The Little Rascal Files 6 – Checking In & Recalls under Distraction

Mr. H. has been a very good dog, so he’s been allowed lots of off-leash fun on our walks. I think it’s really important to work on good off-leash manners and a solid recall before adolescence kicks in and the once-brilliant puppy brain stops working for several months or even years. My hope is, of course, that if we practice these skills now, the little rascal will be able to keep some, if not most of his privileges in those difficult times yet to come.

For me to be happy with my off-leash dogs, I want them to do two things: 1. come when called, and 2. check in voluntarily on a regular basis. That is to say: I want them to know it’s their responsibility rather than mine to make sure we don’t lose each other.

This is how I work on the voluntary checking-in with me:

Step 1 – continuous reinforcement.
On every walk, I try to set aside at least a few minutes where I concentrate on reinforcing every single time Hadley chooses to look at or come towards me without being asked to. We know: behavior that gets positively reinforced will happen more often in the future. For Hadley, I mainly use food treats. I usually have a puppy trail mix in my treat bag: there’s some special kibble, cheese, and hot dog slices all mixed together. Hadley never knows what he’ll get, but he loves all of them.

Step 2 – intermittent reinforcement.
Once Hadley has his checking-in down, I’ll switch to an intermittent schedule: I’ll reinforce most of his check-ins with praise and attention, but only some of them with a tangible reinforcer like food or a toy. This creates a slot-machine effect, i.e. a dog who will check in with me a lot!

Phoebe’s checking-in is on an intermittent reinforcement schedule, and if you know her, you’ll know how often she does a drive-by on walks. For her, the reinforcer I mainly use these days is the happy voice and then telling her to run ahead, play or go do doggy things.

Recall away from dogs & people

We also did a little bit of intermediary recall training today: I walked towards a group of people and off-leash dogs in the distance, then called Hadley back after noticing them without changing direction. The smart little bugger did very well! For the recall, I use the highest value reward of Hadley’s choice: liver paté.

… and morning zoomies!

Of course, there’s also plenty, plenty opportunity to play and have fun on every walk. Here’s today’s morning zoomies with some random happy recall practice.

Shaping Confidence, or How to Deal with Penguins

In Hadley’s book, quite a number of things are alarming. One of them: new objects in familiar spaces, like the neighbor’s trash bag that hasn’t been sitting out the day before, or a penguin wearing a hat, standing provocatively at a doorway where no one used to stand. (I totally get that. Penguins are not supposed to wear hats; now that’s just weird!)

My favorite way to deal with scary stuff is to make it part of a game. I’ve done this with Phoebe back in the day when she had a random-objects-are-scary phase in her adolescence, and now I’m using the same strategy for Hadley. By means of shaping, I want to give Hadley the experience that he controls the situation, and can turn scary stuff into cookie vending machines by means of choosing to engage with it.

Engaging with scary objects in return for a cookie is entirely his choice, not mine. I’m not luring him closer, and I’m not forcing him to engage with the scary object in any other way. Hadley decided whether he goes all the way up to an object, touches it, or just plays a little LAT from a distance. If he chooses to disengage after a little while, that’s okay, too.

Now that I’ve finally decluttered my camera phone, I got to film today’s encounter with a penguin wearing a hat. We met that weird bird on our way home from a walk in the neighborhood. We frequently walk past this house, and never before has there been a penguin standing in front of it. Obviously, Hadley was concerned. It looked quite devious in its green hat, pretending to be all innocent, just standing there provocatively. It might just have been planning to murder us all, and Hadley was right to point this out to me.

This is what our penguin session looked like:

Note that rather than using strategic points of reinforcement, I’m feeding away from the penguin, so the increase of distance acts as an additional reinforcer (R-). The whole thing took about 5 minutes, including a few breaks whenever either Hadley chose to disengage and do sth. else for a little bit, or when I went to reinforce Phoebe who I had put in a sit-stay. When Hadley offered looking at the penguin or approaching it again after a break, we were back in the game. At 0.30 in the video, you can see from Hadley’s body language that he’s getting too close. I should have clicked sooner, i.e. after fewer steps towards the penguin. He trusts me enough to keep playing, so for the next click, I lower criteria to just a few steps, something he can easily do. Then I gradually increase criteria again. At the end, you see his first bold touch. He’s not worried anymore and recognizes the penguin as the latest cookie-vending machine that has been placed here for his convenience! Engage with it, get a cookie from mum. Sweet!

The Little Rascal Files 5 – More Dogs!

A few days ago, we met Tini and Nayeli for a walk. Hadley recognized Nayeli after briefly alarm-barking at her from the car, and immediately started playing chase with Phoebe and her! Wow – this is the first time he has played as intensely with a dog who isn’t a family member. Nayeli is simply a great role model, and a wonderful auntie to have as a puppy. I’m sure Hadley will have fun with Tini and her when he vacations with them in January.

We encountered two strange off-leash dogs on our walk. The first one was a tiny, shy puppy. Phoebe, Fanta and Nayeli didn’t care about the tiny dog, but Hadley approached him with a friendly wagging tail! WOW! Best. strange. dog. encounter. ever! I was soooo happy; proud of my puppy and of my training success, and happy that my dogs get to have dogs like Nayeli in their lives.

P1090351 P1090350The three musketeers are having fun near Lusthaus.

Today, we had another very successful outing: we went for a walk today – just Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley and I. Off leash, on the fields.


