Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Stranger danger meets real danger: A dog training challenge

Liam the pug in his bed

Dog training projects never really end. Dogs like Liam here don't always retain the lessons they learned as puppies, and they benefit from refresher courses that help them to build up core skills. And, sometimes dogs like Liam need to learn new things in order to deal with a new challenge. When I brought home my first batch of foster kittens last summer, for example, Liam needed some training on being gentle with very small and fragile creatures. We worked together, and the kittens stayed safe.

But sometimes, things that happen to you as a person expose gaps in your dog's training program. I've been thinking that over a lot lately.

When I fell and broke my leg at the beginning of January, Liam and I were out for a solo walk around the neighborhood. A slipped on the ice and hit the dirt, and after a few moments of shock, I was reduced to simply howling in pain in the middle of the street. I no longer had a tight grip on Liam's leash, and I certainly wasn't able to talk with him or work with him.

Strangers stopped their car to help me, and they came running over to touch me and help me as I screamed and cried. Then, very loud fire trucks and ambulances appeared on the scene, with sirens blazing.

Liam stayed put throughout this entire ordeal. He let the strangers hold his leash and pet him. And he let the fire crew pick him up, take him away from the scene and deliver him safely home. He did quite a bit of howling, and at one point, he tried to jump on the stretcher. But all in all, he was a model canine citizen.

This all could have happened very differently, if I'd been walking this dog.

Sinead the Boston terrier showing some snark

Sinead has always dealt with stranger danger syndrome. New people aren't potential friends. They are potential enemies until they prove themselves otherwise. Sinead is also deeply afraid of sirens, crowds and crying.

If I'd had her on a walk with me, I feel reasonably sure she wouldn't run off when I dropped the leash. But when the sirens came? She would have run.

And if I'd been on the ground screaming, there's no way she would have allowed anyone to come anywhere close to me. Touching me? Forget it. Taking off my shoe to examine the broken leg--which made me scream yet more? She would have gone on the defensive.

I've talked to plenty of dog people since my accident, and most of them say similar things. The dog would have run, barked, howled or bitten. It was a stressful situation. Dogs would have behaved accordingly.

Training your dog for the absolutely unexpected isn't easy. But a situation like this one does pose a few training suggestions. For example, I need to be sure that my dogs are rock solid on a "stay" command, no matter who gives it. That means I probably need to stop people I see on my walks and ask them to give one or both dogs the stay command, and then reward the heck out of the dogs if they comply.

Next, these guys need to meet more good people. I need to get strangers to hand out cheese and other irresistible treats to Sinead so she continues to gain confidence. Right now, I give her treats for tolerating new people. I need to switch that up so other people are the source of all things good.

And finally, we need to work on loud noise tolerance. I'm looking for videos and audio I can play for these dogs from time to time, so they don't spook when they hear it in real life.

How would your dogs handle an issue like this? And how would you offer up training? Love to hear your thoughts. Hit me up in the comments!


  1. That's the difference between cats and dogs, you can't train a cat ! and then cats have servants, while dogs have masters, lol !

  2. it is interesting since most people don't think about this until it is too late. no dogs here, but we suspect the dog my parents own would RUN like mad.