About a year ago Rory and I had a terrible experience at a dinner party…
While nibbling appetizers and sipping white wine I noticed Rory getting edgy. She was lowering her head protectively over a stuffed toy and staring down other guests as they passed near her latest prize. In my house any sign of possessiveness, no matter how slight, is unacceptable and I have learned how to recognize the tell-tale signs of a tantrum and remedy them without any to-do.
I swiftly moved in, took away with toy without any trace of fuss and placed it on a shelf out of reach. This is a system I have had for ages with Rory and it works. When I return the toy to her after a few hours, she understands that it is in fact mine and all possessiveness, however slight it may have been, disappears. There is never an opportunity for escalation.
I politely asked the other guests not to give the toy to Rory and to ignore her persistent (albeit somewhat adorable) begging efforts. Problem solved, yes? Not exactly.
“Give her back the toy,” a few people said over and over again. “Don’t be so mean.”
I politely said no, explaining that rewarding begging behaviour, especially begging that follows an inkling of possessiveness, would not be beneficial to Rory. I was then swept away into a conversation. Moments later, before I knew what was happening, one of the guests started taunting Rory with the stuffed toy, then after riling her up threw it for her.
Several other guests began chasing her all around the room, despite her lowered tail and soft warning grumbles. I asked them to stop; I was ignored. I asked louder; I was still ignored. Rory began growling louder and baring her teeth — obvious signs of fear to anyone who knows dogs. The guests were triggering a defensive response in her. Despite my repeated efforts to ask everyone to leave her alone they kept taunting her, trying to pick her up roughly, laughing at her small hackled posture and trying to snatch away the toy — all of which aggravated Rory’s response.
Only after I threw a cushion on the floor behind a chair and told Rory to ‘go to her bed’ was I able to get my dog away from the unsettling activity. She scuttled to the cushion frantically and I spent close to an hour calming her panicked heart rate and tense body language down. In all honesty, it shouldn’t have taken an hour to calm her down, but believe it or not people kept walking by and provoking her. One person kept saying her name, another actually poked her with a foot as they walked by – instances which of course fired her up again into total defense mode.
Needless to say, I was furious. Not only had my trainer-recommended approach to dealing with Rory’s initial behaviour of guarding a toy been completely undermined, but she had crossed over into a fear-driven response and nobody was responding to my requests. She and I were being disrespected and to make matters worse people started recommending what I ‘should do’ so my dog behaved better. The nerve I tell you!
Training is about encouraging positive behaviours and dissuading negative behaviours and/or stopping bad behaviours before they start. That is what I was doing when taking the toy away from Rory…I was stopping a potential bad behaviour of being too possessive before it even began. It was a system that had been tuned to Rory’s personality by a talented behavourist.
It had been working without any incident. But now all of that had been swept away. I worried not only that Rory would now adopt this outburst as ‘acceptable’ behaviour, but also that she would be afraid of new people in future, traumatized by the experience of being hounded by several large, boisterous adults.
Fortunately, neither of those things happened. Moral of the story: It is important to have some iron-clad strategies in place for dealing with instances where you and your dog are in an uncertain or unknown social situation.
3 things to keep in mind before bringing your dog to a party
1) Talk directly to the host about your dog’s presence at the party. Ask how many guests will be attending, are there any fellow dog owners attending, what size will the house/party space be, will any other dogs will be attending, will dog toys will be present or not? Had I known ahead of time that it was going to be 20 plus people in a small bungalow kitchen and dining room I probably would not have brought Rory along, merely because it would have already been crowded.
2) Be assertive, really assertive. If your dog is behaving inappropriately or if people are behaving inappropriately around them don’t be afraid to speak up — loudly. In hindsight, my biggest mistake in this situation was being too polite. I did not wish to offend any of the other guests by bluntly telling them to back off.
Instead I tried to reason and ask nicely, which got me no where. Although I thought I was being assertive and direct with my comments/requests, I should have been even more assertive, perhaps even outwardly angry to stop the situation. Does this mean one should rage at every little thing that happens? Of course not, but if people are not responding to your polite, calm requests chances are they have a firm/rude comment or two headed their way.
3) Have an ‘escape’ plan. Now when I take Rory to social functions I make sure that I have an independent ride home. At this function I was dependent upon others which meant I could not escape the rude behaviour of others. In fact I could not even escape the general social area to calm my dog down — disaster!
Rory is a very good dog. I’m not just saying this because I love her – it is the truth. We go to numerous social things together without an incident at all. She is sweet-natured, loving and completely happy to be around people all of the time.
Unfortunately, at this party, people taunted and provoked her and made her feel threatened. People who ignored her obvious signs to back off and who also ignored my efforts to have them back off, created a very disrespectful encounter which could have easily resulted in somebody (dog or person) getting hurt.
Now whenever I take Rory to a new social event I make sure to follow the above three guidelines so that everyone has a good time and so that I can ensure my dog’s space and well being is respected. I also know enough now to leave an event at the first sign of someone behaving badly or ignorantly around my dog without paying attention to my instructions.
Have you ever had an encounter with someone who disrespected your dog and position as caregiver to that dog? What happened? What did you do to diffuse the situation? It can be a tricky business to be sure — I would love to hear your stories.