Dealing with a 'problem' behaviour in real life

I wrote a lengthy Facebook post last week, which you can read here. This Facebook Live by Denise Fenzi covers what prompted it.

I'm going to talk you through what happened on my outing with Ripley yesterday, and the impact that the events detailed above could have had on our experience. To give a little background, there are a few dogs that Ripley just doesn't like. Mostly it's a learned behaviour, because Vinnie didn't like them. In one case it's because 'they started it' and he's just got into a habit. All of these dogs are ones that we encounter when walking routes from home - they live in the same village as us, but we don't see them every time we go for a walk on one of the main three routes we use.

Yesterday, I set out for a run. I was on quite a tight schedule, because we were due to head out for the rest of the day. I had my route planned, and knew it would take us about an hour. As I got to the end of our road, I could see a neighbour and her dog walking up the road a little behind us. We turned off into the road that would take us to a footpath. At the point, I saw a couple walking towards us with one of the dogs that Ripley will react to in an inappropriate manner (i.e. bark and lunge). Now I have to decide what to do for the best for everyone involved...

There are those that will say that you shouldn't put your dog in the sort of situation where they feel the need to bark and lunge. That's simply not practical in this case - the very few incidents that we have aren't that predictable. I've met this dog on all three of the routes that we walk within the village, and at different times of day. One of the other dogs is routinely walked at the same place at the same sort of time each day - they're easy to avoid! So, these situations will arise for us from time to time, but not frequently enough for it to be an issue I work on training for.

Next option - I could have turned back. As I mentioned, a neighbour was walking behind me and I know that her dog would bark at Ripley. So not really fair to put her in that situation.

When I can, I use a gateway or cut in to hide us both in, making sure that I'm between Ripley and the approaching dog, and that I have a good hold of his harness. If I've seen them first, then usually I can drip feed treats to distract him. Unfortunately, this wasn't possible this time - we weren't close enough to a suitable place.

I knew that the approaching couple wouldn't be making any efforts to keep their dog out of the way, and I also know that he's a big, strong dog that they can struggle to keep hold of.

There were those that commented on Denise's original post that suggested you should 'gently guide your dog away'. Anybody that has tried holding onto Ripley whilst I walk towards him will attest to quite how strong he is for a relatively small dog! Then there's the people at a recent scent trial that witnessed his feelings about going back to the car. If he doesn't want to move, he can plant himself quite solidly! There's enough distance at this point that he isn't yet barking or lunging, but the tension is in his body, and he's ready to start.

Brown cocker spaniel wearing a running harness stood on a stone wall with a red lead attached to the harness.
Ripley in his running harness, further along our route

He's wearing a running harness - designed for him to pull into comfortably. Attached to this is a bungee lead, with a fairly short non-bungee section. Not the best equipment for full control.

I do not want him to practise the 'problem' behaviours - that's not fair on any of the parties involved, especially given that experience tells me that the other dog will display the same behaviour. So I picked what I felt was the best option for me at the time - I picked him up and walked briskly past. Did he want to be picked up in that moment? Absolutely not - he was ready for a fight. Has he got a past history of being picked up? Of course - you don't own a cocker, you wear one. He gets picked up and carried on a regular basis, and he loves to jump into my arms. Did I punish my dog by picking him up when he didn't want to be picked up? Scientifically speaking, probably not, because I don't think that me picking him up will decrease this behaviour in the future. I escalated my actions to the point that I needed to in order to get us all out of this situation.

Brown cocker spaniel sat with his paws up on a low brown box, opposite his handler who is knelt down with their hands on the box.  They are mirroring each other.
Ripley loves to train with me

And that's the issue that a small minority had - deliberate misinterpretation of what was meant by escalating actions to stop a problem behaviour. Choosing to ignore what they knew about a trainer's ethos, and imply that they were giving people permission to 'punish' their dogs. Some went on to suggest that physically removing a dog from a situation was not acceptable for a positive reinforcement trainer! This just makes no sense to me - positive is NOT permissive. I can't just let my dog act in an inappropriate way if there's a way of interrupting without harm. He shook off very shortly after I put him down, and we proceeded on our way. He may not have been happy in the moment, but it really won't have damaged our relationship and that's what matters the most.

Sadly it's all too easy to jump to conclusions when reading things on social media, but we need to make sure that we remember that we're probably not seeing the full picture. If it's the first time you've come across a person, then you usually shouldn't judge them on one post. Read a few more posts, or ask polite questions if you need to understand more. I've done a whole blog post about the three options for dealing with problem behaviours - that should give you a good idea of my general training philosophy.

I'm comfortable with the action that I took, and would do the same again. I don't believe that makes me a bad trainer, and my dog certainly doesn't think so either.

Do you need help getting your dog's attention? I have a course for that - click here for more details.

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