After a few minutes, two women with a dog slightly bigger than Hadley, also off-leash, crossed our way. We saw them coming from a distance. Phoebe and Fanta walked over to say hallo, and Hadley … looked, wagged, and went back to playing chase with Phoebe! He had only hesitated a moment, than decided that the strange dog wasn’t a threat. He didn’t keep close to me, and didn’t mind walking or running close to the strange dog. The women and I walked together for about fifteen minutes.


Phoebe, Hadley and the first dog we encountered on today’s walk.

A little later, the next challenge: a with an on-leash Spitz about Phoebe’s size came straight at us. I took my dogs on leash, and made way for the Spitz to pass, started feeding treats when Hadley noticed the strange dog and went on feeding until he had passed us. Hadley watched the dog attentively and calmly ate his treats, then quickly switched to offering sits – the strange dog wasn’t important enough to pay attention to! Hah! I am SO happy with how he is developing!


Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley and the two women’s small dog were let off leash again. Another few minutes went by, and we met the next dog: an old, off-leash Maltese who was standing quietly near his even older owner. The Maltese told our group in body language that he was neither a threat not interested in interacting with any of them, and they all curved around him. Hadley followed suit! While curving, he had his tail slightly between his legs and glanced sideways at the Maltese, but followed the other three without hesitation. Woohooo! Witnessed how to deal with dogs like this, and did it himself! Wonderful puppy, and I’m happy my training has helped him become more confident around strange dogs!


Fanta, Hadley and, in the distance, the dog who walked with us for a while. Everyone’s happy doing their own thing. There’s plenty of space for everyone, and no need to feel threatened.

We parted ways with the two ladies and their dog. I played with my camera while Phoebe and Hadley played near the water and Fanta had one of his rare it’s-my-favorite-season runs.


On our way back, we met an off-leash Border Collie; an adult black-and-white female. Phoebe mistook her for Xandro and was quite startled when she realized that Xandro isn’t the only beautiful Border around. I didn’t interfere with Hadley’s behavior because it had been going very well so far. Hadley looked and I could see that this dog was more concerning to him than the others had been. She was more active, and held her busy tail up high. And then she even looked at him directly! Hadley made one tiny bark. I kept walking and called him, he came. She came over, he let her sniff him submissively, and then happily greeted her human. We exchanged a few words while Hadley watched Phoebe and the Border discuss who was going to keep the stick they had found.


We walked on, and passed the old man with the Maltese again. They were still standing at the same spot, chatting with an acquaintance. This time, Hadley curved around the Maltese without hesitation and without putting his tail between his legs. Yeah!


Almost back at the car, we met a woman with a big, on-leash dog resembling an Akita, but slightly smaller. They were walking straight at us. I put my dogs on their leashes, and noticed that the woman deliberately lead her dog on the side of her body that wasn’t facing us and was feeding treats while approaching us. It always makes me smile to see other dog people working with their dogs in similar ways as I do! Also, I’m always happy to encounter polite dog owners who are as keen to avoid on-leash encounters as I am.


We walked a little to the side and let the two of them pass. Hadley requested that I play LAT with him! He looked at the Akita, then back at me. At the Akita again, then back at me! Hah! This is awesome! Thank you, Leslie McDevitt, for coming up with this simple, yet brilliant game. Of course, since he asked me to, I played with Hadley, and he got to earn a few treats for looking, and then for the sits he offered. And on we went, off leash again, back to the car.


I have to say, I am relieved and really, really glad Hadley’s attitude towards strange dogs is slowly relaxing. I am also glad that the strategy I chose for dealing with his issues is turning out to be the right one for him!

The Little Rascal Files 4 – Dogs

Wow – time really does fly. So much has happened since the last time I found a moment to sit down and write a blog post. Where do I begin?

The little rascal has been a pretty easy puppy to take care of. He’s been spending lots of time with me when Tom is at work, and I couldn’t help comparing him to Phoebe. In most regards, Hadley has been less of a challenge than Phoebe when she was his age. Phoebe was an extremely high-energy puppy, and she was very mouthy. Hadley has mostly been relaxed and friendly.

There is, however, one thing that concerns me: Hadley is a rather wary puppy, particularly when it comes to strange dogs. From day 1 onwards, he has been alarmed by strange dogs, even the ones that were 1.5 blocks away. I am worried about this because Hadley spent his puppyhood among all kinds of different dogs – his breeder has more than 10 Border Collies, Norwegian Lundehunds, and a Beauceron. To my knowledge, Hadley has only had good experiences with her dogs. In theory, these positive early socialization experiences should have turned him into a dog who approaches new dogs with curiosity and confidence. However, this is not the kind of puppy he turned out to be: initially, he would avoid other dogs whenever possible, froze/stared and eventually barked when avoidance was not possible, and tried to hide/flee if they came too close. He also took a comparatively long time (read: several meetings over the course of several days) to warm up to new dogs. However, once he considered a dog a friend, he’d play with her like any other happy puppy.

After consulting with friends and colleagues and debating how best to handle a dog-sensitive Border puppy, I came up with the following plan, which I’ve been working on since Hadley has moved in:

Part A – socialization

introduce Hadley to my friends’ friendly adult dogs in various short sessions. Always put up a portable crate and/or familiar blanket for him to retreat to, and make sure the other dogs respect his safety zone. Let him watch and decide for himself whether and when he is ready to initiate interaction. Never force contact. Never overwhelm or flood him.

My idea was that I would provide Hadley with a number of distinctly positive experiences that lead to dog-dog friendships, rather than create lots of neutral dog-dog experiences. I hoped that the more dogs he got to know and make friends with, the easier it would be for him to be around new dogs in the future, and that eventually, he would start considering strange dogs to be interesting rather than scary.

