I Was a Bad Dog Owner. Don’t Be Like Me.
Pet adoptions have spiked during the pandemic. Now is the time to change outdoor dog culture for the benefit of people, public lands, wildlife, and the dogs themselves.
Even as far as deserts go, the Bisti Badlands in northern New Mexico are inhospitable. I have rarely seen so much as a lizard among the stone hoodoos and petrified logs. That’s why I was astonished one wintry day to see a long-eared jackrabbit tear out from a gravelly wash, its lithe body moving so fast it almost floated above the landscape. Two dogs bolted in maniacal pursuit.
The dogs belonged to my friends, who screeched at them to stop, but the canines were already too intoxicated with instinct to register any commands. They chased the hare for hundreds of yards, eventually around a corner and out of sight. It took a while for them to return, but they did not come back with a dead rabbit. My friends laughed, as if agreeing that all’s well that ends well—dogs will be dogs! We kept walking. But I felt sad.
I adore my friends, and I love their dogs—they’re hilarious and cute and fun—but I also care for the jackrabbit. What would become of it? The margins of survival in this desiccated land must be as thin as knives. Even though the animal survived the chase, I wondered if the expense of energy meant the difference between life and death anyway.
You may have noticed that there are a lot of dogs out and about these days. In my town, Durango, Colorado, dogs are a big part of outdoor culture, and their population has always been high. But now canines appear to be positively everywhere: jostling on the bike path, zooming about the trails, trotting near (or not so near) their owners down the street.
Since the pandemic began, breeders, shelters, and rescues have seen unprecedented demand for puppy adoptions. According to the American Pet Products Association, 12.6 million households brought home a pet between March and December. Shelter Animals Count, a nonprofit that tracked data from some 1,200 shelters and rescue organizations across the country, recorded a 9 percent rise in the dog adoption rate between 2019 and 2020. The joy and companionship that pets bring to people’s lives are unequivocally good, especially in such challenging years. At the same time, there is another concurrent and concerning phenomenon brewing: an epidemic of problematic dog behavior.
“I see a lot of dogs not being well socialized,” says Cheryl Albrecht, a trainer and the owner of Lead Off-Leash K-9 Training here in Durango. “The biggest thing is, they don’t know how to be alone, and they’re afraid of new things. People aren’t traveling, they aren’t taking their dogs downtown or to the store.” Albrecht has noticed that many dogs aren’t accustomed to being in populated public places, and there has been a surge in the number of dogs on public lands.
The American Pet Products Association reports that only about 6 percent of dog owners take their dog to obedience training. They are a beloved part of our lifestyle, but when untrained, they terrorize wildlife, chase bikers, irk passersby, and cause trouble on trails. As the dog population grows, what is our responsibility as their guardians—to other people, wildlife, public lands, and the dogs themselves?
I was once an oblivious dog owner myself and, admittedly, probably more egregious than most. I inherited Skyler, an 85-pound white wolf-shepherd mix, when I started dating my husband, Andrew, 14 years ago. We took her backcountry skiing and paddleboarded up the river while she ran along the bank. It wasn’t long before I started taking her on runs and hikes on my own. I adored her. She was uncannily smart and empathetic, with a mesmerizing wild streak. On a regular basis, she’d jump Andrew’s six-foot fence and take herself on long walks in the middle of the night. Sometimes when backpacking, we’d yip in jest, and she’d throw her head back and join in with a heart-rattling howl. I felt that sound in the marrow of my bones. It made me realize viscerally the thin line between predator and pet.
With big teeth and pointy ears, Skyler probably appeared scarier than most dogs. It bothered me that she would run after wildlife, stand smack in the middle of the trail when someone was trying to run or bike by, and occasionally nip at puppies. She was better trained when Andrew was around. I’m sure I could have had more control over her if I’d put in any effort, but it somehow didn’t seem that important. Plus, most of the dogs I was surrounded by were not particularly well trained, so her misbehavior didn’t seem out of the realm of social acceptance. In my busyness, I didn’t give it much thought.
