Trail & Street Etiquette

This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart.  And has been weighing heavily on my mind especially as of late due to a large number of encounters with other dog owning people on our walks.  It’s all well and good and enjoyable when you meet another walker who has good trail and street etiquette with their dog.  And it’s horrid when you meet the other kind.

For example today’s really shitty encounter on a street walk, I actually swore at the woman.  And she still didn’t get it.  I went so far as to call her a F)(@#_)!(#@! moron to try to get her to drag her ill mannered confrontational lab away and that still didn’t work!  I might have been less upset had this woman not started off on the complete opposite side of the street, and the second she saw me she chose to cross over to my side of the street despite that I had stopped my dogs off to the side, was working to get their attention fully, had a young spaniel who was barking as I was working very hard to get her attention back on me.  What part of any of my or my dog’s body language said, “oh yes please we want to interact with you complete stranger and your staring, dragging, confrontational, untrained, random, never met before lab?”  None of it.  NONE OF IT!

Or yesterday’s on a trail walk, guy 40′ behind his off leash lab who is not approaching in a friendly manner hollering out ‘he’s friendly!’ where every bit of that dog’s body language and manner was reading ‘not friendly.’  And whether or not he is friendly is so besides the fact!  We were off to the side of the trail, with our dogs focused on us, no part of our body language or response at all would have indicated we wanted to interact with you random stranger guy and your random stranger dog.

Of course these are then balanced by the lovely couple and their black mixed breed we met on the trail who a good distance away, called their dog to heel, dog walked cordially beside them off leash ignoring us as then the owners asked us if we were ok with all of the dog’s greeting.  My friend and I had called our dogs to the side of the trail and had them sitting focused on us.  We all gave our dogs permission to interact.  The dogs all had a quick meet and greet after which we all continued on our respective routes.  Nice, simple, easy.  And socially appropriate!

Or the woman on her way to catch a train on today’s walk, who wanted to chat a bit, as I had the dogs all sit.  But the moment she saw me shift my focus back completely onto the dogs to help them maintain their attention, she easily moved on.  Lovely interaction.

The key?  Communication.

So let’s talk about some basic trail and street etiquette, shall we?

If you are walking with your dog.  On leash or off leash.  And there is someone with or without dog also on the trial or sidewalk, then here are the steps:

  1. Get your dog’s attention and focus on you.  That can mean you call your dog to heel, or you step off to the side of the sidewalk or trail and sit your dog.  It might mean you shove a cookie in your dog’s face, or toss some on the ground for your dog to find.  If your dog is off leash, it may mean you put a hand on their collar, or you put a leash back on.  You do what you and your dog needs in order to stay as focused on you as possible while not imposing on the other person and their dog.  Your dog sitting totally fixated on the other dog/person, isn’t focusing on you. What you don’t do is assume the other person/dog wants your dog approaching them, interacting with them, staring at them.
  2. If your dog is one who enjoys social encounters with strangers, then step 2 (again after step 1 is full and complete and you have your dog’s attention on you), communicate.  This may mean you verbally communicate with the other person.  Generally questions are better than statements.  Questions such as, “Are you comfortable if our dogs interact?” as opposed to statements such as “My dog’s friendly” or ever the cringe worthy “Is he friendly?”  As a friend of mine says, “I don’t care if your dog is friendly, I care if she’s civilized!”  Because sure my dog is friendly, but I may still not want to interact with you/your dog.  So a “yes” answer to “is he friendly?” isn’t the same as a “yes” answer to, “Can our dogs interact?”
  3. Now after you have asked your question, wait for the answer!  I’ve lost count the people who ask a question if they or their dog can interact with mine, then don’t wait for my answer!  They just assume since they took the time to ask, I’ll of course say yes.  Well, then what was the use in the question?  None!
  4. And finally, respect the answer.  If it’s no, respect it.  Either wait for the person/dog to pass by you, or you maintaining your dog’s attention pass by them.  Don’t ask the person to explain themselves, don’t argue with them, “oh but it will be fine!  My dog is friendly!”, and definitely don’t judge them, “Does your dog bite?!” or “Well, you shouldn’t have a dog here if he isn’t friendly!”  No simply means no.  And can be for any large range of reasons.  Everything from training, to safety, to health, to behavior, to just plain I want to enjoy my own dog’s company on our walk today not yours too random stranger.  None of which are your problem or your business.  Respect the no.
  5. If for whatever reason you’ve decided your dog isn’t going to be interacting with strangers at this moment, then you do whatever you do to help your dog stay focused on you.  Resist the pressure to put your dog into a situation you aren’t comfortable with, no matter what the other person says.
  6. Your question on interaction can also be answered non-verbally, read the other person’s body language! If the person is completely focused on trying to maintain their own dog’s behavior skills, and is ignoring you/your dog completely, you’ve found your answer- move on.  I don’t care if their dog is desperately trying to interact, if the person is working to get their dog to focus on them, respect that!  I don’t care if their dog is sitting happily panting and wagging their tail cute as can be, Move On!  Don’t stand there silently waiting for the person to ‘notice’ you want to interact with them.  The person knows you are there!  Or worse, the person thinks you have moved on, breathes a sigh of relief, thinks a nice pleasant thought about what a lovely person you are, then goes to move and ARGH! you’re still there?! WTF?!  Move on!  If the person puts themselves between you and their dog, creating a boundary, Move On!  If the person glares at you between talking sweet nonsense to their own dog, Move on!  If the person is off to the side with their dogs, waiting for your to pass on the street, don’t cross the road or trail so you are now closer to them!  Maintain your space and Move on!  If the person is walking with their dog ignoring you, Move on!  If you give a polite “Hello” or little wave and it’s ignored, or briefly reciprocated accompanied by quick disengagement, Move on.  Don’t stop and talk to the person, don’t give training advice, don’t tell them what a nice dog they have, or what a handful of a dog they have, just Move On!  Another clue can also be, observe the dog’s gear!  If it’s in a guide dog harness or service dog vest, chances are an automatic, Move on!  Don’t wait for the person to swear at you before you get the clue!  Move on!

And really folks that’s all there is to it.  Not a lot of steps.  Really it boils down to: 1. Default assumption for no interaction, so get your dog’s attention on you as a default before all else.  2.  Communicate both verbally and non verbally.  And of course the all important: Respect the communication you are receiving.  No means no.

Your neighbors, fellow walkers and trail mates will all appreciate you more for it.  As will your dog.  Promise.

Tom in harness says, “Yes I know I’m super cute and good, but when I’m in harness don’t talk to me!”


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