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ANIMAL BEAT

You can teach a bold dog new patterns of behavior

One sunny October day a year ago, Ingrid Nersesian was walking her Bernese mountain dog along a meadow in the park at Fresh Pond in Cambridge. She had just stopped to talk to another dog owner when two dogs -- a Weimaraner and what she thinks was a Labrador retriever -- barreled into her full force from behind. She was knocked to the ground and unable to get up. For Nersesian, 56, who was already suffering from degenerative arthritis of the spine, the injury set off a chain of problems, including debilitating spasms in her legs that required her to spend a week each in a hospital and a rehab center. She has missed two months of work and has spent much of the past year in physical therapy.

Despite everything, she has never blamed the dogs or their owners. If she knew more about dog behavior and training, she just might.

"The dogs were so focused on playing, they didn't see me," says Nersesian, a probation officer.

Maybe that's not quite true.

"When playing dogs run through the woods, you don't see them crashing into trees," says Sarah Wilson, a dog trainer and author. "When there's a dominant dog nearby, you won't see the other dogs hitting him."

Dogs -- even running, panting, playing dogs in a scrum -- are very aware of the world rushing all around them. When they smack into you, it's because they've chosen to do so. In their minds, you should get out of their way. We often scramble to cede the space to them. But it's wrong for pet owners to allow their dogs to treat humans that way.

"It's a physical assault, and it doesn't matter that there's a wagging tail attached," says Wilson.

It seems that personal space is a concept that dogs understand. "Just look at the way a puppy is with his mother," says dog trainer Kathy deNatale. "The puppy learns from her to get up out of her way. If only we could learn to be as clear as that mother dog."

But we're not. If you go to any urban or suburban park where dogs are unleashed, you will see gleeful dogs jumping up and smashing into people. You will also hear the dogs' owners say "Sorry!" in the most cavalier fashion over and over. No one seems terribly concerned unless there's an accident like Nersesian's. It's shocking there aren't more of them, but in the meantime there are plenty of people with bruises and muddied clothing who would appreciate dog owners teaching their pets some manners.

The first thing for all of us to do is make it unacceptable at any park for dogs to jump up or play "bowling for humans." It needs to become part of the culture of the park that the behavior isn't OK. Zero tolerance, as Wilson puts it. So what do you say to owners who shrug after the incident and give the practiced "Sorry"?

"Well, you can't do what I'd really like to do," says Wilson. She fantasizes about running up to the owner, smiling and shouting friendly greetings while shoving and manhandling them, and yelling, "I like YOU!" right into their faces -- the equivalent of what dogs do to us.

Other than driving the point home that way, the solution is this: If you own a dog that jumps on people to say hello, or scatters humans in its path, stop the behavior immediately. The work starts at home; we don't expect kids who have never done a lick of homework to ace their SATs, Wilson says.

That means the dog gets nothing from now on -- no treats, no food, no affection -- without having to sit and behave properly for it. Dogs that bump you out of the way as they rush to the ringing doorbell, or leap up at the ball as you try to throw it, or tackle every guest, are in need of a personal-space adjustment.

Like it or not, everything you do with your dog is de facto training. If you allow all those seemingly innocuous in-your-face behaviors from your dog, it will learn that those actions are acceptable in all circumstances and with everyone -- kids, the elderly, people with physical problems, and people in nice clothes.

If you don't want your dog to land someone in the hospital, take action. You cannot let the dog off leash at the park around others until the behaviors are in check. The regimen means consistent work and a lot of it, and possibly even a few sessions with a professional trainer.

Lose the notion that you are quashing your dog's natural exuberance. What you will be doing is giving the dog the direction and structure it craves. By making a polite citizen of your dog, you make it welcome in more places by more people.

As for protecting yourself against what Wilson calls "canine cannonballs": If you hear or see galloping dogs, stand near a tree or a wall; those objects hurt when hit, so the dogs will avoid them. Just in case, bend at the knee to "make sure you fold the way God intended," Wilson says.

For a running or jumping dog, you might try opening an automatic umbrella in its face or squirting a shot of peppermint breath freshener near its muzzle. You should face the dog squarely, step forward in its direction, and say "No!" or "No Bite!" or "Stop!" with a deep, confident voice. What you're doing is claiming space. "You're saying that the 3 feet around me are mine," Wilson says. It's what deNatale calls your force field.

You shouldn't try grabbing a collar to hold the dog away from you; if it twists, you can be injured. Bringing your knee up to block the charge is another popular suggestion from everyone but the professionals; the maneuver is tricky to pull off in timing and height adjustment.

Besides, it really isn't your job to train someone else's dog. You might have to train a few people, though. Remember, lots of these owners aren't willfully mean, but they are clueless. They often don't realize that this behavior is unacceptable and correctable.

The behavior is giving some breeds a bad name. Labrador retrievers were bred to be impervious to physical conditions, and with their exuberance, weight, and speed they are often among the worst offenders. But, Wilson says, they are also among the most trainable dogs.

What deNatale sees in this behavior is a dog asking the question, "Who's in charge?"

All dog owners owe Nersesian an answer.

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