RECENTLY, I VISITED AMERICAN FRIENDS IN the UK who had moved from Dallas to London’s Kensington South. Since relocating, they had adopted a cat and were considering getting a puppy. However, after reviewing their previous dog experiences, they realized that the dogs they raised had not been nearly as well behaved as the dogs they saw in their new city.
As we chatted over drinks, they asked my opinion as a dog trainer: Why were the dogs in London behaved better than the dogs back home? What were dog owners in London doing differently?
I told them I would make it a point to watch dogs as we traveled through England, Belgium and France, and report back to them. Following are my observations.
> Dogs in the UK and in the countries we visited were allowed almost everywhere. We saw them in bakeries in Belgium, inside French toy stores, in the Stonehenge museum, at markets, on elevators, on the trolley, on the train.
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> It was common to see dogs off leash, except in areas where waterfowl were present.
> Children were discouraged from interacting with strangers’ dogs. Over and over, I heard parents tell their children, “Don’t distract them, darling.”
> Owners did not give their dogs obedience commands. I never saw a dog asked to wait before going through a doorway, sit for a pat, stay quiet on a train or lie down under a table. The dogs often did do these things, but they were not asked to do them.
> Young dogs in Europe did the same things as young dogs in America. A nine-month-old black Labrador jumped onto a counter to sniff the cheese selection at the market. A small mixed breed stopped to sniff each interesting spot. When a young Bulldog resisted going down the stairs to the Underground, the owner coaxed him down each new step. A man with a very young puppy walked quickly to keep the puppy from picking up objects he found along the way. Nothing I saw made me think that European dogs were born well behaved.
> The general public ignored the dogs. I never saw anyone ask to pet or give treats to a stranger’s dog. When I approached to inquire about a dog’s age and breed, the response was brief. If I gave a compliment, the answer was often “Oh, that’s very kind.” This noninteraction included other dogs as well. Dogs would see each other or stand near each other but were not allowed to sniff or play.
As I examined my notes, I couldn’t help notice that the way dogs are treated in Europe is strikingly similar to the way we treat (or strive to treat) service dogs in the U.S.
From an early age, the environment created for service dogs is meant to keep them calm and comfortable, which keeps them quiet as well. Young service dogs in training are walked through crowds of people who ignore them. Children are taught not to distract them. The dogs are not able to sniff or play while they’re working. We treat service dogs this way because we understand that interacting with them makes training harder for their handler.
As a dog trainer, I understand how access to many environments and being ignored by strangers creates success for dogs and their people. When strangers frequently offer treats and attention, or allow their dogs to rush into another dog’s space, it produces specific emotional responses, which will arise each time a new person or a strange dog approaches. Sometimes, this emotion is pleasure, but more often, anxiety, over-exuberance or defensive behavior is manifested.
There is no need to ask a dog to sit if no one is approaching. Nor is there a reason a dog would pull toward strangers who have typically ignored him. If being taken to new places were a regular occurrence, it would not excite a dog into lunging through doorways. If barking and pulling were consistently ignored in young dogs, those behaviors could never become a game or a way to get attention.
Unlike the restrictions put on U.S. dog owners, Europeans are able to consistently expose their dogs to new sounds, sights and smells, which mentally enriches the dogs without overstimulating them.
If a dog receives no reinforcement from strangers, the owner will never have to calm an excited dog or manage a fearful one. It gives dogs freedom to focus on their owners because nothing interesting is coming at them from another source. People have the freedom to work or relax with their dogs in a variety of environments without needing to fend off a strange person or dog, and their dogs gain confidence from knowing exactly what to expect.
So when I reported back to my friends, I told them that they should have no trouble raising their puppy to be a well-behaved European dog. Their fellow Londoners would do 75 percent of the work for them by ignoring the dog, keeping their children from interacting with him, allowing him access to a wide range of socialization opportunities, and keeping their own dogs under control. My friends would only need to build a strong bond with their puppy and teach him basic manners. It turns out that it’s not dog owners who are doing things differently across the pond, it’s everybody else.
While opportunities for full public socialization are more limited in the U.S. than they are in Europe, there are still ways to instill European-style behaviors in our dogs.
• Create a neutral experience for your dog in a variety of places. The simplest way is to kindly ask that no one pet your dog while he is on a six-foot leash. The dog will begin to recognize that being on a short leash means ignoring others, and that being let off-leash is a chance to interact and play. (For those without access to safe off-leash areas, putting the dog on a 30-foot training lead works just as well.)
• Reward your dog with praise and attention when he notices other dogs, people, loud noises or things that are new to him, but encourage him to focus on you and maintain a relaxed and calm demeanor. Too much interaction and exuberance can lead the puppy or dog to distraction in the future.
• Keep high-value rewards with you in the event a person or dog rushes in. If walking, continue to walk, and offer your dog a treat once the excitement has passed and your dog begins to look up at you. If sitting, wait for the other dog to leave and reward your dog for refocusing on you.
• Use food toys to your advantage. Practice going to a busy place, sit down, place a food-stuffed toy at your feet and do not let anyone pet your dog. In a few sessions, most dogs will lie down and settle almost immediately when their owner sits.
By being proactive and putting these tips into practice, we can train others to have the same respect for pet dogs in training as they do for service dogs. Who knows—we may be able to influence greater access for our U.S. dogs, which would allow them to be part of our daily lives the way those in Europe are today.