Part B – management and alternative behavior

I would also work on Leslie McDevitt’s Look at That game (LAT). That is to say, I would teach Hadley to earn clicks and treats by means of looking at strange dogs from a distance: I wanted him to start seeing strange dogs as cookie-vending machines rather than potential threats. “Dad, mum, there’s a dog, did you see it? Look, it’s over there! Where’s my cookie?”

LAT makes use of both classical and operant conditioning. One the one hand, a potentially scary stimulus is repeatedly paired with a strong reinforcer (tasty treats), which changes the emotional response to the stimulus. On the other hand, the dog is being empowered as he learns that he can use dogs he spots on the street to make a treat happen. All he has to do is point them out to his humans with a movement of his head.

If strange dogs were too close, I would retreat by means of putting a barrier between ourselves and the trigger, changing sides or doing a U turn.

Part A has been going well. Apart from my own two dogs, I’ve strategically introduced Hadley to 12 dogs by now; some male, some female, some neutered, some intact, some small, some large:

1 Border Collie
4 Miniature Pinschers
1 Irish Setter
1 Golden Retriever
1 American Staffordshire Terrier X
1 Akita mix
1 Sheltie X GSD
1 small Terrier X
1 Dalmatian

He has met all of them several times in safe, short sessions, and made friends with all of them. The first few outings, he would just sit in his safe space and observe from a distance until we went home again. I did not try to convince him to come out, but focused on making sure he felt safe. Apart from that, I did not distract him with food, but let him choose what to do – stay in his safe spot and observe, walk away and do his own thing, or initiate contact with the new dogs. Helene, a friend who shares her life with 7 wonderful dogs, has been a huge help with this. (Thank you, Helene, Xandro, Wasti, Arkani, Schoko, Hexi and Guinness!)

Helene lives just around the corner. So we would meet up at a meadow close by. I would get there first and set up Hadley’s safety zone: a pop-up crate and a blanket in front of it. He could choose to hide in the crate, sit on the familiar blanket, or come all the way out on the meadow. I took one of my own dogs with me so Hadley could see that they were not afraid of the new dog we introduced him to. If he wanted, Hadley could take the crate’s side exit and go explore the forest and shrubbery rather than engaging with the other dogs, who did their own thing out in the field.

The first two times, Helene brought Border Collie Xandro and Miniature Pinscher Wasti, and I brought Fanta and Hadley. Helene and I spent twenty minutes sitting on the blanket and chatting. Hadley stayed in the crate or on the blanket with us, but did not approach either of her dogs. This was okay. It was his choice. After twenty minutes, we left and Hadley went back to sleep at home to sleep off his adventures and maybe do some latent learning.

The third time, Hadley approached Wasti with a cautious wag … and started following him around at a distance. Whenever Wasti turned around, Hadley would hurry back to his safety zone, but soon after, his curiosity took over and he followed Wasti again. He did, however, still keep his distance from Xandro.

The fourth time, Hadley was happy to see Wasti and followed him around more, even if it meant moving further away from his safety zone. His overall confidence had clearly grown, and he even sniffed Xandro’s tail a few times – of course, when Xandro turned to face him, he would retreat like he used to do with Wasti. But from behind, the Border Collie had stopped looking all that scary.

We did numerous sessions like that. Once Hadley had grown comfortable with one dog, we’d introduce another one. The last time Helene and I met, we didn’t need a blanket or crate anymore, and were able to take all 9 dogs for a walk together. Hadley had fun from beginning to end. He mostly played with Phoebe, but did not mind running ahead with her, getting close to Helene’s dogs, and quickly bounced back the two times he didn’t respect Schoko’s personal space and got a reprimand by his new auntie. I’d call this a BIG success – thank you very much for your help, Helene, and a big thank you to your patient, friendly dogs who have already been a big help in raising Hadley!

Photo 15-10-15 1 26 46 pm
Hadley is having a good time during a 9-dog outing with Phoebe, Fanta, Xandro, Guinness, Wasti, Arkani, Hexi and Schoko.

Another dog who has been immensely helpful is Olivia, the dog who’s mum runs our local pharmacy. Olivia is a friendly and very patient Dalmatian. We’ve been visiting her several times in the course of the last weeks. At first, we kept Olivia in a back room behind a baby gate, while Hadley could look at her from the far end of the adjoining room. He could choose to walk closer or leave, to just observe Olivia who slowly wagged her tail and looked sideways, or to engage with the pharmacy personnel who were happy to greet him and let him lick their faces. (Meeting people is something that has always made Hadley happy.) The second time we went, Hadley chose to approach the gate and cautiously greet Olivia and lick her lips. The third time, he was able to meet her without a gate, and was happy to dance around her and explore her space. Olivia, the patient girl, gave him all the freedom in the world and happily took my thank-you treats.

Photo 08-10-15 2 36 49 pm
Hadley and Olivia – first time without being separated by a baby gate.

Phoebe’s best girlfriend, the Golden Nayeli, has had a very easy time when it came to making friends with Hadley. She and her mum visited us at home and spent an afternoon with us. In his own home, where he feels most confident, and able to watch Phoebe and Nayeli play, Hadley quickly decided that he wanted to join in the fun – and that’s what he did. Thank you, Tini, for helping Hadley make a new friend! Nayeli has already been a great aunt for Phoebe when she was little, and now she’s doing the same thing for Hadley. It takes a village, doesn’t it?

Various other helpers later, Hadley has made great progress! By now, he will cautiously approach new dogs with a wag after only 1 or 2 minutes of observing from a save distance.

However, his initial response is still fear, and unless I carefully set up these situations and manage the initial distance, he will default to freeze/stare or hide/flee.

