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  • Writer's pictureAly

Puppies in Public

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

I can't tell you how often I hear people tell me how much they envy that I can "take my dog anywhere" with me.

Typically, I just smile and nod. I don't mention to them how much of a hassle it is, how often I need to avoid reaching hands, whispering, gasping, and rude comments.

I also don't mention off-the-cuff that taking my dog in public can, at times, be dangerous. Why?

Other dogs. 

In places where people are openly allowed to bring dogs - such as PetSmart, PetCo, many home improvement and hardware stores, patio eateries, etc. - it is not uncommon for me to see a dog present who definitely is not suited to be out in public. While I know that their person means well (usually), seeing alert ears, a high tail, or agitated pacing or whining rings every alarm bell I have. When I have a dog with me as well, which is often, I avoid being anywhere within sight or ear shot of this dog. But, that can't always be the case. After-all, a dog's sense of smell is pretty high-quality and when Excited Dog A smells the scent of a Classic Service Dog, the level of Scary is raised immediately.  

When you're going to a place where dogs are allowed, there are a couple of things to look for before you coo and aww over the canine patron: 

Ears - These will tell you a lot. It doesn't matter if the ears are floppy, standing, or cropped. When a dog's ears are rigid and perked (you'll be able to tell even in a dog with cropped or standing ears because his forehead will wrinkle), this is a dog who is alert to something. In public settings, this is not what you want to see. 

You DO want to see what I call a "soft face." Relaxed ears laying against the sides of the face (again, cropped or standing will simply have a relaxed forehead). The mouth will be open and relaxed, probably panting but not excessively. If the dog is standing, the tail should be neutral which means the tip of the tail is at spine-level or lower. Any higher, and that's a literal raised flag of warning. 

Eyes - When a dog gets "wild eyed" you can tell. You'll see the whites of the eyes, but in some cases you may not. But you will definitely see that the pupils are very dilated (the black of the dog's eyes will be very big and round). This tells you he is over-stimulated. I don't expect you to go flash a light in his face and inspect his pupils, but if you're close enough or even passing by, you'll be able to notice this. You'll also be able to notice if a dog gives the side-glance. You know the one: He is standing rigid with his face turned one way (head is usually high and maybe slightly tilted), but his eyes are bulging as he strains to peer sideways without turning his head. This is the number 1 indicator of an impending - and the dreaded "silent" - bite. 

Body - The dog should be in relaxed positions. This is sitting or laying down in restaurants, or if the dog and human are on the move, the dog should not be pulling on the leash or acting at all frantic or overly-excited (there's a difference between excited and overly-excited). A dog who is rigid is cause for concern. 

Nose - An active nose is actually a good thing. I hate when I see handlers who scold or correct a dog for sniffing "too much." There's no such thing. They're gathering information on the environment and those around them. This is a good thing, and shows that the dog is not in any kind of panic or defense mode. A dog who does not sniff is a dog who is receding into the fight-or-flight mindset.  

Leash - While this is not the dog, it is a good indicator of what you can expect a dog to do. Very often, you will see the handler pull back on the leash until it is taut and straining against the dog. This creates an immediate tension in the dog himself. A fighting leash leads to a fighting dog. I see this most often when another dog, or a child, is approaching a new dog. The leashes tighten, and the dogs strain to see each other -- often meeting nose to nose, when they should be meeting tail to nose to be polite in canine society. We may say, "Ew," or be embarrassed, but honestly that reaction is quite childish and I hate to be rude but: Grow up. This is nature, and nature isn't always "classy." 

Now that you know what to look for in other dogs you don't know, be sure to look for these things in your own dog, too. It's vital that we are responsible for the dogs we handle. No one else is going to know your dog like you do. And, also, no one else chose to have that dog there -- not even the dog himself. So, quickly, here are a few notes to get you and your dog off on the right foot when going into public: 

If you have a puppy or a dog you just adopted (regardless of age), do not take them to the dog park, PetSmart, or another dog-heavy place. I know you want to! I know it's fun, and it's part of the joys of having a dog. But, until you know your dog through and through, do not "test him" by taking him to these places. I can't count the number of times I've heard people - after a dog fight - say, "I've never had him at the park before! I just wanted to see how he would do." No. Nope. No. 

Never introduce your new dog to a stranger dog, if you can help it. Most of us have a friend or family member with a dog or dogs as well. Choose the dog of the lowest energy, and introduce the dogs on neutral ground. This meeting will tell you a LOT about your dog, and his place in dog society. 

Additonally, bring your dog or puppy to other places that are new: A friend's house, a trail very early in the morning when others are not swarming, or for a long stroll in the neighborhood. Watch how your dog reacts to things, and how you also react to things. Is he nervous? Scared? Or is he over-excited and uncontrolled? Are YOU nervous, scared, or too controlling?

In either of these cases, it's important to really be honest with yourself and understand what your dog is telling you with his behavior. If you can't figure it out for yourself, that is totally ok! Call a behaviorist if you're able to, or at least a reputable trainer (do your research, please) to evaluate your pup and help you out. That's what we're here for. 

When you do feel you're ready to go to dog-heavy places, exercise your dog first. I don't know why, but people give me strange looks for this. "I bring my dog to the dog park TO exercise him," they'll say, slowly put my business card back down with a grimace. 

Yes, I know that's the goal. But, for the first dozen times or so, your dog should not be entering the park at high levels of energy. Bringing in a high-energy dog will disrupt the others present, and even if your dog is just having a jolly time because he or she passed all the previous trials you responsibly made, there may be another dog in there who finds this unbalanced behavior annoying and in need of correction (or attack). A correction in a dog park full of stranger-danger-dogs can easily lead to a pack-fight. And, trust me, you do NOT want to see one of those when there are 10 or 12 dogs in it. It's enough to give Quentin Tarantino a nightmare. 

As a final note, if you're one of the lucky ones who has a dog which meets and greets everyone with a happy attitude and confidence, be sure to always protect him or her. Keep your eye out for those who are less responsible.

If you see a dog displaying the above Red Flag behaviors, avoid them.

If you get a bad feeling about an approaching dog, don't ignore it. Avoid that dog, calmly, and go on about your business.

In the dog park, do not be afraid to correct someone else's dog. If the person isn't seeing that their dog is being too rough, too loud, or too dominant, that's not your fault. You are protecting your dog, and that's your job. Maybe the other person should learn more about their duties as a dog's person

Until next time! Comment or write us with questions. 

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