Is a (relatively) leash-less life a key to well-adjusted dogs?

Mint Springs Valley Park hike
Practicing some off-leash hiking, September 2014.

Related to my thoughts on the impeccably mannered British dog and to my dad’s practice with our dogs off leash this summer, I have started to piece together some conclusions about why European dogs have their ish together so much more than American dogs seem to, on the whole.

Some generalizations based on my limited time living in London:

  • Europeans seem to have high expectations for their dogs. They certainly dote on them, maybe even more than Americans do on the whole, but they also expect them to behave well. The (urban) European dog needs to be able to compose himself at a busy café, wait patiently outside a store, and stroll through a park without picking fights or harassing strangers.
  • Accordingly, “training” seems less formal and more about exposure to the world at large. This is also much easier to do than in America, because leash laws—even in a city as large as London—are much more relaxed here than in the States. Dogs only wear leashes occasionally and thus they have to conduct themselves appropriately in public beyond the limits of a leash.
  • All of this exposure and leash-less-ness creates dogs who are, on the whole, relaxed and well-adjusted.

Obviously, not every dog in Europe is well-adjusted. (I saw a miniature schnauzer try to bite the head off a baby Maltese in the street, but this was mainly because the schnauzer was straining at a leash and his owner was shouting, “BE NICE! BE NICE!” which was definitely ineffective and only escalated the situation.) But overall: Such polite dogs.

All of this compounded off-leash time in giant parks has created a culture of European dogs who

  1. have excellent recall;
  2. don’t have reactive outbursts to other dogs or people, in general;
  3. seem calm and self-controlled in almost every public circumstance.

This is the trifecta of good behavior that I feel like the majority of US dog owners I know (myself included) just dream of for their dogs.

And so who is to blame for maladjusted dogs acting up in public? Obviously, we humans are. These are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

  • For all of my reading, I am a sadly lazy trainer, and I have unwittingly allowed my dogs to practice reactive behavior.
  • I have bad leash-handling skills. And having two reactive German shepherds has proven to be a large stumbling block for my ability to train myself.

Leashes are very helpful and an essential safety component of the 21st-century dog’s life, but I daresay we misuse them more often than we know. I know I am at fault here and that my poor leash-handling skills are often to blame for my dogs’ reactive outbursts. I transfer a lot of tension to the lines when I see another dog, because I also get anxious.

I also have not trained Eden in loose-leash walking, at all. Pyrrha, being so shy, naturally has always wanted to stick close to me, and so I assumed I was just an awesome dog trainer and was magically teaching her how to loose-leash walk, through mind transfer or something. False. Pyrrha just had no interest in pulling. Eden, on the other hand, thinks she’s a husky. Sigh!

So, up next in my chain of pondering all of these “perfect” European dogs: How can I improve my leash-handling skills? More thoughts to come.

Freedom for the pups in Davidson. We're all so delighted to be with family. #doglife #carolinachristmas

What do you think? Are leashes (and thus humans) partly to blame for a lot of the reactive dog behavior we see stateside?

My dad’s off-leash experiments with the dogs

Dogs at summer camp
Photo from Dad; Eden in far background, waiting for the team to catch up; Pyrrha dragging her rope; my mom in the foreground.

Dad calls me every so often to give me dog updates. Unequivocally, Pyrrha and Eden are loving life with him and my mom this summer. They get tons of exercise, personal attention, and play time with Dublin (which is especially great for Pyrrha, who really depends on other dogs to teach her how to behave, and Dublin is a model canine).

He also really likes taking them to a nature preserve and letting them roam off leash. This makes me very nervous, because of all of the contingencies and because we haven’t had a lot of solid practice with off-leash recall, but he doesn’t ask my permission and only tells me about their outings after the fact. Which I am honestly OK with. I would be an anxious mess if he asked me about it beforehand.

Dad called me last week to say there was an “incident” with Pyrrha at the preserve, and I almost had a heart attack waiting for him to tell me what had happened. Did she bite a child? Did she get in a dog fight? I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

But this was the incident: Pyrrha saw a deer and took off into the woods after it. Instead of going after her, Dad said he decided to keep hiking along with Eden and Dublin, who always stick close to him, and hope that Pyrrha would figure out how to find them. He said they walked for a good while, and Pyrrha was completely out of sight. After some more time passed, he started to get concerned that she was lost for good. Just as he was about to backtrack and start hunting for her, he said he heard these pitiful whines from the forest, and Pyrrha was darting around, crying, because she couldn’t find them. When she finally made her way back to the pack, he said she was the happiest he’d ever seen her. I am not sure if she learned anything from this “incident,” but I’m relieved that nothing more dire happened.

