Friday, February 28, 2014

The Dangers of Texting and Walking Dogs

Today I was walking a client’s dog.  This particular dog tends to bark and lunge at other dogs on walks, so we always keep a safe distance away from them.  Seeing other dogs also earns this dog treats, which means we are able to get much closer to other dogs these days than we used to.

That said, I’m not writing to discuss the nitty-gritty of walking a dog with these kinds of behaviors.  Rather, I’m writing to address the behavior of a dog handler we saw on our walk.  This woman was walking two Labrador Retrievers.  The dogs themselves were perfectly well-behaved.  They didn’t bark or lunge at us, and they walked nicely beside their handler.  The way the neighborhood is designed, I had the choice of following these dogs and their handler, or turning around and going a much longer way back to my client’s home.  Since my client’s dog and the other dogs all seemed calm, I figured I would follow the dogs and the woman at an appropriate distance, while using lots of treats – and I also mentally prepared to retreat quickly, if necessary.

What grabbed my attention as I followed these dogs, though, was the odd pattern of their walk.  Every five yards or so, the dogs and the woman came to a dead standstill for anywhere from about 10 seconds to a minute, for no apparent reason.  The dogs were not sniffing at anything when they stopped (the woman kept them away from the grass, so there wasn’t much for them to sniff), and the woman did not seem to be in any physical distress.  It happened to be rainy today, so the woman was carrying an umbrella, which made it impossible for me to see her well enough to know why she was stopping.  Her dogs paused every time they realized she had stopped, and so did I and my client’s dog (since I wanted to keep a safe distance).

After the woman halted and resumed for no apparent reason for the third time, I stopped where I was and encouraged my client’s dog to sniff around the grass at the side of the road.  I then waited until the woman had halted and resumed several times more, so that we had more than triple the distance I thought we needed, before moving forward again.

This pattern of halting and resuming continued for as long as I was behind the woman and her dogs.  After a couple of hundred yards, we got to a place where the street was wide enough for me to walk my client’s dog safely on the other side of the street.  Since my client’s dog was behaving in a calm manner, I allowed her to walk at more of a normal pace (we had been going very slowly, as you can imagine), and we soon wound up parallel to the woman and dogs.  At that point, I could see beyond the umbrella.

I was not surprised to find that the woman was looking at a cell phone in her hands, and pushing buttons on it.  Her dogs saw me and my client’s dog as we got closer, though they (thankfully) remained completely calm about it, but the woman was too busy to notice the change in their behavior.  The woman did finally interrupt her perusal of her phone to look up briefly and see what her dogs were looking at, but she then immediately went back to texting.

So why am I telling you this whole story?  To be blunt, I can imagine a lot of very different outcomes from a situation like this.  If I were a less alert handler, I might have more or less literally stumbled into this woman the first time she came to a sudden halt.  If either of her dogs had tried to attack my client’s dog, or if one of them had just wanted to say hello, they could have caused the woman to fall over.  This neighborhood also sees its share of wildlife, so they could even have been followed by a coyote or two (it’s unlikely in the daytime, but it has happened to me before at night).

Any number of things, many of them less than ideal, could have happened because this woman was (a) setting the pace of her walk entirely for her own convenience while ignoring her dogs’ needs, and (b) completely unaware that another dog and handler were following behind them for a couple of hundred yards.  I also think it’s rude to give your dog no attention on a walk.  Can you imagine how you would feel if your best friend invited you to go on a walk and then proceeded to spend the entire time on his or her phone?

Our dogs deserve our attention, as well as our respect.  They have needs, which might include a desire to slow down and spend some time sniffing a clump of grass, or to speed up a little and check out a particularly interesting fire hydrant.  When a person walks his or her dog while using a cell phone, that person “checks out” of the walk completely.  I have seen more than one person on a cell phone completely fail to notice me and my dog as we approach, and even as I call out, “Is your dog friendly?”  These people sometimes wind up unpleasantly brought back to reality when their dog hits the end of the leash, barking and lunging.  I’ve even seen a few handlers get pulled off their feet in these situations.  In short, this behavior is rude to your dog, rude to others on the street, and unsafe to boot.

Apropos this topic, I want to share a video with you that shows collaborative walking with a dog.  (Those of you who came to my session on “The Power of Choice” at ClickerExpo 2014 in Long Beach have already seen this video.)  Bear in mind that my dog had learned how to walk politely on leash before I began letting him “lead me around.”  I know my dog will return to my side and walk at my pace any time I ask, so I can give him more freedom to explore than a dog I am walking for the first time.

Most dogs have very few opportunities to explore the world, indulge their desires, or connect with their humans.  I hope you will all join me in making walks one of those opportunities.


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