It was interesting to visit his breeder two weeks ago. His mom, dad and brother were there. Tom let Hadley out of the car. Hadley saw his father and immediately hid under the car. His father lowered his head to look at Hadley, and there was a lightbulb moment of recognition – as soon as he recognized the Border Collie in front of him, Hadley was ready to approach and happily greet his dad. Or at least, that’s what it looked like to me. It’s not that Hadley is afraid of his father – but until he recognized him, he wanted to hide.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 18.43.16
Hadley, his parents and his brother Horace got to have a little family reunion when we visited the breeder.

What does this mean? Does he have a genetic predisposition to being on the fearful side? His breeder remarked a while ago, when I commented on Hadley being cautious, that he had always been “the most sensitive of the litter”. Is sensitive a euphemism for something else? I don’t know. And in the end, it does not matter. No matter where a certain behavior stems from, the laws of behavior always apply. And these laws are the foundation of all training. Also, no matter who Hadley was yesterday, is today, or will be tomorrow, the one thing that will always be true is that he’s the world’s most wonderful puppy, and the most perfect dog Tom could have adopted 🙂

But back to Hadley’s dog issues:

Part B has also been going well. I’m always armed with clicker and treats anyway, so I’ve been playing LAT with all the random dogs we met on walks. I like how having an objective (teach Hadley that the LAT game is fun!) changes my attitude towards dog encounters: it makes me happy whenever I see a dog in the distance rather than annoyed that I have to change sides or do a U turn. This always happens when I play LAT with a new dog – Pirate and I also had a lot of fun whenever we went out trigger hunting and LAT adventuring. It became one of our favorite bonding games.

As for Hadley, he is becoming an LAT expert. I’ve started naming the behavior, and the distance we can play at has shrunk. We can now play with (calm) dogs on the other side of the street rather than 1.5 blocks away, and after only a few Look-s, Hadley will now switch to offering a different behavior (usually prolonged eye contact or sit). Definitely a success worth celebrating!

Tom and Hadley also participated in my recall workshop the other day. Hadley had to keep a bit of a distance at first, but soon was able to comfortably work near the other dogs, and was happy to play with them after class. He’s a very brave little puppy!

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Tom and Hadley testing the quality of treats. Even though the other participating dogs are nearby, Hadley can relax and concentrate on his task.

The nice thing about writing these things down is that it makes me see the progress. When I don’t keep notes, it’s easy to miss out on the tiny little steps of progress I’ve been making every day or every session. It’s like watching a kid (or a puppy) grow up: you see them every day, and you don’t notice how they get bigger – unless every once in a while, you ask them to stand with their back to a door frame and draw a line where their head is. Taking training notes is like drawing lines on a door frame. It helps me see change.

I’ve made another observation that makes it clearer what often happens to clients who have reactive dogs: when I’m out with Hadley in our neighborhood, we hardly ever have an incident. I’m always ready to change sides, make a U-turn, play LAT … Tom and Hadley, on the other hand, still have those encounters where Hadley starts barking or freezes for a moment or two. That means Hadley still practices reactivity.

I’ve been thinking about why this happens to Hadley and Tom rather than Hadley and me, and come up with the following list of reasons. I think being aware of these might help me better coach clients with reactive dogs:

– Until we’ve trained our eyes and brain to selectively focus on dogs in our environment, we tend to see them too late (aka after our dog has already seen them).
– Until we’ve fine-tuned our observation skills to read the fine print in a dog’s body language, we tend to notice fear only when it is obvious – i.e. when our dog is about to react or has already started reacting.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that a puppy’s dog reactivity is a reason to worry in the first place. We tend to assume it’s just a phase he’ll grow out of, or that it will go away with random exposure to dogs, or that a dog is still capable of learning when in fight-or-flight mode.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that aversives are not a constructive solution for reactivity.
– We tend to forget that dogs learn all the time, not only in the training sessions we specify: we’re likely to forget clicker and treats when we take our dogs out to potty rather than setting up for a training session.
– Putting our dog’s safety and comfort level first, even if it means ignoring/stopping/avoiding/standing up to friendly strangers (and their dogs) is an attitude we have to consciously adopt, and to practice.

I wonder how I can make these pieces of the puzzle more accessible to my clients to get them to this point sooner rather than later. I want to minimize their frustration and maximize the quality of their and their dog’s walk. The more “mistakes” happen, the longer it will take for a reactive dog to get over his fears. The longer it takes for our reactive dog, the longer we will have to actively work on his issues, and the longer it will be until being out and about with our canine companion will be the walk in the park will be the uncomplicated, fun activity we’ve been looking forward to.

Of course, this is not to say that Hadley and I don’t run into problems on our walks, too. Walking a reactive dog is hard. It requires both background knowledge, concentration, the desire to be our dog’s advocates, and a number of skills we need to practice: observation skills, timing of the click, and speed (as little time as possible should pass between click and reward). We need to prepare before we go out (clicker, treats, mindset), and keep in mind that like children, our dogs learn every minute – not just when we want to train. Walking a reactive dog is not a walk in the park, it requires your full attention. At least for me, it still requires my full attention. When I don’t pay attention, I often run in a situation I become aware of too late. While walking around my neighborhood has been categorized by playing LAT and hardly any reactive incidents for me, going new places is harder because I don’t know when and where to expect the next strange dog. The other day, Hadley and I were hanging out at a park. He was on leash, and since it was a sunny Sunday and a number of people were out walking their dogs, I ceased the opportunity to play LAT from a safe distance near my car, always ready to retreat behind it, should it be necessary to get another barrier between us and a strange dog. After a while, a woman with her French Bulldog on a flexi lead passed us. Hadley was off the road at a little distance, and on a short leash. It should have been pretty obvious that I was interacting with/training my dog rather than seeking social encounters. The Bulldog came closer, and the woman let it run on the flexi … I politely asked her to stop her dog from coming closer, since my dog was afraid. But what did she do? Let the Bulldog keep running towards us rather than stopping her flexi, telling me, “Well, he has to get used to other dogs at some point, doesn’t he?”

