A leash reactivity epiphany

So. I feel like a terrible dog guardian. But I also feel kind of hopeful about this discovery, even though it rankles the feminist in me.

Context: Kari recently got to meet Ian Dunbar (jealous! But thanks for the tip that he’ll be in Fredericksburg in May!), and he apparently said that men are better at walking reactive dogs than women, because men just “don’t give a shit” about what people think of them. Reading this made me feel some womanly outrage and immediately jump to counterpoints. Men also care what people think of them! Women aren’t the only ones. And surely this is a crass generalization about the sexes.

But on a recent family walk, I wanted to put Dunbar’s theory to the test.

#vscocam queen of all she surveys
Obviously not on a walk, but I don’t have another illustration of Pyr at the moment, so you’ll just have to imagine her, walking, not reacting.

I’m always the one who walks Pyrrha, because she’s so bonded to me, and Guion always walks Eden. As I’ve mentioned before, I sometimes get jealous of them, because they get to be the “friendly, normal” pair who gets to walk in front of us and have happy interactions with strangers and/or their dogs.

This time around, I told Guion to walk Pyrrha, and I took Eden. It was a warm, sunny evening, and so there were tons of people out on our walk, with their dogs and children. Trial by fire, husband! I gave him the bait bag and wished him luck.

We passed six or seven dogs on leash. And we walked by the House with the Scary Dogs, where Pyrrha always loses her shit, like gets all paws off the ground with fear and fear-aggressive displays. The Scary Dogs were throwing themselves at the fence toward her.

Guys. Pyrrha had NO REACTION to any of this. Like, none.

She was still a little tense, but she never made eye contact with the dogs (either the leashed ones or the Scary ones), and she was taking treats from Guion the whole time. No barking, no lunging, no growling. Calm, contained walking.

Why did this happen? I’ve been asking myself this question since, and we’ve taken other walks where the same thing happens (Guion walks Pyrrha; no outbursts at all).

My basic theory is that Guion is just a calmer person than I am. I’ve mentioned before that I think my nervousness just amps up Pyrrha’s anxiety on walks. Guion doesn’t worry about anything, ever, and I think Pyrrha was picking up on his projected confidence. I have tried to work on this, and I try to put myself in a calm, confident mindset whenever I take Pyrrha on a walk, but clearly, some of my anxious self is still seeping through.

So, Dunbar’s theory has held true in this case. But my response to Dunbar would be that if men “don’t give a shit,” it’s because they’ve been cultured by our society to believe that “giving a shit” about their dog would come off as fussy, feminine, and silly. It’s NOT because having a penis makes you an inherently better dog walker. Women “give a shit” because culture allows us to be worrisome, apologetic creatures. And, for better or worse, both approaches rub off on our dogs.

At the end of the day, though, all I care about is that Pyrrha isn’t reacting in fear on walks. That is HUGE. Huge, you have no idea. Guion is still going to practice our classical conditioning protocol with her, but for now, he’s Pyrrha’s walker, and I’m Eden’s. It’ll be so interesting to see how this develops, but I have hope — even if it’s tempered by some of my feminist anxiety.

Walk with these 3 crazies. Sweet shades, @jfarkle.
Men! Walking dogs! My dad and Guion.

What do you think about all of this? Are men better at walking reactive dogs than women? If you have a leash-reactive dog, have you ever tested this theory?

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21 thoughts on “A leash reactivity epiphany

  1. Several months ago I went to an Ian Dunbar seminar and he said the same thing there. But it’s not true at my house – my husband is the worry wort and is tense all the time on walks. He makes their behavior worse :). It’s such a generalized statement to make, that’s what made me mad.

  2. I think part of it might be that men “don’t care” as much but I think in your case it actually has to do with your strong bond with Pyrrha. It is SO much harder to work with “your” dog than someone else’s dog. Because Pyrrha is so bonded to you she picks up on your emotions and because you care so much about her you are more worried about her being fearful so you get anxious, which she picks up on. Vicious cycle. Jeni and I are the same way. That dog is my BABY and my fussing over her and worrying about how she would react or if she was anxious or scared made us stall in our progress for a long time. It took a trainer telling me – hey, you have worked with her, she knows what to do, now raise your expectations for her and stop worrying ab out her – for us to really start making significant progress.

  3. I wish this were true in our household! No matter who is walking him, Rufus acts like a butthead sometimes. That being said, I do think the opposite is true for us sometimes – my boyfriend can be on guard when an off-leash dog approaches us simply because he knows how Rufus may act. But me? I know he can be friendly with the right dog, so he often has a better reaction with me. I think it’s energy and mindset over gender for the most part.

