You might know this scenario: Aunt Sylvie is visiting and just as she raises her earl grey tea to her lips, Bluey wraps his little paws around her bare leg and starts to rub himself up and down. Aunt Sylvie – depending on what kind of person she is – either laughs or looks horrified. Everyone else in the room reacts. Mum bats Bluey away, pulling his collar. The youngest child points and asks ‘why is Bluey jumping on Auntie’s leg?’ No-one wants to have to explain the sexual urges of mammals* to the child right now, so he cries. The rest of the room is either laughing, tutting, or making excuses. No-one has time to wonder what Bluey has learned from this. Probably, he learned that excitedly rubbing against someone’s leg gets all kinds of confused responses from humans and no doubt he’ll definitely do it again, because he got lots of attention, even if it made no sense to him.**
What else can you do in this kind of situation? It’s difficult. Dog training tells you that it’s probably best to ignore a behaviour that you don’t want to continue, but social etiquette says you must definitely let Aunt Sylvie know that you don’t approve of Bluey humping her leg!
This kind of embarrassment factor can really hinder training programs with dogs.
There are many occasions where I’ve had to ignore the embarrassment factor. I’m a person who is naturally very aware of how people are reacting around me and will go bright red if embarrassed, so I’ve had to work hard to block out the judgements of strangers as I’m training dogs.
Taking a dog out into the streets to learn new ways of doing things means coming into contact with the public, many of whom will have all kinds of theories and judgements about what you are doing.
Here’s a couple of scenarios I remember well.
Waiting at the pelican crossing with a dog until he sat and waited properly. The cars were queuing up at the red light, the drivers impatiently wondering why we aren’t crossing the road. I was teaching Milo to sit and wait. It was hugely important that I got him to wait on the first command, so it took a lot of different attempts for him to get that he would only receive a treat once he’d sat and waited. He stayed standing, tail wagging, whilst we started again. I had to remember that whilst it was confusing for the drivers, who might have been irritated that pressed the button, it was more important that I didn’t break the flow of Milo’s training at that moment. It was no real harm to them, but it would have slowed his training down, quite considerably.
Another time, I was walking very slowly along the high street with a dog that was learning ‘loose leash.’ We were going at a snail’s pace. Maybe slower! It was a painstaking process of waiting for the dog to naturally be ‘loose’ on the lead, and then rewarding with a click and treat, every time he managed it. Of course, for people going past with prams and motability scooters, I must have looked very strange. And because we were moving very slowly, people would want to chat, give advice or just ‘tut’ loudly as they made it clear we were in their way.
One of the most difficult situations, of course, is if you are training a very ‘reactive’ dog. Their behaviour, to the untrained eye, can seem wild and dangerous, and this can lead to training sessions becoming difficult because you (understandably) worry what people will think. Lexi, a very reactive and scared ex farm dog that we looked after, would twist and turn on the lead, bite the lead, lunge at people and bikes and cars and drag herself along the ground. People would stare, or get nervous, or try and help. Sometimes in a tricky situation like that, a fluorescent bandana helps. You can buy ones with wording on like: rescue dog, please don’t touch, or dog in training. Even if people can’t get close enough to read the words, they people often associate the fluorescent material with training and realise that there’s a special situation happening. It saves you having to explain anything while you’re trying to concentrate.***
The embarrassment may not go away. We live in a world where humans and dogs co-exist. People have strong feelings about dogs, positive and negative, and you’re likely to encounter lots of judgement and opinions. But, the more you feel clear and confident about what you’re doing and why you are doing it, the less you will worry about what other people think. There’s no need to make eye contact with people to appease them. If, like me, you prefer to be friendly and open with people, then a brief smile and nod and back to your training should be enough to let most people know you are a) busy and b) dealing with the situation.
And, by the way, next time Aunt Sylvie comes to visit, clearly tell her that Bluey is in training and when he does ‘unwanted’ behaviours ‘we’re ignoring him, unless he does something dangerous.’ Make a joke of it, like: ‘He may hump someone’s leg – can you try and ignore him and give no eye contact while I distract him. I promise to make it up to with an extra big glass of wine!.’
*I left this in for comedy value. There may be other reasons for leg humping that isn’t sexually motivated: excitement, fear, mild aggression. It’s always best to evaluate the causes of your dog’s behaviour in the context of their unique personality and environment.
**This is almost a true story. Doris, a wonderful dog of ours, would look like she was asleep. Then suddenly, as a visitor sat down on the sofa and stretched out their legs, she’d leap up and wrap herself around their nearest leg and hump it as fast as she could. I spent many years in constant ‘hovering mode’ around posh visitors, ready to distract her if I saw her eyeing up their legs.
***Next week we’ll continue this theme, with a blog on how to deal with people (often very well meaning people) who try to help or interfere while you are training your dog.