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Hey, Pal, Your Dog Needs Help
How to intervene when a dog needs an advocate?
Daisy captured at a particularly well-behaved moment.

It was a glorious Sunday afternoon in the park. My husband and I were having a lovely time at our friends’ impromptu baby shower, a picnic with lots of snacks, sangria and lawn games. Everyone was basking in the sun and celebrating the happy occasion.

Everyone except Sparky.

Sparky the Lab mix was tied to a nearby tree. He had a long lead and plenty of water, but he was clearly agitated. He seemed concerned about his “territory” from the get-go, barking warnings at newcomers to the party and pacing almost constantly. At one point, I refilled his water dish and when I bent down to put it on the ground, Sparky jumped at my face, snapping his jaws and headbutting me. It hurt.

Nobody seemed to see it. Sparky’s owners were the couple being feted, and I didn’t want to spoil the fun. I didn’t say anything.

As the park began to fill with weekend revelers—and their dogs and toddling children—Sparky’s protectiveness increased. He was on guard full-time now. More than once, passersby smiled and came closer to Sparky, attracted by his classic Labrador handsomeness. As soon as they crossed the invisible border of Sparky’s kingdom, he charged, barking ferociously. Hands that reached out to pet were swiftly retracted, and smiles turned into scowls.

“Sparky!” one of his owners would shout distractedly. Then, “Oh, Sparky,” with a sigh.

It happened over and over again. I started to worry that Sparky would go after a kid. But I never said anything.

I felt conflicted. What would I have said? This was a special day for Sparky’s parents. Should I have pointed out their dog’s anxiousness, basically forcing them to cut the party short to take Sparky home? But what if the dog actually hurt someone? I’d feel far worse about that.

It’s a tricky situation. Much like parents and their children, pointing out a dog’s behavioral issues can offend the owner. When it’s a good friend or a family member who’s got “The Bad Dog,” the touchiness factor is far higher. You don’t want to come off as critical of your friend, or ruin a precious moment, but you also don’t want anyone to get hurt. And in Sparky’s case, he was uncomfortable, too.

I’m not always a shrinking violet when it comes to misbehaving pooches. My husband and I essentially got a woman kicked out of our apartment building for refusing to leash her dog. The dog was dog-aggressive, and the owner either didn’t know or care to control her animal. It even tried to push its way into our apartment once to get at our dog.

After woman-to-woman pleas, gentle reminders and, eventually, confrontations, we finally had the guts to file formal complaints. She was evicted—just because she couldn’t find the wherewithal to consistently leash her dog. Despite verbal reports from other neighbors, we were the only ones who approached the management with the problem in writing.

But I barely knew that woman beyond her first name. It’s far different when a person you care about has a dog that’s potentially harmful.

It’s not like I think I’m a behavior expert. I know that my dog is sometimes The Bad Dog. She’s aggressive toward other dogs and not great on the leash. We’re working on it, though, and we try to be realistic about her bad behavior and our limitations. I just don’t know what to do when it’s someone else’s dog who’s lashing out.

Have you ever had to confront a friend or family member about their dog’s behavior? How did you do it, and how did it go over?


Kathleen St. John is a freelance writer for target The Denver Post and The Onion's A.V. Club, and a lifelong dog lover. She lives in Denver, Colo., with her husband, John, and her dog, Daisy, who's a mix of just about everything. avclub.com
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Submitted by Lisa | September 27 2011 |

I think in that situation I might have approached the owner and offered to take the dog for a walk to give it some relief from the stress, get it away from the noise and distraction of the baby shower, and allow it to work off some energy.

Maybe I would have said something like "Sparky looks a bit stressed out. Why don't I take him for a short walk while you enjoy the shower some more?"

Submitted by Anonymous | September 28 2011 |

Another thing that might have been possible is to couch the message within comments/confessions about your own dog's behavior. Something like this: "How about I take Sparky for a walk -- he's acting like he needs to blow off steam. We have this problem with Spot (Fido, Rover), who gets agitated to the point where he really can't be trusted to be safe around strangers (other dogs, kids, whatever)." Or some such thing. That sort of diffuses the accusation/criticism potential and turns it into information; you're in her shoes with your dog and DO something about it.

Submitted by Anonymous | September 28 2011 |

i would go right over to them and tell them they have a problem with their dog. if they do not like it---tough.

Submitted by Anonymous | September 28 2011 |

never a family member, but i did have to confront my neighbor whose dog kept attacking mine while we were on leash. she refused to keep hers on leash. after talking face to face with her twice and having her assure me she always had her dog on a leash, i sent her a letter telling her that my next step would be to call animal control. the two times i talked with her, she only told me what she thought i wanted to hear. she never followed through. lucky for us, they moved! i think if it were a family member or a friend, I would probably talk to them about the problem

Submitted by Rachel | September 28 2011 |

That poor dog! Perhaps offering to take the dog home to where he is comfortable, and not under constant stimulation. They aren't letting him enjoy the party, so why do they feel he needs to be there?
If there is more to the behaviour than just frustration with being tied outside the zone of activity, then maybe a subscription to Whole Dog Journal or a gift certificate for a positive reinforcement training class to help them prepare the dog for the new baby.
I am concerned for that dog when the baby comes if this is their attitude now - people wait too long to address the issue and then just want to surrender the dog and by then are not in a position to take the time to work with him.
Please try to say something, maybe one-on-one with the mother in the context of having a new baby and a dog to handle and getting help for him NOW. Or maybe a guy-to-guy talk from your husband would be less likely to create resentment, mother may be overwhelmed.

Submitted by Kathleen St. J. | September 28 2011 |

I actually thought of taking the dog home, too - as I was writing this piece! Whoops.

Submitted by JQ | September 29 2011 |

Perhaps its my age. I no longer ignore or turn away from a situation such as this. Maybe I would try it diplomatically, but I would have had to point out that their dog was clearly uncomfortable and should be taken care of or taken home. As I raised my dog, I taught her what she needed to know in order to live with me. Conversly, she taught me what I needed to know in order to live with her. Too many people only concentrate on the former. Those people probably shouldn't have dogs.

Submitted by r suarez | October 28 2011 |

You need to know the limits of your dog like you would with kids. Our dog isn't a fan of other dogs and that was before she went blind. While I would love her to come with us everywhere it just isn't the right thing for her. The couple should have realized that baby showers aren't a dog's thing and left her home/boarded. I don't bring out my kids for dinner if they didn't nap so why would I bring my dog to a human party and then ignore it? I hope they will practice some parenting on the dog before the baby arrives. Volunteer to takethe the dog (home or for a walk) and after the party haveis for a serious chat about recognizing dog stress. A gift certificate for training mentioned before willthe be the best baby gift for the family to stay a family.

Submitted by Gracie | November 9 2011 |

That's a tough situation. It's hard to intervene, when you're trying to respect others, but these people clearly did not realize what was going on in their dogs head. The best thing would have been for them to keep him near them, holding his leash, or leave him home. It's too bad for the dog.

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