  4. Interesting. Lacey reacts the same either way but neither of us are anxious walking her. (Easier not to be anxious when your dog is only 30 pounds) but I find Lacey reacts much much more if Coulee is with us and Coulee is definitely giving off a anxious, higher arousal vibe.

  5. My boxer is mildly leash reactive, but I have to say, she is much better on the leash when I walk her than she is when my husband walks her. My husband definitely gives fewer shits about what people think of him than I do, so I’m going to have to say that I think Dunbar’s theory might be a little flawed.

    The reason I think Voxie is better on the leash with me than with my husband is because I’m the one who works with her. Because I feed the dogs and am the primary person who trains them, I think they see me as the leader of their pack. I also grew up walking dogs all summer long, whereas my husband’s experience with dogs is much more limited. All of these things contribute to my dog being calmer on the leash with me than with my husband.

    All things being equal, would my husband have the edge just because he’s a guy? I dunno. Maybe? But all things are rarely equal.

  6. Right on! Dunbar’s remark was definitely a gross generalization, and I think he says it in part for laughs, but there is a degree of truth in it. I’m not sure it’s that men don’t care what other people think as much as their attitude is, “So the dog has a reaction. So what?” Where women (at least in my case) think, “We must be perfect or we’ll have terrible setbacks. Oh no, here comes a bicycle. Oh no oh no oh no. Please don’t bark and lunge please don’t bark and lunge! Crap. She barked and lunged.” The dog feeds off our anxiety.

    I’m thrilled that Guion has taken on walking the “hard dog.” We’ve recently had the same thing happen with Rob jogging with Leo. He actually looks forward to it! So instead of my stressing about where I can take Leo that he won’t bark and lunge at stuff, I get to walk Mia peacefully around the neighborhood.

    Another thing about gender roles. I rarely see men alone in training classes. It’s always women, or occasionally women with men. What’s up with that? Anyone else see this trend?

  7. You know, I wonder. I’ve left Silas with my parents a time or two, and he basically does not bark while he’s with them. The first time, my mother let my uncle, whom Silas really doesn’t like, come in the house, and Silas didn’t even bark at him one time. When we got back, we had him come over again, and Silas was pretty bad. I asked the behaviorist about it, wondering if she would say something like you did–that my anxiety about how he would react was increasing his reaction, or that his bad behavior was some kind of guarding. Instead, she just shrugged and said that sometimes dogs are like that.

    I *do* think that our anxiety does intensify their anxiety. After Silas got attacked by that cat, I was so afraid that he was going to start being reactive toward other dogs (I’ve always viewed his lack of dog reactivity as something of a miracle, given his general personality). Sure enough, the next few dogs we saw he reacted to pretty badly. Then I thought, “Why am I working myself into a tizzy over this? All that does is make it worse. Screw it.” And he stopped barking. Mostly–we do get the odd dog that Silas just doesn’t care for.

  8. So rather than it being purely about her feeding off your anxiety, I wonder if some of it is resource guarding YOU?

    Since she has more of a bond with you, when you’re walking her and she’s scared, she might feel more of a need to “protect you” than she does when Guion is walking her.

    No matter what the reason, I think it’s great that he can walk her and that it helps — both because it gives her a chance to not react and because walking in general is such a rewarding experience for dogs that him walking her will doubtlessly help with their relationship!

  9. This is pretty brilliant! I’ve always wondered why J didn’t have nearly the trouble walking Rodrigo as I do. And that makes complete sense. J has such a different energy than I do; it’s not that I care what people say, because when I get the comments or looks, it makes me laugh. They have obviously never had a leash reactive dog. But I do get tense and stressed when I see a cyclists come. The times with Rodrigo has no reaction or a smaller reaction is when I just don’t care about the cyclists.

    I never put two and two together before.

  10. I think it depends on the person and the day but for the most part, I had a huge realization the moment a behaviorist told me that ‘leash reactivity’ takes place at both ends of the leash. I now try to remain as calm as possible and it helps tremendously. I think for us, when the male walks Melvin the male is less likely to worry about failure than I am.

  11. I think men and women do walk dogs differently. In our house, my husband is also more of a worrier than I am, but he doesn’t have a lot of trouble walking Morgan. The big difference, though, is that if she decided she was going after somebody, he could stop her and I don’t think I am strong enough. Morgan views me differently than she does him, too. She views me as something to be protected, and my husband as more of an equal in her eyes. She and I do fine when he’s gone, but when he’s home, she blows me off.

    As a person who teaches PreK and deals with some very young people on a daily basis, though, I can say that males and females are just different. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not saying that women shouldn’t try to do the same things or anything like that, but we are wired differently, and I don’t think it’s all a matter of how we’re raised. I think the key is to take what our strengths are and use those to our advantage when we’re doing anything, whether it’s walking dogs or doing a job.

