael, you might be thinking, why don’t you just leash your f’ing dogs?

Michael Baugh teaches dog training and specializes in aggressive dog behavior. He lives in Houston TX and part-time in Sedona AZ.

Postcard from the Pandemic – Lessons from Life with Dogs

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Training our dog can sometimes feel overwhelming. Where do we start? What’s next? When can I stop worrying? (Aggressive dog behavior is, after all, potentially dangerous). How will I be able to relax and have fun with my dog again? The questions and the thoughts can get all mixed up in our heads. It can feel like too much.

And then there’s the comparing of our dogs against the other dogs we know. My dog’s not as good as theirs. Or that person’s dog behaves so much better. Or he just did this or that and his dog was fine. There’s so much self doubt and judging.

A dog business colleague posted some raw and vulnerable truth online today. It was a mix of I love my job and my job is hard and I put everything into my work and sometimes I suffer and sometimes it’s really really hard and I am strong. She posted a photo of herself. It was simple. Beautiful. Black and white. Somehow, all of those thoughts and feelings ended up right there in the picture. So too, did the elephant in the room. The world feels upside down right now. Life is crazy and sometimes scary (Covid is, after all, potentially dangerous). I read her post and looked at the photo and thought, “Yeah, I feel ya. I feel all of that.”

It’s been in my head for a while that dog training is sort of a metaphor for life in general. Our relationships with our dogs are like microcosms – simpler, easier, test runs for our relationship with one another and the world at large. That is the gift of Dogs. Are our relationships with them sometimes messy, difficult, and exhausting? Yes. All that. Is it also messy, difficult, and exhausting living with each other in the world right now? Be honest. It is. Right?

When my clients get overwhelmed (I cherish you all, by the way), my advice is almost always to take a short break. Then, focus on the small goals we’ve set. Where do we start? Here, with the dog in front of us. What’s next? The attainable tasks at hand. We set ourselves up to succeed so we can get that first sweet taste of success. And, then we keep going. When can I stop worrying? Anytime. Right now. We are doing the work. How will I be able to relax and have fun? Ah, now there’s the question. For me it’s about sitting and noticing –  noticing my dogs, noticing you, noticing the here and the now. So often we get caught up in our heads. We take in a small bit of information and we build an entire epic around it. We project ourselves into a future we don’t yet know. Or we cast ourselves back to rewrite the past. Forward and back, we end up running circles. “Relaxing” and “fun” spin off to the sides because our thoughts are moving too fast. And, I feel ya. I feel all of that.

I’m still talking about dog training here but really I’m talking about everything else, too. We’re under pressure. There’s the virus and the uncertainty and the friends and family whose fuses seem so much shorter now. And there’s the isolation – figurative and literal. And there’s the comparing. Are they handling all this better than I am? Do they have answers I don’t? Self doubt. Judging.

Stay in the metaphor if you like. Or, we can still call this “dog training advice.” Either way.

  • Set yourself up to succeed today with clear, easy, and measurable goals.
  • Small wins add up.
  • Take stock in the progress you’ve already made.
  • Look for the joy in the process.
  • Connect (with your dog – but also other people)
  • Avoid nonsense advice (especially online)
  • Be here right now.
  • Observe without judging.
  • Reinforce generously.

We are not alone. Clichés are so annoying because they are true. My clients know this: When they suffer and struggle with their dogs, they are in good company. Many others are on the path with them. And, the path is well worn with foot prints and paw prints from those who have gone before. And, here is where this microcosm of life with dogs shines a clear light on the bigger picture. We really are in this together. At some level on any given day we are all dealing with our own private shit storms – with our dogs, with family, with friends, with an invisible virus, and with a political landscape we can’t stop looking at. This isn’t a misery-loves-company essay. And, at the same time, even that cliché carries a bit of truth. If we can feel the angst, or suffering, or pain, or whatever you want to call it – then we can relate to it in others. This is how we access compassion. This is how we connect (even when we are physically distant) to others. This is how we care for others and for ourselves at the same time, by remembering we are not alone. These very personal feelings we are feeling are actually universal.

This is what I was reminded of today, looking at a stark monochrome photo of a woman under the heavy weight of her own thoughts and feelings. It’s not just you. It’s not just me. We’re feeling it together. That crushing weakness. That badass strength. All of it at the same time, right here in this moment. Pull compassion from these feelings. Set goals, add them up, and take stock. There’s joy in the process. Be kind and generous with yourself  because Reinforcement Drives Behavior.