Hadley barked before I had a chance to retreat behind the car. Encounters like this really annoy me. It’s NOT up to you, stranger, to decide when, how and what dogs my dogs are meeting up close. And it is never okay to let your dog run up to a dog on leash without asking. Dogs are on leash for a reason: maybe my dog is scared, or maybe he’s on a leash in order to keep your dog safe from his teeth, or maybe he has flees that I don’t want him to pass on to yours! ALWAYS ask before letting your dog great a strange dog on leash.

Anyways – time to post this update, which is, in fact, already a few weeks old – I just haven’t found the time to finish it yet.

Dog-dog play and off-leash manners (for Tony and his dad)

Phoebe, Nayeli and I spent yesterday afternoon at our favorite park in Vienna: the Prater. This is a huge public park with, among other things, forest, meadows, ponds, and Vienna’s biggest official off-leash area for dogs (generally, dogs have to either wear a leash or a muzzle in public spaces in Vienna; getting caught ignoring this law can be quite expensive).  The off-leash/no muzzle area isn’t your typical “dog park”. It’s unfenced and spacious enough to actually take walks there. 

I like the Prater because it’s just around the corner from my house, it’s beautiful and makes me feel like I’m in the middle of nature rather than the city. Due to its size, it’s not too crowded, and due to the fact that it’s unfenced, the people walking there dogs there tend to be owners who keep an eye on their dogs. Furthermore, since dogs are allowed off leash, you get less joggers, bikers and children than in other parks in the city – less potential triggers.

I don’t like the typical dog park and avoid it, because there you get lots of dogs forced to share a small enclosed space, whether they want to or not, and often a subculture of owners subscribing to the “Oh, just let the dogs do their own thing, don’t you dare intervene!” philosophy. Visiting dog parks like this is stressful for both me and whatever bomb-proof dog I’m taking. However, I like visiting the Prater’s off-leash area and the big unfenced off-leash area on the Donauinsel every now and then (only with a dog who is comfortable being around other dogs, of course), because these big and unfenced spaces seems to have a different vibe.

However, the other day, I was reminded that there’s always the chance of frustrating encounters there, too. At some point, a border collie came flying our way, no handler in sight. Without stopping, he lunged at Phoebe, repeatedly tipped her over, chased her down when she tried to get away and pinned her to the ground with his body rather than choosing the fully grown golden retriever as a playmate.

Nayeli usually protects Phoebe from all-too wild play encounters by means of splitting the dogs up with her body and directing calming signals towards the strange dog. This is one of the reasons I’m comfortable taking a puppy places where I frequently meet strange off-leash dogs: Nayeli, while generally much more interested in people than dogs, is very versed when it comes to calming signals, and she looks out for Phoebe. She discriminates between appropriate playmates Phoebe has fun with and dogs she wants to protect her young friend from. 

In this case, however, Nayeli was busy sniffing around elsewhere. Phoebe looked to me for help, showed calming signals that the border ignored, then growled and tried to get away, which didn’t work. Since the border collie’s dad approached in the distance, I didn’t body block the border as I would have done otherwise, but called out to his dad and asked him to please call back his dog, since his play was getting a little too rough for my puppy. 

This guy belonged to the “let-them-fight-it-out-among-themselves” subculture. “They’ll fight it out among themselves,” he shouted back and added, laughing with an air of superiority, “as a dog owner, you should know that yourself! Dogs have to play!”

“I’d really ask you to please call back your dog. My puppy is uncomfortable with your dog playing rough,” I explained patiently. “I agree it’s nice for dogs to play and socialize, but ideally with dogs who match their temperament or strength.”

He continued to shout at me as a response to my friendly request, finally called his dog with the words, “Come, Tony, the bimbo doesn’t want you to play with her dogs, leave the bimbo alone!” I ignored him; he kept calling his dog, but to no avail. As I was getting ready to step in myself, Tony finally decided to take off himself. He continued to ignore his owner’s recall, ran the other way and disappeared in the distance to do his own thing. 

About half an hour later, Tony showed up again (handler nowhere in sight). He seemed to have spent his energy by now and was just hanging out there, taking turns sniffing the ground and looking around alertly. He didn’t seem calm because he was relaxed, but because he was exhausted. After a while, I also saw his owner again, who continued insulting me as he passed even though I hadn’t said a word. “Oh, come, Tony, quick, there’s the bimbo who doesn’t want her dogs to play. In an off-leash area! Hahaha!”

So here’s my take on dog play (in off-leash areas and elsewhere): 

Respect your fellow dogs and respect your fellow humans

If I take my dogs for a walk in an area where it’s likely I’ll encounter other dogs, off-leash or on-leash, I always try to make sure my dogs don’t bother other dogs or other owners. If either dog or owner seem uncomfortable, I’ll call back my dogs. This is basic manners, and I expect the same from other dog owners.

If I encounter a dog on leash, or a dog who seems to be training with his mum or dad, I won’t let my dog run up to them to say hello in an off-leash area any more than I would let them do this anywhere else. Rather, I’ll keep my distance. Just because it’s permitted to have your dog off leash doesn’t mean you have to have him off leash all the time, and just because she’s off leash certainly doesn’t mean you should ignore her whereabouts. If she doesn’t have a reliable recall (like Tony), she shouldn’t be off-leash in the first place: a dog without a reliable recall can get into all kinds of trouble involving cars, strange dogs etc., and a leash is a matter of keeping her safe.