Dad said that shortly after she rejoined the group, two big dogs who were also off-leash came into the clearing, and everyone did their greetings politely and tossed off a few play bows. No barking! No lunging! No inappropriate greetings whatsoever. Pyrrha and Eden love other dogs, but they absolutely cannot greet them on leash. They lose their minds and look like vicious monsters if I can’t divert them or increase distance. So, this was a very happy outcome to hear about. Both of our dogs really love other dogs, but you would never guess that if you saw them pass dogs on leash. I’m always happy when they get to interact in an appropriate, happy way with other dogs off leash.

More to come on some theories about off-leash life and well-adjusted dogs, particularly reflecting on my time observing dogs in Europe…

Dogs at Hampstead Heath

Hampstead
Dog heaven, am I right?

This past weekend, we walked for about 12 miles in and around Hampstead and particularly enjoyed Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead HeathI was, naturally, fixated on observing all of the dogs, who get to run around the gigantic park off leash. Hampstead Heath is like an enormous, boundary-less dog park, and the dogs all appeared to be in heaven. And per usual here in London, they were all behaving beautifully. I didn’t see a single fight or tussle. Many of the dogs ignored each other, and if they did stop to greet each other, it was very brief and polite.

HampsteadQuick phone photos of a small fraction of all of the dogs we saw:

Dogs at Hampstead HeathHampsteadHampsteadHampsteadHampsteadDogs at Hampstead Heath(*The only anxious dog I saw was a German shepherd puppy. Go figure. We asked to pet her, and she was a fluffy bundle of nerves, about 12 weeks old. She was crying because she couldn’t bite the wheels of a child’s tricycle. Her back hocks were horribly misshapen and she had no strength at all in her back end. I hate seeing that. I really do.)

Hampstead HeathMore than anything, this park made me wish our girls could have been raised in London. I daresay they would have been so much more well-adjusted in public, if they had had regular access to such immense and beautiful off-leash places. Definitely something to keep working on once we come home in August.

Visiting this park inspired me to visit more of the parks in our area back home. We don’t have an off-leash space quite to this degree of magnificence, but we do have some safe trails to practice recall. I am inspired!

Do you have an off-leash area near where you live?

The dog’s first Christmas

Enjoying her cow ear by the fire

We had a wonderful first Christmas with Pyrrha and a great holiday away for about two weeks. She is just a gem when we’re on the road and I think she prefers living with our respective families: She gets lavished with attention, multiple daily walks, and multiple family members slipping her food.

General field notes from our first Christmas with Pyrrha:

Walking and dog wrangling

Pack walk

Dog wrangling

My siblings were dog sitting for two neighborhood dogs while we were there: Dally, the Miss America of golden retrievers, whom you may recall from last year; and Spike, the workhorse black lab. And then, of course, there was Dublin, my dad’s surrogate dog, who also plays a big sister-like role to Pyrrha. We spent hours with these dogs, often on crazy pack walks (which, as you can see from the photos above, we weren’t always the smoothest at handling).

The almost constant company of other dogs is so good for Pyr’s confidence. She seems to blossom around them. She is afraid of fewer things; she doesn’t react as much to small children or strange sounds. AND, the big surprise: She peed on a walk for the very first time! This has never happened before. I think she was finally learning from the other dogs. Needless to say, we were shocked. She is still full of surprises.

Losing her for half an hour

Let's go

The absolute WORST part of our entire holiday occurred on a pleasant, sunny afternoon at my parents’ house. We were all lounging around the living room. I stood up after a spell and looked down the hallway. The back door was wide open and Pyrrha was nowhere in sight.

My parents live on a very busy street with an almost constant stream of cars, and I immediately flew into panic mode. I ran outside and could not see her anywhere. She wasn’t next door, waiting at Dublin’s fence. She wasn’t in the front or side yards. She wasn’t across the street.

Everyone split up in every direction and started looking for her. Guion got in the car; my brother-in-law started running toward campus. I grabbed a bike and started down one of the back residential streets, sobbing and calling her name. I was convinced: This is it. She’s gone for good this time. We won’t ever find her. She’s been hit and killed by a car. She will never be found…

I was biking and crying, calling her name, biking some more, and I had almost reached the next intersection, about a block and a half from the house, when I heard the blessed sound of tags jingling. I couldn’t see her, so I kept shouting her name. Then, out from behind a house and its backyard, my stupid, happy dog comes bounding up to me, having heard my calls. I have never been so happy to see her stupid face.

Lessons learned: a) My parents’ back door does not shut all the way, even when it appears closed; b) Pyrrha will wander off without a sound, c) But she will come to the sound of my voice, which is immensely relieving. I wasn’t even sure that would happen at all. I’m also relieved I’m the one to find her, because I’m honestly not sure she would have come to anyone else in the family, much less a well-meaning stranger. All in all, we were very, very lucky. But that is an experience I really don’t want to repeat ever again. Sheesh.

