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Judging badly behaved dogs

This morning’s walk with my own dog, Widget was a walk of two halves. He is a sensitive dog who needs some careful management around other dogs (for a while, people were an issue for him too, that has thankfully totally resolved). Over the past 3 years that he has been with me, he has made really good progress and walking him has become a much more relaxed affair.


This morning started brilliantly. He walked happily along the prom, having a sniff and watching the world go by. Each time a dog came along, he slipped into a heel on the opposite side to the other dog as we had been practising, we passed several dogs perfectly, I nodded to my fellow dog owners, they smiled at me, I was part of the club of “good dog owners with good dogs” Widget was doing a pretty good impersonation of a socially acceptable, well trained canine. Little did they know that just a couple of years ago, Widget was not able to pass another dog without putting on a display that Cujo would have been proud of and would definitely not be part of the "good dog club".


Widget - photo copyright Richard Ablitt

But then I made the mistake, I was feeling smug at my brilliant dog’s normalness and we decided to continue walking for longer than usual, Widget continued to do well, right up until it was time to join another footpath to go home. We watched as a group of around eight dogs came along the path towards us, some off lead and others on. They were all well behaved and did nothing wrong, but they took forever to pass! One way to wind up Widget (and many other on lead dogs) is to make him watch a group of off lead dogs strutting around having fun, he desperately wants to join in, but has very clumsy social skills and can be a too much for a lot of dogs, so letting him join in with a group of unknown dogs would not go down well! I could see Widget getting more and more upset and thought we may be better just turning around, only to find another group of several off-lead dogs approaching us from behind – this was not a happy situation. All I could do was to wait for the dogs to pass us and hope for the best.


After what felt like six years, but was probably only a couple of minutes, of shovelling liver cake into an increasingly upset Widget, while trying to calmly get across to the other dog walkers that it would be really quite helpful if they could stop loitering in this area and move just a few meters in any direction so that we could get moving again, all the dogs finally left and off we went, but the damage was done. To his credit, Widget did not have a reaction in the sense that he did not bark or lunge, but his little brain was fried, he could not calm down again. And to make matters worse, it had hit that time on a Saturday morning when everyone decides it is a great time to take the dog and / or children for a walk. Widget, who had started out looking like one of the better trained dogs now frantically strained on the lead, postured and eyeballed at every dog we saw, he looked like he had never been walked before and I looked like an incompetent, bad owner. I started getting looks, they were not the friendly nods of earlier, but the eye rolls and looks of derision from those with the well behaved dogs. What was I doing bringing a dog “like that” out in public? I could feel the judgements being made as we slalomed away from one dog to the next and did our best to avoid what could possibly have been the noisiest children in Wales!


I realise that It was not my best decision to walk Widget for such a long time on a Saturday morning, I am happy to admit that mistake and will not be repeating it any time soon, but the judgement of others still hurts – do they realise the work that has gone into Widget? If they had seen him just one hour earlier, they would have assumed that I was one of them - a good owner with a good dog. But the look that a perfectly dressed lady, who demonstratively slipped a lead back onto her perfectly behaved dog gave us, said it all – bad dog, bad owner.


It is something that I see written all over the internet, in the sad event of a dog attack or unruly dog – the owner is to blame. Well, yes, to a degree. Letting a dog who you know is bad with other dogs loose with other dogs is irresponsible and a definite sign of bad ownership, giving a dog no training, attention or mental stimulation is also a bad owner red flag. Using a dog as a breeding machine, again, not the best owner in the world! But to assume that all bad behaviour is totally the owner’s fault is judgemental and simplistic. Even amongst some professionals, there seems to be an attitude that if a dog has any form of behavioural issue, the owner will be to blame.


Anyone can end up with a dog with issues, you can do everything right and still end up with a dog who, for a myriad of reasons is fearful or prone to frustration or separation issues or obsessive behaviours. Of course, bad ownership can cause problems and sometimes owners can make small problems into bigger ones, not on purpose, but because they don’t know any better. Conversely, there are some dogs who are incredibly resilient and seem to bounce back from awful abuse to become happy, well adjusted pets, it is very difficult to judge the level of care and training a dog has been given from observing for a couple of seconds.


It is easy to mistake training and behaviour - I remember a comment made by a man with a bulldog who was straining at the end of a flexi lead to meet Widget, I told him that my dog is not good with others. He pointedly told me that "I trained my dog so he is good with other dogs" That comment stung! The majority of dogs seem to rub along quite happily with other dogs and people with no specific training. Of course socialisation as a puppy will help greatly, but there are plenty of dogs out there who are not given a perfect start but still end up as a full member of the "good dogs club"! But it is easy when you do not have a dog with issues to judge, after all, your dog does not have this problem, so you must be a superior owner and trainer.


Noodles was a naturally resilient dog

My greyhound, Noodles was one of the naturally straightforward dogs, he made me feel like a much better owner than I really was. He was very forgiving of my mistakes and got on with all dogs, whilst not being pushy with no real input from me. Others used to comment on his good behaviour and assume that I had some kind of magical training ability, often asking me how I would fix certain behaviours in their own dogs. But the fact was, I did not know as I had not come across these issues in Noodles.


I know many dogs who have a whole range of issues – all of them have owners who strive to give them the best life possible. I know of people who set their alarms for 4am every morning to give their dogs the opportunity to walk when it is quiet, others attend seminars and specialist training as often as they can afford to help them understand their dog. Many of the owners of dogs “with issues” put in the same intensity of effort as those with competition dogs. The work it can take to get a reactive dog to pass other unknown dogs, in real life, calmly, can take weeks or months of consistent work and that work will often have to continue throughout the dog's lifetime. So the next time you pass a dog that looks like he is “a bit of a handful”, please don’t judge, don't stop and stare or try to give unsolicited advice. Give the owner a smile and walk your dog away – they will be grateful for it.