  12. Huh. Well, I’ll start off by saying that Lucas definitely reacts way worse when he’s with me than when he’s with John. But I don’t think John gives a shit any more or less than I do. I’d say we’re equally invested. I will say, though, that Lucas tends to “defend” me more than he ever would John, and I’ve always thought his increased reactivity was because of that. If only we could have film crews follow us around so we could analyze the differences between our two walking styles. But I’m already crazy enough. That would push it over the edge, I think! 🙂

  13. ‘Women “give a shit” because culture allows us to be worrisome, apologetic creatures.’

    This has hit a chord with me. One, I agree with you on the social implications of what Dunbar said, though I still love him! 🙂 Two, what you said rings true for my relationship with my horse. It sounds kind of silly, and there is a long story that goes behind the feels and connection here that I’ll spare you. But, having this piece of the puzzle really sheds some light on MY reaction to him.

    So, thanks for this! I realize it sounds a little disjointed… 😉

  14. Lovely, Abby! I wonder. Academics is so often “forward thinking” or planning ahead, anticipation and preparing what is to come. A very female trait as traditionally they rationed the food budget and planned meals each week (ie roast beast Sunday, ground beef Tuesday, sandwich meet Wednesday, meat loaf Friday). I wonder how much anticipation plays in with leash reactivity? I.e. Are you thinking about the scary dog house before you approach (“oh no, this route takes us down that street”)? I wonder if it’s that women have a better sense of what happens as a result of something, while guys (or less anticipatory females) live more easily in the “now” like a dog?? Perhaps it’s more intense foresight that perhaps leads to anxiety than simply women-are-anxious? No idea really– just a thought! X

  15. Ah! So much frustration in all of this! Dunbar’s not alone – most male TV dog training personalities have totally sexist theories (Patterson and Millan most definitely included). I had actually kind of hoped Dunbar would be different.
    Ah well.

    Alma has some reactivity and she does behave better with the Husband. There are many factors as to why:
    – He’s bigger, so she literally pulls him around less. She’s ~100lbs, and if she bolts on the leash, it takes me longer to recover. As we know, timing is everything with dogs.
    – He walks faster. He’s 6’2 and has a longer stride and faster pace. This alone means she needs to pay more attention to him and has less time or opportunity to focus on triggers.
    – He’s more of a face-the-problem-head-on type with the dogs, and I’m more about working from a distance. He’ll pass dogs on the same side of the sidewalk and just expect her to behave. I have the bad tendency to mitigate the risk and prepare for the worst – cross the street, change direction. The two of them have much more pratice than I do with her in those situations. I need to build that and expect better. So the confidence thing is definitely true for us, too.

    But ultimately – you’re absolutely right. Women have be taught to make excuses for everything they do – from dating and personal issues to what they wear and eat. (“Oh, I was good this week, I can have half a cookie” / “I’m feeling sassy, so I decided to wear this dress”) Men do not at all have to answer those sorts of things nearly to the same extent (though traditional gender stereotypes do similarly limit their behaviour, as you’ve hinted to – they’re expected to be cold and unnuturing and confident, and it’s ‘unmanly’ if they waiver). Men “should be” stoic and strong, while women “are” emotional and needy. Dunbar’s just repeating those constructs.
    (Or using them to his advantage to make a dog training point? I don’t know. Either way, I don’t like the big message of it.)

  16. Such a good post! This is so funny, because last weekend I had my husband Josh walk Ace through a busy stretch with lots of dogs and people. I always walk Ace when the three of us are out, but this time I had Josh walk him. Ace is not reactive, but he gets excited and pulls towards the other dogs when I walk him. I’ve been trying to crack down on this.

    Well, with Josh walking him, Ace was so much better than he would’ve been with me. He did not pull towards the others dogs, only glanced at them and the leash remained loose. Josh said, “I don’t care about the other dogs, so why should he?” I think that was a really good observation.

    So, in our case, I know I definitely add tension/excitement by worrying about how my dog will respond.

  17. Wow, what a discovery. I understand how huge it is for you to be able to walk a leash reactive dog in these circumstances. It’s like a whole new world has opened up for you — and for her. She’ll gain more confidence and with that confidence she’ll just keep making great strides.
    I think that the man/woman statement is a gross generalization. I think the better way to put it is that our dogs feel our energy through the leash. No matter who is holding it. If you’re nervous (like me) that just feeds the dog’s fear and negative energy, and vice versa. So easy to say to people that they should just be calmer when you have a history of bad walks to reinforce your expectations — just like your dog had.

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