I just got back from an amazing trip to England, and while I was there I couldn't help but notice the vastly different way dogs there behaved, when compared to dogs here at home. There were actually more dogs off leash there than here, but they were all so beautifully behaved. There were multiple instances where I came across off leash dogs walking along busy sidewalks with their owners, off leash and not straying at all.
One in particular stood out to me very impressively. I was sitting in a bus station in Gloucester waiting for my bus when a couple approached the terminal. An adorable staffy mix was following them closely and it took me a moment to realize that he was off leash. The woman had his leash wrapped around her chest and the dog didn’t really seem to notice it wasn’t attached to him. This bus terminal was on a very busy intersection, and the dog didn’t stray to greet anyone, or wander at all. His people walked right up to the terminal and the man entered while the woman waited outside. The dog wandered up to the door to follow his owner and then stopped right at the threshold and waited outside. No one spoke to him, neither owner gave a cue or told him to stay away, he just stopped and waited. While he waited he never really shifted. He looked between the two owners and moved out of the way for others to enter and exit the terminal, but he never stepped foot over the threshold or bothered anybody. I also noticed as I watched him that this dog was unneutered. Can you imagine that? An unneutered male bully mix, hanging out off leash in a busy intersection, minding his business and listening quietly to his owners? Oh, and did I mention that all he was wearing was a standard flat collar?
There were no training tools of any kind on the dogs that I saw. Some were on harnesses, but I didn't
see a single front clipping harness, prong collar, choke chain, slip lead, shock collar, or treat pouch. Out of all the dogs I saw I only came across one owner who was treating at all, and even that was very informal and for tricks (high fives and spins) that the dog was doing when asked on a moving subway train! The off leash dogs happily moved around ignoring all of the people around them, and each other for the most part. It was entirely fascinating to watch.
The dog on the train (or tube) was another that stood out to me. We were standing on the platform when the owner and dog appeared. Now, those trains really fly into the station. It’s startling for a human and I felt the need to stand pretty far back from the edge of the platform. This pup and his owner stood right by the edge of the platform, in the safe zone but certainly closer than I felt comfortable with for myself. As the train screamed into the station the dog barely flinched and happily sat and wagged at his owner. We ended up in the same train car as the pup and he was a joy to watch with his owner. His owner was asking for silly tricks and treating every so often with a ziplock bag of cookies he had stashed in his messenger bag. As we trucked along in the fast moving train, this little dog stayed happy and loose and engaged with his owner. He wasn’t at all worried about the movement, the sharp turns, the noise, or the close quarters.
So what's the big difference? Why can these dogs in another country live a big city life like this with so much of their time off leash or in crowded situations, when such a thing seems impossible to us. I think that a large part of it is due to the attitude of the average person. From what I saw only the owners really interacted with their dogs. No strangers came up to pet the dog and say hello, no one insisted that their dogs greet and play with each other, and no children even came running up to the dogs to say hello. For the most part the humans moved around as though the dogs weren't even there. I think this plays a huge part in the dogs being able to move around and ignore everything around them. Dogs here are so conditioned to the random people who want to say hi. The people who make the
squeaky noises and scream when they see a dog. This expectation gets built in when they are puppies out and about in the world, and by the time they are adults they expect that everyone will want to say hi. Because so far, so many people do! We set up patterns of behavior because puppies are so darn cute and we just want to hug and squeeze them. This is where we end up creating a lot of the problem behaviors that owners complain most about in their adolescent and adult dogs. Jumping on guests and strangers, pulling on leash, excitement reactivity issues, and dogs who cannot focus in public.
We end up with dogs who are overly social, because this is what we have modeled for them. We are, as a culture, a little obsessed with our dogs being social. We want them to be okay with anything that happens to them. They should never growl or be aggressive, they should always want to play with any human or dog that wants to play with them. But again, this leads us into the same trap of having dogs who don't know how to be in a public setting and not be overly social.
I haven’t traveled Europe extensively by any means. What I have seen of Europe is similar to England. People move around dogs as though they aren’t even there. In mainland Europe I remember seeing a lot of stray dogs, especially in Italy and Greece. Dogs who hung out around ancient monuments like the colosseum and pompeii, napped in the shade, and simply coexisted with the humans milling around. Speaking with other dog trainers around the world, it seems to be a similar attitude in most other places. The culture of “socialization” that we have doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in other countries.
So what should we do instead? If we want the calm, easy in public dogs of Europe, I think there are a couple of things that we can do. First, model the behavior that you want from the people around you. It tends to shock people who are out and about with me but I rarely stop and interact with other people's dogs. My exceptions are if I know the dog, or if the dog initiates an interaction with me. I will often smile and wave at dogs who walk past me, because I'm a giant dork, but I never stop and ask to pet anyone's dog. I don't know if that dog is friendly, wants to say hi, or what the rules of interacting with that dog are. So I play it safe and don't interact. The second step is working on teaching your dog to ignore others in public. It sounds very counterintuitive to what we are taught when we get a puppy. "socialize socialize socialize" is drilled into our heads by vets, trainers, tv shows, and anyone who has ever looked at a dog. The true purpose of socialization though is not to make our dogs social, but rather to help our dogs be able to calmly handle situations that arise in their life. So how do we do this? How do we teach our dogs to ignore the world when the world doesn't want to ignore them?
The first step is to make engaging with you the most reinforcing thing possible. Explore the world with your dog to explore it together, versus going out so that your dog can play with other dogs. Off leash experiences should be focused on hiking or playing and engaging with you, instead of standing in a small space wrestling with other dogs. Bring high value treats out in the world with you and pay handsomely for your dog engaging with you, and engage with them too! We can't expect our dogs to engage with us if we are being boring. The next step is to encourage people not to say hi to your dog. Avoid as much as you can, decline requests to say hello, and reinforce your dog a lot for ignoring people. These are things you can relax as your dog gets good at ignoring people, but it's easier to be strict at the beginning if you want to create the behavior, and then relax as time goes on. It can be helpful to use a harness or collar that says something like "In Training" or "Do Not Pet" to encourage people to be on their best behavior.
The other question to answer here, of course, is what’s wrong with having a social dog? What’s so bad
about a dog who wants to make friends with everyone they see? Honestly, there are positives and negatives. Having a friendly dog myself after having a couple who weren’t so much, has been so nice. Not having to worry about who says hi, avoid other dogs like the plague, and be able to take her all over with me is amazing. However, sometimes she is a little too friendly. Not every other dog really wants to say hi to her, and neither does every human. Some people don’t like dogs, and want to be able to go for a walk without a Border Collie rocketing at them at top speed squeaking like a lunatic. That’s fair. There is also the fact that I want to be able to go out into public with her and perform and work on skills. I want to take her shopping and not have to be worried that she might end up leaning on an unsuspecting shopper behind me while I look at something.
I think really it comes down to what kind of dog you want to live with, and what you want to be able to do with your dog. In Austin I know that a lot of people really want to take their dogs off leash as much as possible, and that creates a lot of problems in the city, especially with overly friendly dogs. They come screaming across an on leash park to greet the dog who isn’t dog friendly, or take off after a squirrel and into a road. There are so many variables and things that can happen and we spend so much time teaching them that reinforcers come from the world at large, why shouldn’t they go explore?
My point being, if you want to have a reliable off leash dog or a dog who can ignore the world in public, I think there are a lot of pointers to take from our fellow dog owners in Europe.