Feeding Thy Neighbor's Dogs
So, a thing happened yesterday.
I recently was on a well-known dog-centered podcast, Cog-Dog Radio, hosted by Sarah Stremming of The Cognitive Canine. (You can listen to that episode HERE in all its glory!) In this particular discussion, it came up that I advise my clients to sometimes throw food at other people’s dogs when they are out on their neighborhood walk.
And I am not going to lie, there has been some pushback surrounding that recommendation. (Surprising, I know!)
But before you go all I-better-not-catch-anyone-feeding-MY-dog-because-ALLERGIES-and-DEATH-and-DESTRUCTION let me explain myself in a little more detail.
I work with dozens of clients every week who are either heading towards or are already on the very isolating island called Leash Reactivity. On this island, the pleasant neighborhood walk is a living hell. Anxiety levels are high, earplugs and sturdy shoes required. The perfect little picture in everyone’s head of a nice relaxing walk around the neighborhood while podcast listening is not just gone… it’s not looking like it's ever coming back.
After logging quite literally hundreds of hours this summer in my local suburban neighborhoods I can tell you exactly why such a high percentage of my clients are or are heading towards reactive behavior. It has to do with our neighborhoods.
I live and work in central Connecticut. Busy neighborhoods with sidewalks and rows of condos are standard housing. Yards are on average half-acre lots, and we have a thriving electric fence economy. People without hard fences tend to steer towards underground or invisible fences because of the affordable price! The ease! The freedom!
I tend to see a 50/50 split solid fences to electric fences in my average client's neighborhood.
A solid fence gives me a heads up that there might be a dog in that yard and that I should probably prepare myself and my dog for an alert bark or a visitor on the other side of the fence. I can choose to avoid the yard completely, start my training protocol, move my dog to the other side of me, get treats ready, shorten my leash, etc. etc. and typically (TYPICALLY) fences do not butt up against the sidewalk. Just seeing a physical fence makes me feel more comfortable because I know that dog is physically contained by a barrier. If I am comfortable, my dog is more comfortable. You don’t need to pay those fenced-friendly-alarm-barkers any attention, just keep it moving, keep doing you.
Anyway, back to the food throwing.
When you don't see a fence, and instead see a giant brown dog, hackles up, slobbering and screaming and steamrolling his way to you and your leashed dog standing on the sidewalk, you are putting your money on a punishment-based training protocol that has taught him to stop before the bad thing happens at the perimeter of his yard. That dog has a choice to make. Hear a beep, stop sprinting. Technology fails, shit goes wrong. So YES, I advise my clients to throw food when the neighborhood dogs are charging towards them and solid fences are not in play.
Here's the thing. As I see it, in that moment, you have very limited choices. You can:
A. Never walk your dog in your neighborhood (my personal preference but not for everyone)
B. Scream, stomp, retrieve spray shield from pocket and prepare to face charging dog
C. Panic and flee
D. Stand there and bet on the electric fence
E. Throw food and buy yourself some time to think about what your dog needs
Not doing anything at that moment, just trying to shove cookies in your dog’s mouth and pray your dog can throw out his alternative behavior instead of lunging at charging animinal, in my opinion, is not an option.
Think of it this way, if a speeding car is screaming towards you, and I was handing you a $20 bill every second you looked at me and not the speeding car, would you be able to stand there and risk your life for the promise of the next $20? Would you not run over the top of me and my money to get the heck out of there? Now imagine that half of all the cars you saw every day just randomly turned around and started heading to run you down. How would that feel? That is what most of my clients feel on a daily basis.
Here is the other hint: We understand the neighbor dog will most likely stop because we humans understand electric fences. Your dog does not know. All the dog sees is the speeding car, and it is fight or flight time (except wait! they are tied to the person with the $20 bills and can't escape!)
My training recommendations always stem from the function of the behavior I am seeing. So, if I think your dog is asking for space by throwing himself to the end of his leash and snarling at another dog, then when I am stuck in that situation first I am going to honor his request by making the target dog move away (by either talking to the human attached to that dog or by, you guessed it, throwing food!) and then I am going to ask my dog for their alternative behavior (usually another behavior that also results in my dog getting space).
The cool thing that happens here guys, is that if you do it like this, if you first stop the bad thing from happening to your dog and then you teach them how THEY can make that happen for themselves, they will eventually just skip the barking and lunging step and go straight to the behavior that gets them the space.
I am trying to think about my own dogs in my own yard, and yes, if there was some random person crossing 40-feet into my property to hand my dogs' food over my fence, my first instinct would be that they were actually trying to poison them, and then, of course, I would come running out, ready for battle. But, if I heard my dogs' screaming, and then saw a person with a treat pouch and another dog trying to manage both their share and mine, and in that exchange some food got tossed to my dogs, well I think at that point I could understand what was taking place was not an act of physical poisoning.
So again. Just to reiterate. I am not saying to just walk around like the Pied Piper of the neighborhood, going onto people's property, and showering all unattended dogs with dairy and chicken and everything else on the most common allergen list. What I am saying is when you need to do the best for your dog, and throwing a few treats at your neighbor’s dog is part of that, go for it. If it makes you uncomfortable but you still want to give it a try, go knock on their door and talk to them about it, or don’t do it, you know free will and all that.
Or, even better, make your life easier and just take your dog to the woods, a place where throwing food at charging dogs is seen as a smart first step towards preventing a dogfight.
And most importantly, do not let anyone make you feel bad for using humane, positive methods to help your dog feel comfortable in this complicated world.
As always, happy training.