I was walking along the side of the reservoir this evening sniffing some greenery. There are crickets living amongst the flora and I find them to be the most curious thing. The quiet was disrupted by a rather large dog that came barreling around the corner. The young man walking the dog was saying "heel" but said dog was clearly not paying attention.
I was excited at first. Most of my experiences with other canines have been positive. I wagged my tail, put my head down low, and avoided direct eye contact. It's my usual way of making a friendly introduction with a new dog.
While I was making preparations to say hello a woman suddenly came from the other direction with two large dogs on a tandem leash. She was struggling and appeared to not be in control of her dogs and the young man was struggling and appeared to not be in control of his dog.
It was at that moment that both I and the human knew that trouble was brewing.
It happened very quickly. The human first paid attention to the woman with the two large dogs. To her credit, she was aware she wasn't able to control her dogs and she was walking into a difficult situation: she went around a corner with her dogs and down a hill. The young man with the Boxer decided they were going to meet us with my human turned in the other direction and kept approaching.
With the human's back exposed, I felt that I clearly needed to protect him from the Boxer coming toward us. The human turned back to me as I was moving from play position to a protective posture. What follows takes awhile to explain but in reality took up about five seconds of time.
The hair in the center of my back from the nape of my neck to the base of my tail stood up in a mohawk. The dog lunged, lurched, and leaped toward me and the human. The Boxer wasn't paying attention to me and what I was communicating. My hair was up, which is a sign suggesting that it's not a good time to play. I was looking to the side and licking my lips which is a sign that I'm trying to calm myself and the other dog. Think of it like this, when I do that I'm saying: "hey, leave me alone, I'm not a threat because I'm not looking at you but can't you see my hair, if you keep coming there is going to be trouble."
Well the boxer kept barreling toward us and the young man was being dragged along. In a split second the boxer came directly toward my face. He growled while continuing to approach. I turned and fixed my stare directly on him and snarled. He still did not stop and when he was inches away from my nose I snapped but did not bite.
While all this was going on the human pivoted between me and the boxer, and shouted in a friendly voice "hey big puppy" just as I snapped a warning at the dog. The human said "focus" and I immediately moved from the boxer to him (this happened thanks to practicing this command thousands of times). The human put himself between the two of us because he knew I was attempting to protect him, he read the dog as being out of control but not aggressive, and wanted to startle the other dog to try to distract him off his approach.
Unlike the young man with the boxer, my human did not pull hard on my leash. The boxer was choking on his pinch collar, which was likely raising his anxiety levels. It wouldn't do any good to pull on my leash because I wear a harness, not a pinch collar. Well that plus my human knows that a good way to increase the probability of a problem when dogs are meeting is to tug hard on a leash or communicate anxiety to the dog.
As soon as my focus shifted the human said "follow me." (I don't heel, by the way, the human believes in taking turns--sometimes he leads, sometimes I lead). When he says follow me he always means business: it's time for me to stop sniffing and exploring and walk quickly and quietly by his side. He walked away from the other dog at an right angle from the direction in which he was approaching. He was calm yet quick.
Big crisis was averted. Don't you think?
So what's the message here? Humans needs to be keenly aware of how their dogs communicate, and have a working knowledge of some of the basic ways other dogs communicate. With that knowledge, humans need to be paying attention and reading the situation when dogs meet for the first time.
This dog wasn't coming to me to politely shake my hand and ask me if I'd like to play. He looked like he was going to rough me up, or rough my human up, and I didn't like that. In all likelihood he probably just did not learn proper social skills as a puppy and doesn't know how to make friends.
I read the signs and was moving to protect my human and myself. My human read the signs and knew that there was danger brewing. If he hadn't been paying attention there could have been a bite, a fight, or worse. Even with his careful attention the situation could have ended poorly. He made a calculated decision to change the dynamic by getting between us. He trusted our developing bond and hoped that he could get my focus and lead me away.
What's a dog owner to do? It's not enough to teach your dog to sit, stay, and come. I hear lots of folks are doing this at home by reading books and watching TV shows. It's a start, mind you, but not enough.
Too many dogs are out there pulling their owners around and lacking in canine social skills. Take your puppy to a good puppy class. From an early age, a puppy class is a great opportunity for dogs to get feedback from other dogs and learn how to communicate in dog. Watch puppies and dogs as they interact and socialize. Learn to read a dog's body language as it relates to lots of different contexts. Keep your eyes out for experienced dog handlers--watch how they interact with groups of dogs. Ask lots of questions.
And please, don't ever let your dog meet another dog without first asking if it was okay. Had this young man with the boxer done this basic step, this whole situation would have been averted. The human would not have had his back turned, he would have already asked me to sit, and he would have asked the young man to stay at a distance. When given a choice, my human never lets me meet new dogs that have owners who are not paying attention and in control of the situation.