Now I realize my obliviousness had ripple effects. Skyler was mostly under voice control, but not entirely. That lack of obedience stressed out other owners and their pooches, and it proved vexing and occasionally fatal to wildlife. I was also not taking into account that some people have very different cultural relationships with dogs. Many people are afraid of dogs because of past experiences, or they simply don’t love them as much as I do. I should have been more considerate and taken more responsibility.
One of the allures of living in a mountain town or other recreation community is the possibility of taking your dog everywhere, and the freedom of letting them roam off-leash. But if everyone were as oblivious as I was—Skyler died nearly five years ago—and dog ownership keeps rising, things would become unworkable quickly. With so many new puppies around, now is the time to change dog culture. I propose that we collectively deem it socially unacceptable to let dogs chase wildlife, rush up to strangers, jump on people, and bark at passersby. It’s actually not bad dog behavior. It’s negligent human behavior.
“I always call it trail etiquette,” says Eva Perrigo, a certified trainer, behavior counselor, and owner of Star Dog Training in Jackson, Wyoming. “There’s trail etiquette among humans, and we need to have trail etiquette with dogs as well. And where I live, there’s not a lot of it! I’m always of the belief that if you don’t have a recall that is 99 percent solid in all situations, your dog shouldn’t be off-leash.” Perrigo recommends a long line for dogs who aren’t under complete voice command. “Wildlife takes precedence—this is their land,” she says. “It’s also a safety thing for dogs. If they run into a moose and her baby, it could kill them.” Simply the scent of a dog, even if it’s long gone, affects the activities of animals from mule deer to bobcats.
A few weeks ago, I was walking on my town’s bike path with a friend, Vanna, and her two dogs, both on-leash. She held her young black Lab and I held her sprightly pitbull mix, who pranced along like a little diva. Dogs were everywhere, and we did our best to navigate them skillfully. Then a man approached us with his small Lab mix off-leash. The owner stopped, stood still, and muttered an almost imperceptible command. The dog stopped and sat down peacefully. We passed within a couple feet, and the dog stayed perfectly still, only his eyeballs moving, tracking us calmly. The man gave another command and they kept walking. Vanna and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. Neither of us had ever seen a dog that well trained. It was like watching a magic trick. But what if that were closer to the norm?
Naturally, not everyone is going to have the time or desire to train their dog to such a precise degree. And perhaps it’s not necessary for those who are content to keep their pets on a leash. But there are great boons to putting a little effort into training, for the dog and for you. “If you have a dog who is well trained, he has that much more freedom because you can trust him in more situations,” says Perrigo. You’re less stressed about what trouble he might get into, and “he’s going to get more opportunity to play with his buddies.” Training your dog can actually strengthen the bond between you—provided you don’t use excessively punitive means—and make it more fun and sustainable to even have a dog. Albrecht, for example, trains dogs to bike, ski, and camp with their owners. They learn to keep pace, stay out of the way of wheels and metal edges, and respond to directional commands on the fly.
If I adopt a dog again, which I probably will, I will do it differently. First, I would reflect on what breed and temperament would fit my lifestyle before committing. Some dogs are easier than others. Skyler was a beautiful soul, but she required more care and attention than, say, a happy-go-lucky golden retriever. “If you don’t want a project dog, don’t get one,” advises Albrecht. “It’s like having a baby, a four-legged one.” I would recognize that having a dog isn’t only about going on hikes together and cuddling on the couch. It takes time and energy to develop the bond and make sure the dog is a good citizen in the greater context of my community. It’s not just about me. And I would take the time to train the dog with basic commands—if not with a professional, then on my own. It’s stressful dealing with a pet who doesn’t listen. Conversely, it’s incredibly fun and rewarding to be able to take your dog everywhere and do anything with them tagging along.
One day this winter, I watched Albrecht set off from her house in the hills outside Durango with a dozen dogs of various sizes and breeds, all off-leash. Twice weekly, she takes a group of hounds she has trained on a five-hour excursion that she calls Adventure Dog Day Camp. She schussed through the ponderosa pines as the dogs zipped nearby, not jumping in her way and not running up the backs of her skis. When she gave the command, every single one of them came right away. They all sat when asked. When she released them, they trotted along, gleefully sniffing, exploring, and playing. Everyone seemed to be having a fantastic time, including Albrecht.
