The Issue of “Getting Your Dog Under Control”

By Lynn –

A few things happened in recent months.

One was noted in the local suburban newspaper: in the police report section, a small blurb announced that a pair of women were cited for having their dogs off-leash in one of the city parks at 9am.

Another occurred while I was walking Mallory at a different park run by the same city: the sign that I always passed at least twice on a good walk, had a few notes on it that I actually bothered to read one day. The first reminder is something of which I was already well aware, that dogs are not to be off-leash in the park until 5pm during daylight savings time or until 8pm during eastern standard time. The second note is an obvious reminder to please pick up after your pet. Duly noted, and done every time.

The last note’s true meaning didn’t really dawn on me until I began seriously considering the human-dog relationship much later.

It reminds dog owners that “Dogs are to be under control at all times.”

Honestly, I had no problem with this anyway, as I take the time and effort to train my dog so that she is under control, even when she is off-leash, running away from me, and surrounded by distractions. Certainly, taking a power walk with her on-leash at my side and not lunging at other dogs was no major stretch for her (and earlier, Zeke’s) brilliant mind.

But the light bulb never really turned on to the sheer irony of that one sentence until I read two blog entries in particular.

Janeen McMurtrie’s lovely expose on her strong dislike towards the much-overused retractable string leashes brought up a compelling point right at the get-go in number one.

A short while later, Roger Hild took a closer look at how training trends might have had an effect on the numerous dog laws (or rather, anti-dog laws) we are expected to follow these days.

I can understand and respect where the law comes from concerning leashed dogs in public. Dogs must be kept on leash when outside of a confined yard to avoid harassing/attacking people, annoying other dogs, being hit by a car, or getting lost and ending up as a shelter statistic (and no, I do not call it “euthanasia”–it is killing healthy adoptable animals, plain and simple). The law does apply to me as much as it applies to everyone else, and simply the fact that my dog is trained does not give me license to let her off-leash when others cannot enjoy that same privilege (although Janeen gives a similar notion some critical discussion in a very thought-provoking blog…check it out!).

However, the problem comes from when people substitute physical attachment for control. One does not equal the other: I have met many dogs who misbehave on-leash, and I have met a few who behave even when not physically attached to their owner.

The dog who is lunging at other dogs for whatever reason (I am not just referring to aggression, I understand that some dogs just like to “be social”) is not under control, but by virtue of the physical attachment to his owner, he appears to be because his desires to go to the other dog cannot be fulfilled. I don’t ask for full-on eye-contact competition heels on my walks unless I’m asking for it for short periods of time to provide some mental exertion. However, I do ask that, when my dog focuses in on or decides to run off and sniff something or try to visit another dog enjoying a stroll, she immediately stop what she’s doing and come back to me. Or, in the case of simply walking past another dog, she is allowed to acknowledge its presence, but she may not go off and visit without my permission first.

Now, wait a minute, here.

Aren’t dogs supposed to be social and play with each other?

Well, I’m not opposed to the idea, provided it’s a small playgroup staffed by responsible owners and filled with dogs who respect and play well with each other.

But at a park, when you might not know my dog or her intentions, and just as likely, I don’t know your dog or it’s reaction to the sudden approach of strange dogs, it’s not a good idea.

As an aside, what if that strange dog bounding toward you was a Rottweiler, or some other intimidating-looking breed? Even the most well-intentioned owner generally shouts a harmless “Oh, he’s friendly!”, but the other owner doesn’t know that…and if the approaching dog decides for any reason whatsoever to NOT be friendly (and please note, this is NOT limited to Rottweilers or other “scary” breeds!), there can be some serious liability issues.

Going further aside, a responsible owner of a “scary” breed just can’t win: either their dog comes bounding toward someone in the spirit of play, and of course that someone just about skids their knickers and calls for a ban on “Those vicious brutes” as well as admonishing the owner to better control the dog. OR. The owner is seen as a big bad meanie because she is preventing the obviously friendly “scary” breed dog from going out and socializing by making the dog do obedience exercises so the focus on other dogs is eliminated.

Digressing now!

I could gain control of my dog through physical attachment and simply prevent her from achieving her goal of running off.

Or, I could train her to respond reliably to commands so that she can be given freedom from the leash, yet still listen and come when called, even when she has other things on her mind.

What else can be substituted in place of true control through respect, trust, communication and training?

Food is a very motivational control for some dogs, although to use it as a control is to depend on it, and to depend on it turns the food into not so much a reward as a bribe. It’s amusing to watch in playgroups how, if a recall is desired for whatever reason or if it’s time for one dog to leave, a multitude of treats has the potential to appear from any number of pockets. Rather than the dog simply respond happily to a command because it has properly trained to do so, it has the choice of simply going up to anyone for a tasty tidbit. Distracting dogs with treats rather than teaching them focus is another use of food, so that instead of teaching the dog to focus and then receive a reward for doing so, it is merely turning it’s focus to something else…and of course, when the treat is gone and the owner is fumbling for another, the dog can go right back to looking at whatever it found more interesting than the now-eaten treat.

Because–honestly–food is a great motivator for some dogs, and I have nothing against it’s use as a reward in the learning process. I’ve been over that before.

But one day, I guarantee that your dog will find something more interesting than a treat. And when that day comes, even the tastiest piece of liver (usually the processed pre-packaged kind bought in a pet store that is guaranteed to produce gas of the most horrific proportions) won’t bring back your dog’s attention in the way that true training and a good relationship built on respect and trust will get you on that first command or recall whistle.

True control does not require a leash for the lifetime of the dog, as the law might demand; nor does it require the use of copious amounts of food over the same period, as many “reward-based trainers” (some of whom made a name for themselves training non-dog animals) might admonish.

It requires a little bit of effort on the part of you, the owner: an investment of time, energy, a little but of money at times if necessary if you need some hands-on help, and a little knowledge of how operant conditioning works in dog training (hint: it’s actually THREE parts, not four…Terrierman explains, if you can forgive the use of a well-done South Park video).

And then you will, at the very least, be able to obey the sign at the park, if not the law.

DISCLAIMER: If you do have a leash law in your community, please don’t disregard it. There are times when having your dog off-leash is more appropriate than others, and that’s just fine…but in the grand scheme of things, I’d just rather you not end up like those two ladies who now have a minor rap sheet for allowing their dogs to stretch their legs a little bit.