Dog people are stalwart, good communicators, aware of personal and canine boundaries, committed to the task of training. Many of their capabilities are nonverbal and barely register to the human eye, meaning they are sensitive and subtle, too. They tend to be kind. They tend to be patient.
I am not a dog person. Not yet, anyhow.
This post catalogs a few encounters that Finn and I had this morning (plus one remembered incident). If you don’t have time to read 1,100 words, you might want to skip to the end and at least read about the German Shepherd and his guy. They were kind of amazing.
It’s 98 degrees out now, but even this morning before nine, it was brutally hot. So I decided to take Finn to Crystal Lake where I hoped to exhaust him without inducing heat stroke. To get to the lake, we cut through an off-leash park. We’ve played fetch there on occasion with mixed results. It’s okay as long as the other dogs are far away and their people are paying attention, but it’s always a little bit of a risk.
This morning we happened to get pinned by two incoming dogs, both off leash.
After I alerted the closer woman that Finn was reactive, she immediately abandoned the stroller she was pushing, grabbed her yellow lab by his harness and hooked him up to a leash. She then quietly put some distance between us. A dog person.
The other woman didn’t need a verbal cue because by then Finn was barking his head off. Nevertheless, she sauntered off toward the far side of the field. She sauntered off to the far side of the field while her poodle bounded toward us. This woman sauntered off pretend-calling her dog, while I restrained mine using a considerable amount of effort. I’ve done this many times before and have some confidence in my ability to restrain Finn, but Ms Saunterer doesn’t know what I can or can’t do. If she had bothered to look, she’d have seen a five foot tall woman working really hard to manage a dog that is hysterical because her dog is bounding toward us.
She kept chirping the dog’s name, as if she was actually calling the animal. But anybody could see that her dog was no more trained to come to a call than I’m trained to do a Simone Biles gymnastics routine.
Most dogs aren’t trained to come, including Finn. It’s a 10,000 calls-kind of thing, with increasing amounts of distraction, so I didn’t judge her on that account. No, I judged her for acting as though she had trained him. Chirp. Chirp. La-dee-dah. Did I mention the bounder was a poodle with a pom-pom tail?
Not a dog person.
Needless to say, by the time we got to the Lake, I was a little wiped (that wasn’t the first episode of the walk). The heat was oppressive and even though I’m practiced at these encounters, they’re still stressful.
The last time Finn and I were at the lake he attacked another dog, so this time I brought a thirty foot leash for a game of fetch. The sight lines at our spot are terrible and to make matters worse, I have to keep my back to the pathways to throw the ball. Up until the recent attack, I assumed that Finn’s intense play would keep him engaged. Oops!
He bolted past me that day and went after a dog just beyond the tree line. In her panic, the owner dropped the leash and backed away, leaving her dog to fend for himself. I got there quickly, of course, and pulled a crazed Finn away. Fortunately, he doesn’t bite in these episodes — just scares the shit out of everyone.
But to drop the leash? Really?
These bursts of ‘reactivity’ are terrifying, don’t get me wrong. I know Finn’s behavior springs from insecurity rather than aggression, but no one on the receiving end has any reason to make such a distinction. So while dropping the leash made this woman human, it also revealed her status : not a dog person. I’ve seen a fifty year old woman tackle a golden retriever to interrupt a snarling, teeth-gnashing encounter, for god’s sake. That’s a dog person.
Interceding that day took a few minutes, so there was a delay before I could turn and make an apology. To her it may have felt like an afterthought. I’ll take it as a ‘dog person badge’ that I didn’t care, recognizing as I do that my primary responsibility in these situations is to Finn.
If I hated the poodle-lady just a little (did I mention it was another god-damned poodle?), it wasn’t because she wasn’t a dog person, it was the way her wilted, victimized response almost seemed like a prelude to a law suit. If you don’t live in Newton, Mass., trust me — this kind of reaction is not out of the realm of possibility. Even absent a bite.
So today things seemed to be working out. The leash let Finn bomb into the water with glee, grab the ball, and come bounding back in that joyful way of his and let me know that I’d be able to restrain him if necessary.
That’s when a beautiful one year old German Shepherd and his guy arrived. Right behind us. As Finn blasted through the water to charge the dog, I had to hustle to gather up the slack. I managed, leash-webbing burns on my hands notwithstanding. It was the usual wild barking, the usual me backing him up, the usual continued wild barking, me being stern and then generally, a semblance of calm. Usually the uproar ends by managing the distance between the dogs, but today Finn settled even with the shepherd near.
That dog person stood there, calm as a brick wall. Not surprisingly, so did Shepherd. Not a growl, no hackle peak, no returning volley of barks – nothing.
Then, the man actually asked me, “Do you think they want to meet?”
I was nearly speechless with admiration.
Because I don’t have the confidence to do this yet, never mind the fact that I’d already emptied my adrenals once or twice that morning, I declined. But what happened next was just beautiful.
This guy set up a game of fetch just down the beach a bit, at what, really, was a phenomenally strategic distance. Not so far away as to make the shepherd irrelevant to Finn, but slightly inside his comfort zone. With casual precision, this guy established a session of parallel play that doubled as training. I was so, so impressed.
You might think I’m going overboard, but I’m not. This man probably didn’t have to think overly hard about where to start throwing the tennis ball, but he knew enough about dogs in general and about our situation in particular to respond in an intuitive manner that was both respectful and useful.
Because that’s what dog people do.