Practicing off-leash recall

Partially inspired by frightening afternoon of the lost dog, my dad and I decided to practice a few off-leash/recall exercises with Pyrrha. Dublin has the most perfect recall of any dog I’ve ever met; the girl will stop on a dime if you call her name. Our idea was to get in a big field with the dogs, and the various family members, and tie Pyrrha and Dublin together with leashes. If they wandered, we could always call Dublin back in a pinch.

I was delighted to learn that Pyrrha came to me every single time I called her, even when she was a good distance away. This, obviously, could be because of the unusual circumstances, but I was pleased nonetheless.

Things to work on: 1) Actually having treats with me when I try this again, and 2) Training her to come to other people, namely Guion. Right now, I am the only person that she will come to. Obviously something to improve.

Snuggling surprises

Snuggle buddies

For all of her sweetness, Pyrrha is not a very cuddly dog. This, obviously, is a function of her natural shyness. However, our two weeks away taught us that there is some snuggly people-love residing somewhere deep within our shy dog.

I was ASTONISHED one night while we were all watching TV as a family. The fire was blazing and my sister Grace (pictured above) was on the floor with Pyrrha somewhat nearby. In a moment, I was surprised to watch Pyrrha crawl up next to Grace and put her head on Grace’s legs, lining her body right up next to Grace’s. It was almost like they were spooning. Definitely a first for Pyrrha, and a heartwarming one at that. As my Dad said, on watching this cuddly scene: “It looks like P-dog has decided that she likes people.”

Nom nom

All in all, a happy Christmas for our pup. We all learned a lot, I think. (Lock the back door!)

Hike in Pen Park, in which I almost have a heart attack

Afternoon at Pen Park
Pen Park trails.

I was cooped up all weekend finishing calligraphy projects, so I was desperate to get outside. I could tell Pyrrha was antsy, too. On Saturday, the three of us took a little excursion to the huge, beautiful park in town, Pen Park, which runs along the river and has miles of wooded trails.

Afternoon at Pen Park
Come back and play!

The only dog we saw all afternoon was a sweet little German shepherd puppy. Interestingly enough, she was even more shy about Pyrrha than Pyrrha was about her. Pyrrha went right up to her for a sniff, and the puppy hid behind her human’s legs. We moved away, but as you can see from the photo above, Pyrrha wasn’t quite ready to leave that interaction. I’ll consider that minor progress in the dog-fear department, at least on Pyr’s end. (*Side note: It did make me think, however, about how many poorly bred German shepherds there are and how many are prone to fear, just like our backyard-bred girl. I have met so many fearful shepherds, more than almost any other breed. It’s also interesting to think about the relationship between fear and the perceived inherent aggression of shepherds. Just some tangential wondering.)

Afternoon at Pen Park
Hurry up, humans.

Half an hour later, a trio of white-tailed deer came crashing through the trail in front of us. This was VERY exciting to Pyrrha, although I don’t think she could decide whether to be afraid or to start the chase. She did “track” them for a good while afterward, following their path very closely, nose to the ground for a long ways.

Aside from the deer, the trail was very empty for a Saturday. So, I decided to make a big mistake.

“You want to try her off-leash?” I asked Guion. “She did so well with me a few weeks ago. I think she’d be great.” He agreed and off the leash came.

Afternoon at Pen Park
Off leash!
Afternoon at Pen Park
This was a good idea for about 30 seconds.

Yeah. That was a good idea for about 30 seconds. Turns out I vastly overestimated little Pyrrha’s recall abilities. About a minute after that photo was taken above, she took off after the scent of something in the woods.

At first, I thought, “Ah, she’ll loop back around to us once she sees that we’re moving.” So, we walked a little ways, and I could still see her crashing through the woods. But she didn’t loop back.

My heart started pounding. I started yelling her name. Nothing. I could still see her, but she was running in wide circles through the woods, getting deeper and deeper in. Then I really started to panic. Guion and I both broke into the brush, getting our faces full of spider webs, crying out her name. She was still in sight of us, and would look at us occasionally, and then start looping around us, just having a great time.

At one moment, she broke away even further and I couldn’t see her anymore. Shit, shit, shit, shit, we just lost our dog. Oh, my gosh, we just lost our dog. This was the mantra running through my brain.

Thankfully, Guion was faster than I was and when she came around for another loop, he was right there in front of her. And she ran right up to him, her eyes wide, and panting. This was unusual in itself, because she doesn’t normally come to Guion. We both thought she looked a little frightened herself, as if she wasn’t sure how to get back to us or what to do in the thick woods.

Back on the leash she went. I nearly cried from relief. I felt really guilty the rest of the afternoon, for being so foolishly overconfident. But I guess that’s what having your first dog is for, right? Making lots of mistakes and then learning from them.

Afternoon at Pen Park
Back on the leash.