Michael Baugh is a dog trainer in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog behavior.

The Puppy Boom – What’s at Stake?

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

We are working from home. We have some extra time. We have some extra free attention. Regardless, we are here. And, we’ve been talking about getting a puppy anyway. Why not now?

If this sounds like what you’ve been thinking, you are definitely not alone. Dog trainers and veterinary professionals around the country have been reporting an increase in puppies. Could it be a typical seasonal trend? Veterinary practice managers say no. They think folks are using this time of social isolation to get a puppy. If it is, in fact, happening on a large enough scale we could reasonably call it a Puppy Boom. And, I totally get it. What could be more comforting in a time of uncertainty and angst that an adorable puppy?

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming), having a new puppy isn’t just about cuteness and cuddles. We are responsible for this dog’s long-term behavioral health. It’s up to us to prevent serious behavior problems down the line. And, that work needs to happen right now. The term you’ve probably heard bantered about is “Puppy Socialization.” Now, puppy socialization isn’t just about putting your puppy in a play group, though meeting other dogs is part of the process. Socialization is about thoughtfully teaching your puppy resilience and behavioral flexibility. In other words, it’s showing our puppy that they are safe in a variety of settings while we teach them how to make good behavior choices. It’s work. And, it’s work that has to be done in the first few weeks our puppy is with us. The clock, as they say, is ticking.

Proper early puppy socialization can prevent any number of serious behavior issues, inducing (but not limited to):

  • Aggression toward people
  • Aggression toward other dogs
  • Debilitating fear
  • Separation and isolation distress

In normal times we would get our puppies into a puppy class. They would learn to interact with other healthy vaccinated dogs. We would visit family and friends with our new puppy (every new person giving him a few small treats). We would have a puppy party in our home. Family and friends would visit so the puppy could learn the normal comings and goings of our household. We would accompany our puppy to the vet clinic or groomer for more feel-good meetings with praise and treats. We would explore lots of new places together, take car rides, visit playgrounds and ball fields for light-hearted investigation (and yes, smiles, praise, and treats). We would go to work and leave our puppy alone. A dog walker or pet sitter would come over midday. We would teach our puppy what normal is, no matter how crazy our normal life may be. In other words, we would totally rock puppy socialization. And, we would end up with a behaviorally healthy adult dog as a result. That’s what it looks like in normal times.

These are not normal times.

What’s at stake is significant. It is likely that we trainers will see an increase in aggression cases in the next 12-18 months. We will also see an increase in  fear related behavior problems, and isolation and separation distress. Think of it as an echo boom effect from all of the puppies happily quarantined with us now. Am I generally an alarmist? Those of you who know me know I am not. Am I sounding the alarm on this, though? Yes, absolutely.

What can we do to make sure your puppy is not part of my dire prediction? How can these “boomer” puppies get the proper behavior intervention they need now in their early puppy socialization period, even while we are in a time of social distancing? Here are a few ideas:

  • Socialize as best you can. We put together a free webinar on Puppy Socialization in a Time of Social Distancing. We explored ways to:
    • Introduce your new puppy to various types of people creatively and safely.
    • Introduce your puppy to hand-picked well-mannered healthy dogs.
    • Introduce your puppy to a wide variety of experiences (activities that we typically see as problematic in our aggression cases).
  • Seek out and schedule an online consultation with a qualified dog trainer or behavior consultant. Yes, we offer this service. But, so do many excellent dog trainers around the world. In fact, you might be reading this blog now because a trainer shared it on social media. Contact him or her for help.
  • If you have not gotten a puppy yet, please wait. I’ll put my professional reputation on this. It will be best to wait until the pandemic is behind us.

There’s the warning. That’s what’s at stake. Now, let’s all take a breath (myself included). If you already have your puppy, cool. Seriously, cool. Puppies are fun and we love them. You can still pull this off and end up with a balanced healthy life-long companion. You will have to work a little bit harder at it, though. That’s the truth. But, you can do it. And, there are plenty of people who can help. We may be separate in some ways but you are not alone in this. Your vet knows what’s going on. Your local trainers see the trend, too. I see it. Together we can help you rock puppy socialization even in this very unusual time.

And one more thing. Congratulations. You’re a puppy parent. Take lots of pictures and post them everywhere. Puppies grow up so fast.

Michael Baugh is a dog and puppy trainer in Houston, TX. He is currently hunkered down with his family including his two dogs, Stella and Stewie.