If I encounter someone walking their dog on a leash, no matter whether I’m in an off-leash area or not, I assume there is a reason for this, and I keep my dog at a distance. If I run into a training session on a public place, whether in an off-leash area or not, I’ll keep my dogs at a distance as well in order not to distract the working dog and handler. And I think that’s great: I love seeing dogs work and have fun despite the distractions in an area like the Prater – such as the young couple with two border collies who I’ve watched practicing cool two-dog tricks involving a park bench, a frisbee, freestyle moves and human as well as canine jumps, while all around them, all kinds of dogs are running, owners are shouting, squirrels are jumping etc.

If my dogs really want to greet an on-leash or training dog in an off-leash area, I’ll do the same I would do in an on-leash area: ask their owners if it’s okay for my dog to say hello. If they say yes, then we’ll let them greet each other and I might turn greeting the strange dog into a Premack reward; if they say no, I respect that decision. This is basic manners as well, and I expect other owners to show me the same kind of respect.

What does healthy play look like?

For me, healthy play means that all the dogs involved enjoy themselves. The moment one of the playing dogs experiences distress, is scared or seems to bully the others rather than match his strength to the other one’s strength, it’s not play. Ideally, if you let your dog play with a strange dog, you watch your dog’s and the other dog’s body language and call them back before a problem develops.

In my experience, the dogs who best play together are familiar dogs. Also, usually, two (strange) dogs play better together than three or a group. If three or more dogs are playing, make sure they don’t gang up on one of them.

Healthy dog play may consist of chase (with or without role-changes), mouth-wrestling or rolling around with a lot of physical contact (this third variety especially occurs between puppies). Even what looks like “rough” play to us may be okay – as long as it’s obvious that all the dogs involved are enjoying the game as a social ritual rather than engage in a serious quarrel. Boxers, for example, seem to have a tendency to enjoy rough play with each other. Different dogs play differently, depending on their breed-specific motor patterns, their experience, and their personality.

Play is only healthy as long as all the dogs involved are relaxed and enjoy themselves. Examples of body language and behaviors indicating this include:

– tail and ears are in a “happy” position.

– The play partners take breaks every once in a while and show calming signals (sniffing, licking their mouths, turning away from each other, or briefly lying down) before resuming the chase or mouth-wrestling session. Each play mate respects the other one’s calming signals and responds to them.

– They don’t get play-high, deaf to their surroundings and tunnel-vision (1), but can hear you and respond to your recall.

Dogs can even learn to match their play-style to the size and strength of their play-partner. For example, Nayeli plays differently (much more gentle) with Phoebe than she plays with other retrievers, and Phoebe used to play differently (more gentle) with 17-year old Snoopy than with younger dogs – even though she’s only a puppy herself. 

To me, it seems that there are different games a dog can play with other dogs. There are multilingual players, i.e. dogs who play well with dogs of all kinds of ages, strengths, sizes and levels of outgoingness, and monolingual players, i.e. dogs who apply one play-style for every play partner. While the breed-specific motor pattern influences play behavior and is innate, play multilingualism is an acquired skill. However, I assume that an aptitude to learning different games/play styles may be innate.

What is especially important for us in the context of healthy play is that a monolingual player is probably not a good play partner for a strange dog whose play style is very different from his own. (Very often, this will be a dog with a significantly different breed-specific motor pattern. This makes it easy for you to judge a potential play partner coming your way from a distance.)

Now let’s look at behaviors and body signals that show you it’s high time to end a play session. Ideally, you should have anticipated them and stopped the game before you see any of the following:

– tugged tail

– shaking off invisible water

– running away and trying to hide behind people

– one dog trying to get away, but at the same time afraid of turning his back on the other dog

– one dog using his strength to overpower the other rather than controlling his strength to match his play partner’s strength

– any calming or break-off signals that show you one of the dogs has had enough and would rather end the game.

Don’t let your dog go over threshold when playing, i.e. if a dog can play for two minutes before getting play-high, tunnel-vision, deaf to his owner and tuning out everything around him (1), don’t let him play any longer than two minutes. 

Do dogs have to play with other dogs in order to be happy?

No. If your dog enjoys playing with his dog friends and can do so in a healthy way, go for it. If he doesn’t enjoy playing with other dogs, don’t force him to meet other dogs up close: you’ll take a lot of stress off your dog and yourself.

Think about people: some people love to socialize with other people. Others prefer the company of their dog to the company of other people. Still others have a few close friends they enjoy seeing every once in a while, but avoid big parties and new people.
Dogs are like that, too. Some dogs simply don’t like other dogs. And that’s completely okay. Just make sure they aren’t forced to meet another dog and put over threshold. Some dogs don’t care about other dogs and ignore them. (These dogs tend to be most uncomplicated to live with.) Others enjoy playing with other dogs. Only the last kind should be introduced to other dogs. 

Who should I bring to the typical dog park (small fenced area, lots of dogs and owners, no hiding places)? 

In my opinion – no one, if it can be avoided. In my experience, these places are stressful even for bombproof dogs. This is especially true if they are frequented by owners who subscribe to the subculture of “letting the dogs do their own thing” rather than supervising.

Try going to a dog park without your dog, watch or maybe even videotape the dogs’ interactions, and pay attention to behaviors and body language before deciding to bring your dog there. If you look at dog parks “from the outside” or from behind a camera lens, you’ll see more than when you’re in the middle of it. Observe the dogs’ and their owners’ behavior, judge the dogs’ level of stress and their play behavior (healthy/unhealthy?). This will help you decide whether this particular dog park is a place you and your dog will enjoy or not.

