When a dog’s eyes are on you, make the most of it
When I walked in the door, the Pomeranian mix immediately started growling and barking. It won’t be the first time nor will it be the last time, especially considering I’ve walked 84 different dogs in the past two years. Some run up to me like I’m the homie. Others want nothing to do with me. And even more are invested in the walk and releasing themselves, and really don’t seem to care who is walking them. Their focus is getting outside.
For the more hesitant dog, finding a familiar item usually works. The problem was I couldn’t find the leash nor the collar. The directions said that the collar and leash would be on the counter. Nope, not there. I looked for a crate. Nope. I looked on all of the tables, the desk and even the couch. Nothing. I always keep an extra leash in my dog-walking bag, so I pulled mine out. The dog continued to bark and growl, and then took off running in the opposite direction. I tried crouching down and looking past her instead of making direct eye contact. It didn’t work. I was supposed to feed this dog, too, but the food was nowhere in my immediate sight. After about five minutes, I gave up and texted the owner. I was ready to cancel the walk.
Like an Australian Shepherd that absolutely refused to let me walk him, I was not surprised when the Pomeranian still took a treat from my hands but darted off. Familiarity is key to any dog, but snacks are a bonus. I’m rarely surprised when a dog will take food and still not f — k with me. However, I’ve never been one to just try to force a dog to like me. I still remember the look of fear and trembling from a Chihuahua who was just flat-out terrified of me from the minute I walked in the door. I don’t know what about me made that dog so scared, but it was one of only a handful of times in two years that I lost the socialization battle.
If you’ve been around enough dogs, you can figure out fairly quickly whether your chances are hopeless or if you have a shot. The Pomeranian barked and growled when I got closer, but she seemed genuinely curious about my game plan. In a CNN report about guide dogs as puppies, it says, “Puppies will look at and return a person’s social gaze and successfully use information given by that person in a social context from a very young age.” Dogs are naturally people pleasers. They just need to be able to figure out whether you’re a person worth pleasing.
Dog socialization is one of those training methods that I wish more humans would tune into. Like children, they start off being friendly to everyone but are taught to be fearful and angry, either by being trained to do so or by personal experience. No matter how socialized a dog is, (s)he can sense when there is danger. Minus trained guard dogs, pups don’t automatically treat every human they encounter as a threat. However, they often have a habit of staring and sizing humans up. Ironically, if more humans took their cues from dogs instead of just assuming anyone unfamiliar to them was a threat, there’d be less unnecessary 911 calls. But I digress.
An unfamiliar, staring dog can be intimidating, especially for those who are indifferent about dogs or are afraid of dogs. I don’t fall into either category. I love all dogs, specifically the ones who love me.
I can almost always tell when a dog is more or less watching my every move out of fascination instead of fear. As the American Kennel Club mentions, dogs have a way of reading humans. First, dogs don’t know why unfamiliar humans are on their territory. Second, they don’t know how you managed to get in without the owner. Third, they want to know how this book ends, skipping right past the beginning and middle chapters. I knew how to get to the end chapter; I just couldn’t find it. And this dog wanted nothing to do with my leash.
Then a text alert came through. I was informed that the food was on top of the fridge in plastic containers. Then, I was given a suggestion to look in a drawer by the back door for the leash. I smiled when I saw both, and I finally made eye contact with the dog. Reaching my arm up, I started shaking the dog food with one hand and twirled the leash in the other. Just like that, the same Pomeranian who wouldn’t close an 8-foot distance took off running toward me. She hopped onto my knees and let out a soft bark. I sat the food bin on the nearest counter, leaned down to clip the leash and off we walked.
Familiarity is key. A dog knows that you’re not supposed to know where everything is in his/her home. Imagine if someone walked into your house right now and went from milling around to suddenly knowing where your spare keys are or hidden food or favorite sweater that they simply shouldn’t know. While I can’t go as far as saying that a dog is smart enough to know the owner told him/her, it doesn’t take much to figure out something changed.
Some dogs still take far longer to warm up to strange humans than others. I have mentioned in a few posts about a 15-year-old Labrador Retriever who made me so absolutely nervous that I almost quit a dogsitting job. But I was too stubborn to leave, even though he was staring a hole through the back of my brain.
Not even 24 hours later, this Lab and I were cool enough for me to wake up on the couch with his nose touching my nose, ready to walk again. It takes time for a dog to trust you, and there’s no way of really knowing how much time it will take. But if you don’t give that dog any reason to fear you more than (s)he already does and they can visually see you’re not trying to harm them, you should be OK.