Yesterday, the sun came out, so I took Brandy and Nico for a walk in the Blue Hills Reservation. I took the video camera with me so I could get some video of them, especially Nico (who’s recovering from his panniculitis, although he’s still weak).

Being a weekday morning, I didn’t expect many people to be out and about. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. There were other cars parked along the edge of the reservation, although none in the little turn-around where we usually start our walks.

But the walk started off well, with no one else in sight. I had Brandy on a training lead (a 30′ leash), which I was letting her drag. Nico was off-leash. (Confession time: dogs are actually supposed to be leashed when on the Blue Hills Reservation lands, but lots of people let their dogs off leash. Nico is pretty reliable, and comes back to us whenever he sees someone, so he’s allowed off-leash. Whenever we see or hear anyone else about, we call him and put him back on-leash until we’re alone again.) I got some good video of them, although they were both staying closer than I expected them to so some of the shots were real close-ups and others were of the empty trail ahead of us as they were right next to me.

A few minutes into the walk, I heard someone up ahead and caught a glimpse of some dogs. I called Brandy back to me (she came immediately) and Nico trotted back on his own. I snapped the leash back on Nico and then started gathering up Brandy’s training lead, at the same time trying to keep the camera and camera bag out of the way and get my clicker out in case I needed to keep Brandy occupied in the presence of the other dogs.

Meanwhile, the other person was calling her dogs back to her and putting them on leashes, too. So far, so good!

We stopped where we were, ready to move off the side of the path. I clicked and treated Brandy for looking at me rather than the dogs (we were about 50 yards apart). I saw that there were four dogs: a couple of labs, a shepherd mix (or possibly a Belgian Malinois), and a fourth large dog I can’t recall clearly. The woman also had a child with her. I’m better at guessing dog ages than I am with people ages, but I think he was around 6 years old.

I expected them to come towards us, but the woman shouted “It’s okay!” as she moved her dogs off the path.

I thought briefly of turning down a side path and going another way. But I had a specific plan in mind. It involved a straight shot down the power lines, down a long, steep hill, and then back up that hill to give me and Brandy and Nico some much-needed strength-and-stamina-building exercise, so I started forward again.

Nico was staying nicely close to me. Brandy, of course, had her eyes on the other dogs, and as we got closer she got more excited. So I was clicking and treating her, and pausing now and then to regain her attention before we moved on. Brandy was doing her little whining moans that say “There are dogs over there, I wanna go play but I’m not sure I really want to!”

Meanwhile, the woman’s dogs began making similar noises. I stopped again to regain Brandy’s attention, and heard the little boy shout “Quiet!” at the dogs. The woman repeated that admonition, with the addition of a bit of a muzzle-shake to one of the labs. I should have turned around right then and there, but the woman had said it was okay….

So I decided the best course of action would be to pass them as quickly as possible. As we got closer, Brandy said something rude to the dogs. It wasn’t much, just a quick grumbly growly whine (or whiny growl), but it was enough to set the shepherd off. He lunged towards us, and the rest of his pack was more than happy to back him up. With four large dogs all pulling at once, the woman didn’t have any choice but to follow. I noticed that the choke and prong collars on the dogs were just about as effective as the admonitions to be quiet had been (as in, not at all) and then they were upon us.

A whole bunch of things flashed through my mind in the seconds that followed. Among them was the instant assessment that initially, at least, the “attack” was all thunder and bluster, one of those “lots of fight but no bite” deals, but such things can quickly turn worse. I also noticed that Brandy was a lot less inclined to take on a piece of her attacker than she has been in the past, something I attributed to the fact that even with Nico with her she was definitely outnumbered. She did defend herself with a quick flash of teeth and some growls, while Nico, uncertain as to what to do, whined in frustration. I tried to get between Brandy and the other dogs but didn’t quite manage it. The child wisely stayed clear of the scene.

One of the dogs - the black lab, I think, but it all happened so quickly! - was apparently loose at this point (and no wonder, I was having a hard enough time with two dogs and their leashes, let alone four!). He (she?) got between Brandy and the shepherd and then curved back around towards the woman, giving us a momentary break in the action that allowed me to move Brandy and Nico further along the path while the woman gathered up her dogs again and moved them down the path in the other direction.

The woman was saying “I’m so sorry!” and I responded “That’s okay, I work with reactive and aggressive dogs if you ever need help!” — meaning that I knew how difficult it can be to manage and handle dogs like that, and that they can be helped, but I think it came across more as an insult (”My! how aggressive your dogs are!”). And considering that Brandy’s grumblings set off the whole mess (not that I’m blaming the victim, but I certainly understand why things unfolded as they did) I doubt I looked very much the part of an accomplished trainer at the time. And anyhow, there was no way to get close enough to give her my card….

Brandy seemed okay, and we continued on our walk as normal (I let go of the dogs once the other pack was well out of sight). But my poor girl was a bit subdued, and when we got back home she was a bit jumpy, flinching at any sudden noise (a not-uncommon occurrence in a house with five cats!).

Lessons learned:

  • I really need to teach the dogs the “get behind” cue that Emma teaches in her Reactive Dog classes. If I could have cued Brandy to get behind me (rather than trying to get in front of her), the shepherd may have had second thoughts before fully engaging with my dogs.
  • When in doubt, retreat! Turning down the side path would have been the right decision, continuing forward was not.
  • I need to make sure that Brandy gets lots of good, positive exposure to dogs to counteract this definitely unpleasant interaction. Prior positive experiences would have gone a long way toward cushioning Brandy against fallout from an encounter like this, but as that hasn’t happened the best I can do is seek out positive experiences for her.

My friend Leah Tremble teaches a “Real World Training” class at Masterpeace Dog Training in Franklin, MA. Or, rather, the first couple of classes are taught there: after that it “goes on the road” to give the dogs opportunities for positive training experiences in the “real world.” I think this will be an excellent class for Brandy. I definitely need to take her out and about more (while remaining careful to keep her below her reactivity threshold). Nico has come so far in his training and behavior modification, I feel like I’ve let Brandy fall behind. Time to do some catch-up! and have some quality time with my girl….

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