Most Dogs Already Wanted Social Distancing: Now They Get it!

But I bet that most of you knew that already. The dogs who live in fear or with anxiety, over people/things/animals that they see in the environment, are reveling in the fact that there are far fewer people who are trying to be up close and personal with them now. Their owners probably feel the same relief. But the other side of this coin is that now there are more people/dogs/animals in the environment than ever before. It’s the only place that many people can go now for exercise, with stay at home mandates being the order of the day for so many. The exercise outdoors exception is helping many of us stay sane in a new world of uncertainty and stress. So with the lack of other activities creating all the time in the world right now, outside is where everyone is going now. Unfortunately, your normally safe to walk your reactive dog locations may now be full of strangers trying to walk there too. The good news is that the vast majority of those new faces who you are seeing have about as much desire to walk closer to where you and your dog are as you have for them to do so.

Photo credit: Rebecca Hilbert

There are a few things that you can do to make your walk better when the environment is more active. Many of these suggestions are things that reactive dog owners already do but in some cases, they are now easier as people are generally further away. If you are already practicing things with your dog such as  Grisha Stewart's BAT or any element of such, keep it up. Same with Alice Tong's engage/disengage game and Leslie McDevitt's LAT. But now is the time to up your game with the value and quantity of food rewards that you have on hand. If you have always brought high value food rewards such as real meat, then plan on having more of a variety of such. If your dog is clicker trained, but you haven’t used it in a while because the need was no longer there, get it back out and dust it off and bring it with you. If your dog is not marker trained at all, get to work. Start in the house and then progress to the yard with low distractions and then bring it on the road. When I say marker trained, that can be the clicker but it can also just be your voice with a resoundingly happy “yes!” at the exact moment that your dog does what you want. In this case, condition his name or a word along with his name, which will cause him to whiplash turn to look at you. More on marker training here.  Some trainers use an attention cue. Personally, I don't use an attention cue word. I prefer that my dogs are conditioned to look at me automatically as they see things they have questions about as well as when I say their name. But I also condition the engage/disengage game heavily with my dogs. What this ends up meaning to the dogs who have had conditioning to this, is that when they see anything/anyone resembling what they have been previously “marked” for, they check in with their person.

Photo credit: Rebecca Hilbert

Some dogs were already fine with seeing people in their regular walking environment but now that there are more of them, they may be newly concerned about the difference. The easy way to address this new busier environmental concern is to mark the first sight of new people/things. Then feed high value food rewards for each sighting. Of course that may mean that your dog is now getting many more treats than he/she normally would so reduce the meal portions accordingly. That is one of the reasons that I insist on using real meats such as cooked chicken and the like for training. Real meat is a fine addition to almost any dog’s diet. Commercial treats at the quantity that this type of training often requires, are not. Real meat can almost always be considered a quality part of any dog’s diet. Win/win.

One of my own dogs is a livestock guardian breed. With most dogs that fall within this breed category, that means that they are more observant than just about any other category of dogs you will have ever met. They see everything and can take time to evaluate what each new thing means to their general scheme of things. If you have a dog like this and have spent time properly training him or her, with mutually respectful methods, this typically will entail said dog seeing those new things/people and then checking back with their human to make sure that there is no concern to be had. This is what you mark and then reward, when you have already have this behavior in place. Most of the time, my usual walking places are several large cemeteries, so my dogs know what should and shouldn’t be normal there. Lots of extra people are not normal to them so some extra conditioning has been taking place. They are good with this in normal times and I have found that they are still good with the extra activity when I am more relaxed about it. Fortunately, most people in these places are very aware of social distancing and are staying even further away than before. Distance is very helpful when new conditioning is taking place. Every dog has their own definition of proper social distancing. Learn what your dog's is.

Photo credit: Rebecca Hilbert

Which brings me sadly to the ever present issue of the people who are never mindful of laws and guidelines. Those people, unfortunately, are continuing their usual pattern of ignoring appropriate dog walking courtesies. You know who I mean, the off leash law breakers. In normal times, it’s  dangerous to the leashed dogs' emotional and physical safety. Now during a pandemic, it’s also a potential cross contamination hazard. I have always carried a citronella spray called Spray Shield with me. This product can be sprayed from a decent distance. But it’s a distance that I have never wanted anyone to breach and now, I consider it too close. I still carry it on every walk, however.  It doesn’t hurt the dog in question. It simply stops them for what one hopes is long enough to get you and yours to a safer position. Aim at the loose dog’s nose for a reflex sneeze response. It also won’t hurt your own dog if there is wind blow- back. If you carry something stronger, please be mindful of the laws in your area. An internet friend recommended silly string. I bought some. It may not spray as far as I would like but I would suspect that most dog owners would prefer that their dogs not be covered with silly string, especially for their coated dogs. I am very willing to be considered crazy by a law breaker if that means that they will control their dog because I am threatening them with silly string. It’s a small price to pay to ensure safety, right? More about off leash versus on leash can be found here 

None of us could have ever predicted that we would live through such as historic and worrisome time. But now that most of us have the time to work on our dog’s walking issues, we can absolutely make a scary situation a little less scary for the dogs in our lives. Don't allow fear to keep your dogs inside too much. Stay safe out there!


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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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