I’m just really, really thankful that this mistake had a happy ending. We went home, all very tired, and drank lots of water. Now, we’ll be working on actually teaching her recall, instead of assuming that she just gets it. No more off-leash time for you, Pyr. Not for a while anyway.

Make me feel a little better. Have you ever made a mistake like this, thinking your dog could do something that he or she really couldn’t? Hope it has a happy ending, too!

Off-leash encounters and a long, hot hike

Heat stroke?
Post-hike heat exhaustion.

Sunday morning, I was determined to take a hike with Pyrrha–even though the temperature had already reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit when we left the house at 9:45 a.m.

There’s a long, paved trail that winds along the river, somewhat near our house. I had waited to take Pyrrha on this trail, since I knew there were several off-leash portions of the trail and I didn’t want to risk any unfortunate, stressful encounters. But, for whatever reason, I was feeling brave on Sunday and decided to take her with me.

She walked happily by my side, on leash, for the first hour or so. We saw a few other dogs on the trail, but they were either too busy swimming in the river or off in the brush to pay us much attention. Pyrrha seemed fine with this. She sniffed everything and vigorously followed every squirrel or song bird. I love being with her in the woods, near the river; dogs always seem happiest to me when they’re deep in nature, away from houses and cars and city noises.

Meeting dogs off-leash

We turned a bend and suddenly a small, blond mutt came springing out of the woods. Pyrrha and I were both a little startled. The dog looked at us for a second, but then heard her owner’s voice and dashed back into the woods. We moved on ahead of them, but Pyrrha was very distracted, as the mutt and her canine companion were following behind us off-leash.

Finally, we came to a point where the off-leash dogs were about to overtake us. The two women called out and asked if Pyrrha would like to greet them. I explained that Pyrrha was shy around other dogs and could be nervous around them, but the woman recommended I drop my leash. I did–and marvel of marvels, Pyrrha acted like a confident, normal dog! She dashed up to the little mutt, named Lucy, and was all happy wags. The two started to even chase each other around in happy circles. I was delighted.

Pyrrha then tried to run up to meet Ramona, the other dog, but Ramona was very shy and tried to run from Pyrrha, tail between her legs. This behavior started to make Pyrrha mirror her, and soon, both dogs were in an anxious, agitated state, so we pulled them away. That mirroring behavior was interesting and unexpected to me.

Going off-leash herself

After we parted ways with Ramona and Lucy, I decided to tentatively try Pyrrha off-leash for the first time. There were a few reasons why I felt like this could be a good time to try her off-leash:

  1. The trail was comparatively quiet, with few other dogs, cyclists, and runners.
  2. It was a legal space in which to go off-leash.
  3. Pyrrha was very tired and hot and not really in the state of mind to be running off.
  4. I knew that she liked to stick with me, even when she was on-lead.

To start, I let her drag the leash for a while. This seemed to annoy her considerably, but she put up with it. I tested her recall by allowing her to fall behind me and then calling her to catch up. To my delight, she responded very quickly and happily. After testing this out for a few minutes, I unhooked her leash and let her go.

I was very vigilant the whole time she was off-leash, scanning the trail for any upcoming traffic, other dogs, animals in the woods, etc., but Pyrrha was great. She was far more verbally responsive than I thought she was. When a cyclist zoomed past us, I was able to call her back to my side very quickly.

Do you walk your dog off-leash? How have you improved your dog’s recall?

Pup links!

Black labs go with everything. Click for source.

Dog-related links from around the Web this past week:

Are All Dogs Monsters? Kristine sagely reminds us that all dogs can bite and we should never take that fact for granted. (Rescued Insanity)

Preventing Dog Bites. Patricia McConnell throws in her two cents about how to prevent dog bites. Reading body language is key! (The Other End of the Leash)

Dog’s First Camping Trip. This post caught my eye, because we’ve discussed taking Pyrrha camping with us in the coming months. Anyone go camping with their dog? Any tips we should know about beforehand? (Go Pet Friendly)

How to Teach Children to Get Along with Dogs from an Early Age. A very thorough and thoughtful article on training your kids to treat dogs with gentleness and respect. (Whole Dog Journal)

Elderly Dogs and Babies: A Primer. This is a funny (and sad?) piece on what a baby does to your elderly dog, by one of my favorite online writers, Nicole Cliffe. (The Hairpin)

Seven Steps to Off-Leash Reliability. Ian Dunbar’s progression of training elements that lead you to having a dog who is trustworthy off lead. (Some Thoughts about Dogs)

Dogs Make Weddings Look Good. This is too cute: Jenny trained a pair of French bulldogs to participate in their humans’ wedding. Adorable. (Of Pit Bulls & Patience)

Emmanuelle Walker. Fun, mod illustrations of dogs riding in cars. (Gems)