Who should I bring to off-leash areas frequented by lots of dogs and their people?

Only non-reactive dogs with reliable recalls who enjoy or ignore the company of other dogs. If you’re bringing a reactive, fearful or irritable dog to these areas, you’re setting him up for failure because you can’t control the other dogs in the park who might approach her.

Who should I not bring to off-leash areas frequented by lots of dogs and their people?

Fearful, reactive, irritable dogs, very young puppies and new rescue dogs. You can’t control the other off-leash dogs (and their owners) at an off-leash area, and they might traumatize your puppy or reinforce your dog’s reactivity. In the best case scenario, the walk will simply not be fun for your dog.

Shouldn’t I bring my puppy to dog parks and off-leash areas with lots of dogs in order to socialize him? 

People tend to think they’re doing their puppy a favor if they take him to the dog park the day after he arrived at his new home. While well-intended, the opposite is the case. Your puppy may already be overwhelmed by moving into a new home filled with new smells, new sounds and new people. It’s the first time he’s away from his mother and littermates, and he hasn’t had a chance to bond with you! 

He doesn’t know yet that you’ll protect him, no matter what. If you take him to a place frequented by off-leash dogs and dog-loving people, he’ll feel stuck in the middle of strange sounds and smells, strange people reaching down to pet that fluffy puppy and strange dogs who approach him to sniff. This is not the first experience you want your new puppy to have at his new home!

One new stimulus at a time

Yes, socializing is an important part of growing up. But take your time. Let your puppy settle in and give him a chance to bond with you for the first few days. Only then should you introduce him to friends, other dogs and new environments – one new stimulus at a time. 

Get to know your puppy’s personality and let him set the pace. If he needs a lot of time, give him a lot of time. If he adopts quickly to new situations, great. Still, keep in mind he is a puppy with a short attention span, puppy needs and puppy fears. Never work over threshold and don’t forget to grant him lots of breaks at a place he feels save and can relax.

When introducing your puppy to other dogs, make use of well-supervised puppy play groups (who separate between size and temperament) or use your friends’ puppies or your dog’s littermates, if they get along well. Don’t take your new puppy to the dog park or highly frequented off-leash areas and expect him to cope! You may turn him into a fearful, reactive or aggressive dog if you expose him to that kind of environment too early.

Also, if your puppy is fearful, don’t force him to socialize with other puppies. Don’t flood him. Rather, choose a friend’s calm dog who your puppy will eventually learn to be comfortable with, or let him watch the puppy playgroup from a safe distance without any pressure to participate, and relax with him, play mat games, puppy parallel games, or give him a massage. Only if and when he decides he is ready to move closer to the action will you move closer.

The same holds true for a new rescue dog: take your time to get to know your canine companion first, work on foundation behaviors, a reliable recall and on building mutual trust and a good relationship before introducing your dog to (familiar) dogs and people and new environments – one new stimulus at a time. 

Only when you know your dog well and have equipped him with whatever coping skills he may need in a highly-frequented off-leash area should you take him there – and the same holds true for any other new place, be it the shopping mall, a restaurant or a friend’s house.

How frequently should I go to highly frequented off-leash areas?

Every once in a while, if both you and your dog enjoy going there, but not all the time (not for every single walk). Keep in mind the question, “Whose walk is this?” The answer should be, “My dog’s walk, of course!” Ask your dog where she most enjoys her walks. In my experience, most dogs find a walk with lots of unpredictable dog encounters stressful rather than fun. Even bombproof dogs might prefer a walk in a quiet area where they can concentrate on you and all the interesting smells on the ground, where they can play fetch and tug with you every once in a while and don’t have to stay alert in order to not be surprised by unpredictable strange dogs flying at them.

Yes, play dates for dogs can be a lot of fun. But they are most fun with familiar dogs; so if you can, make a play date with your friends and their dogs – people who share your training philosophies and have dogs you trust – rather than strange dogs at the dog park.

What am I supposed to do if I already have a fearful or reactive dog, a dog who gets “high” on play and doesn’t respond to recalls, or a dog like “Tony”? Am I not supposed to go to dog parks and highly frequented off-leash areas so he gets used to them?

If you ask me: no, right now, it’s not a good idea to visit places where you are likely to meet other dogs. Ideally, you’ll manage your dog’s environment in a way that protects him from practicing the reactive behavior (lunging/barking/jumping/attacking …), and take your daily walks in an area where he won’t encounter his triggers. That is to say, if he is dog-reactive, don’t go places where he’ll meet other dogs.

The problem with simply exposing a dog like that to a high dose of his trigger (an approach psychologists call flooding) is that rather than “getting used to it,” his problems may actually escalate. Flooding also implies that you deliberately put your dog in a situation where he’s uncomfortable and push him over his threshold. This is not fair to your dog, since there are less stressful alternatives to alter his behavior. Personally, I’m opposed to flooding, since there are effective and safe alternatives. Flooding probably works for some people and animals, but not for me: I once tried it on myself to overcome a mild case of claustrophobia and actually made it worse.

But let’s take another look at our example dog, the border collie Tony. If he was my dog, I wouldn’t take him to the Prater park for several reasons: I wouldn’t want him to practice not responding to my recall, I wouldn’t want him to practice pinning smaller dogs to the ground with his body, and I wouldn’t want him to offend other owners or traumatize other dogs. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want him to work himself up that way and experience the kind of stress Tony must have felt (even though his dad didn’t notice). 