You don’t need an advanced degree to train your dog. With a moderate level of effort and know-how, you can have a canine that is more fun to be around for everyone, including you. Here are six tips to help get you there.
Understand Your Dog
First, observe and listen. Dogs have physical, social, and mental needs, and they communicate with their behaviors and body language. Pay attention and you’ll start to understand what your dog is feeling and why they are making certain choices. Sometimes simply taking care of unmet needs, such as vigorous exercise, can help with behavior challenges. The website iSpeakDog is a great resource for deciphering dog body language. Also, dogs change as they age. Watch for shifting patterns and preferences. “We need to realize that dogs are their own individuals,” says Heather Ross, a certified behavior consultant, dog trainer, and owner of Clear Mind Canine, in Felton, California. “That’s what so great about dogs—they have a lot to teach us.”
Socialize Your Dog
The golden socialization period for puppies lasts between 3 and 15 weeks of age. During that time, their minds are like sponges. They are learning how to interact with the world, what is safe, and what is scary. Use this time to introduce them to lots of new things and give them positive associations. “Socialization is all about preventing animals from developing fear,” says Perrigo. “After 15 weeks, socialization can still happen, it’s just slower.” At any time, you can give your dog a positive association with a new experience (like a skateboarder rushing by, for example) by giving them things they like, such as yummy food, petting, or happy talk.
Master the Basics
For anyone who plans to take their dogs on trails and outdoors, Perrigo recommends mastering a minimum of three basic commands with your dog: come, leave it, and stay. Albrecht and Ross also suggest teaching them how to not pull while on a leash. “You don’t want them to prevent other people’s enjoyment, and you don’t want them to pick up stuff that might be dangerous,” says Ross. Training involves slow progression, repetition, and consistency. Start with low-intensity situations. For example, if you are training your dog to stay, start inside your house where they won’t be tempted to go very far, then move to more distracting situations: from the backyard to the front yard to a park and finally to trails, beaches, or other open space.
Find an Online Program
You can train many dogs on your own if you have the time and interest, and online resources abound. The Great Courses, for example, offers a Dog Training 101 online course. There is good free content on YouTube—including on Perrigo’s or Albrecht’s feeds—but you have to sift through a lot of chaff. If you use YouTube videos, make sure the trainers you subscribe to are using philosophies you agree with and that the dog in the video resembles your dog in temperament. Consistency is also key. “We’re always training our dogs, 24/7,” says Albrecht. “Whatever you’re allowing your dog to do in daily life, you’re reinforcing. Think about what you’re doing all day long with them,” not just in the 20 minutes you’re practicing sit commands.
Hire a Trainer
If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs or humans, or if you don’t have the time or interest to train your dog yourself, you will need to hire a trainer. While there are professional certifications, such as the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, dog training is an unregulated industry. Do your homework. Theory has evolved considerably even in the past ten years, so make sure your trainer is keeping abreast of current science and that their philosophy jives with your own. For example, trainers often have differing policies on the use of e-collars, which administer small shocks or vibrations to deter unwanted behavior. The most important part is that they will work with you on your own goals for your pooch. “Being a dog trainer isn’t just about being with dogs, it’s about being with people and teaching people,” says Ross. “Someone could be a great trainer, but they might not be a good fit for your personality.”
Prepare Your Dog for Post-Pandemic Life Now
When the pandemic ends, life will change a lot for dogs, possibly abruptly. Separation anxiety will likely be a huge issue for many pets, and trainers are concerned that shelters could see an influx as pet owners realize they aren’t equipped to care for their sensitive companions. So start accustoming your dog to future changes in lifestyle. If you think you will one day take your dog to coffee shops, breweries, or other public spaces, introduce them to similar areas now so they won’t be shocked by all the activity. If you plan to leave your pet alone for many hours at some point, let them get used to being alone for longer periods now. And consider setting up a relationship with a local dog walker soon—they may get inundated when pandemic restrictions lift.