What I would do with a dog like Tony, on the other hand:

1. Build trust between dog and owner – I would want to create a dog who can confidently turn to his owner for direction if he is overwhelmed.

2. Work on relaxation (reinforce calm behavior, Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, play Give Me a Break and Take a Breath, relaxing massages etc.). First in quiet environments (house, garden etc., only later with distractions present). The goal is to teach him how it feels to relax. I don’t know Tony, but from our brief encounters yesterday, he seemed completely over threshold at first, and exhausted from all the stress, noticing stuff, and having to deal with the environment on his own, without directions from his dad, during our second encounter. 

3. Work on a reliable recall (in an environment where he can succeed every time I call him: first in the house, then in the garden etc.). Only after having a reliable recall in many different places would I add triggers such as people walking, cars, dogs etc.; one new stimulus at a time, and starting at a safe distance.

6. I’d look for a border collie-appropriate energy outlet. I’d try to focus his energy rather than letting him zoom around an unfenced area by himself while unable to control him: even though the Prater park is huge, it’s surrounded by busy streets, and there’s no fence protecting Tony from jumping into a passing car. I’d find a healthy way to engage Tony’s legs as well as his brain. Rather than independently patrolling the city’s parks, he’d get a job – agility, herding, flyball, disc dogging, freestyle, some combination of regular exercise and trick training, obedience, nose work … There are countless possibilities, and one of them would certainly be enjoyable for both Tony and his dad.

4. Teach Tony strategies to influence his environment. This will make him feel safe, since the environment ceases to be a scary place where unpredictable things happen, and becomes a place governed by reliable rules instead.

I would look at why other dogs trigger Tony to go over threshold and what he wants to achieve by his reaction. Does he want to play or is he scared that if he doesn’t act first, the other dog will? I would integrate his functional reward into my training of a replacement behavior.

5. If I wanted a dog like Tony to have (close) contact with other dogs, I’d work on a safe way to greet other dogs. That is to say, always staying below threshold, I would teach Tony to notice a strange dog at a decreasing distance, then turn away. The goal is to establish a ritual Tony could fall back on whenever there was an encounter with another dog.

Only if Tony were comfortable doing this and really wanted to play rather than being happy to get away from the other dog would I, if I, for some reason, needed or wanted him to be able to play with other dogs, work on safe playAfter having established reliable foundation behaviors, a solid recall, replacement behaviors and a way to relax, I’d introduce play with a familiar dog, reward for appropriate play, keep sessions extremely short in the beginning and reward interruptions and the use and respecting of calming signals. I’d frequently take play breaks and ask Tony to calm down/take a breath before sending him off to play again. 

Is it my fault if I have a fearful, reactive, irritable dog like Tony?

No. There are many different factors that can contribute to reactivity, fearfulness, irritability etc. You may have contributed to them or you may not have contributed to them – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are willing to work on managing your dog’s environment and training together so your relationship will improve in the future. This way, both you and your dog will have more fun together and find it easier to trust each other and relax around each other.

Is it my dog’s fault?

No. Even though I haven’t met your dog, I can guarantee you it’s not “her fault”. She might be behaving the way she does because her behavior has worked for her in the past: let’s assume Tony would rather have gotten away from other dogs than be forced to interact with them. His dad didn’t protect him but believed Tony had to “fight it out for himself”. Tony might have made the experience that most other dogs he encounters in off-leash areas or dog parks want to greet him, but either retreat or are held back by their owners once he flies at them or tries to pin them to the ground with his body. This environmental reaction might inadvertently have reinforced his flying at the other dog, since he got the functional reward he was looking for: being let alone by the other dogs!

I believe it’s important for us as dog handlers to realize it’s never “our dog’s fault.” If we have a positive, empathic and encouraging attitude towards our dogs and their potential for improvement, the training will progress faster, and both we and our canine companions will have more fun along the way.

If it’s not my fault and not my dog’s fault … why does he behave the way he behaves?

Factors contributing to a dog’s arousal threshold include:

– genetic disposition: a dog’s autonomic nervous system can be sympathetically dominated or parasympathetically dominated. If the autonomic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that operates mostly sub-consciously and regulates visceral functions – is sympathetically dominated, the dog is prone to emotional reactivity and stress. If her autonomic nervous system is parasympathetically dominated, she’ll be calmer and more adaptable. This disposition is inherited from the parents and cannot be changed.

– the mother’s stress level: the mother’s body chemistry differs depending on her circumstances and environment before whelping – this also influences the puppies.

– sufficient time spent with mother and siblings after birth (or lack thereof)

– experiences during the important socialization period or lack of socialization during this crucial period (a very important time is roughly between 4 and 14 weeks)

-good and bad experiences/traumas later in life 

No matter who your dog is: if you’re committed to helping him change a problem behavior, if you’re ready to put some work into it yourself, and if you’re willing to seek professional advice if you’re in way over your head, your relationship can only improve. Also: just as you and I, a dog is never too old to learn. He’s already being the best possible dog he can be at this point, just as you’re already being his best possible mum/dad you can be at this point.

But let’s get back to what I was actually going to say: be protective of your dog, no matter whether on- or off-leash. Stick up for her when she gets in trouble. She’ll thank you for it. And it’s your responsibility towards her, just as it is your responsibility to stick up for your child, your friends, or your family.

Last but not least, Tony’s dad is probably never going to read this, but if he did, I’d like to thank him for the inspiration. 

(1) This is not “stubbornness,” but there is a level of excitement that causes the amygdala to stimulate the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that make it chemically impossible for your dog to hear yet alone listen to you.