Seattle Walkabulls helps leash-reactive dogs overcome obstacles
What's your definition of a leash-reactive dog?
I always thought it was a dog who reacted aggressively towards other dogs whenever it was on a leash but was otherwise well-behaved. But recently I learned that no standard definition of a leash-reactive dog exists.
A dog can be classified as leash-reactive if it exhibits any one of several different behaviors when it's on a leash, including, but not limited to:
- intense fear when it meets other dogs or people
- excessive enthusiasm when it meets another dog which usually manifests itself through overagressive play
- extreme anxiety/fear around other dogs
- inabiiity to behave calmly when other dogs are around
I learned this and many other facts about leash-reactive dogs from my walk with the Seattle WalkaBulls earlier this month.
The group was started by Sandra Becka last February after she adopted her pit bull-mix Shiloh who can get anxious on leash when he sees other dogs.
She heard about a group called Chicago SociaBulls that held walks for leash-reactive dogs, so she based Seattle WalkaBulls on the model they used.
Seattle WalkaBulls describes itself as "a community of dogs and people who gather together to socialize, exercise, and to represent the responsible human-and-dog relationship."
Some people may think that the group is limited to pit bulls because of the "bulls" in Walkabulls, but the group accepts and supports all breeds and is "inclusive of various personalities,"issues", and sociability."
I met Sandra, Shiloh, and several other dogs and their people in a parking lot outside Century Link Field the Sunday of the Seattle Seahawks home opener against the Dallas Cowboys (more on that later).
Before the walk, Sandra explained the rules of the group:
- Dogs must stay 5-10 feet apart and never have any physical contact with each other
- Only 1 dog per human
- On your first walk with the group you must walk without your dog to experience how the group works and assess how your dog will fit in
- Each walk has 2 dogless walkers to safely intercept any dog that may be off-leash in the area, answer questions about the group, and be a general problem solver in case the group runs into any problems
- No retractable or flexible leashes
- Bring high value treats that you give your dog only on Seattle Walkabulls walks to bring its attention back to you when it reacts to something while on-leash
As I spoke with Sandra, group members and their dogs began arriving and positioned themselves properly with several feet of space between each dog. The group had some pit bulls/pit bull-mixes, but at least half were other breeds.
While we were waiting I saw some people I knew like Danette Johnston from Dog's Day Out with her pit bull-mix Rufus and Kara Main-Hester from the Seattle Animal Shelter with Lilac, the dog she was fostering. Both dogs were there because they can get overly excited on-leash with other dogs around, but neither had an agressive bone in their bodies.
I also saw the woman I that housesits for our pets, Elizabeth Kander of Citizen Canine with her kids and their pit bull Charlotte who they rescued in New Orleans during Mardi Gras this year. Charlotte had no aggression problems on-leash either - she just needed to learn how to stay calm and relaxed.
Sandra emphasized that Seattle Walkabulls is not just about helping dogs learn how to behave on-leash. One of the group's goals is to educate people about dogs, like pit bulls, that are unfairly stereotyped.
I asked her if the group encountered anyone who expressed fear about the pit bulls in the group while they walked. She said it happened twice.
On one walk, a boy asked if he could pet her dog. When she said he could, he said his parents told him those dogs would bite him. Sandra explained that wasn't the case and he ended up petting Shiloh (with no problem of course).
On another outing, as the group walked past a man with his kid someone heard him say something like, "those kind of dogs are dangerous and will hurt you so stay away from them."
The walk started a little later than expected because many Seahawk fans had already taken the parking spots near the stadium so they could start tailgating at 9AM for the game.
I could tell that several of the fans who were already, uh, well-lubricated, were perplexed by the group of people standing quietly about 10 feet apart from each other and periodically giving treats to their dogs.
While we waited I walked around the group to meet some of the people and their dogs. None of the dogs were there because they were aggressive on-leash.
Most of them just weren't socialized well when they were puppies so they didn't know how to behave around other dogs. Others were fearfull around strange dogs. One of them was fearfull of people and dogs she didn't know.
I met one sweet dog named Penny who was fearful because she had been abused as a puppy. The police found her in a hotel during a drug bust, being prepared for dog fighting.
The people with her had just cut off most of one of her ears, a common practice by dog fighters, and were preparing to cut the other as the police arrived.
Once everyone arrived we started the walk in single file. The plan was to walk from the stadium to a small park on the water near the port and back. Most of the walks are about 60-90 minutes.
Sandra was concerned about how the dogs would react with all the noise created by the tailgaters and vendors outside the stadium but none of the dogs had any problems with them.
The only hitch on the walk came when we came to the train tracks under Highway 99. The crossing gates were down because a train was on the tracks, and we had to wait for about 15 minutes until we could cross. Between the rumbling of the train and the nonstop clanging of the bell at the crossing, the noise was almost unbearable.
A couple of the dogs got overly excited while we waited, but their people immediately took them aside to give them their special treats, and they calmed down almost immediately.
When we arrived at the park we had a water break and a quick rest, and then we headed back to the stadium.
Sandra said a new dog and its person was going to join us for the walk back, and their appearance caused a bit of anxiety for Shiloh, who began to whine and tug on his leash because he didn't recognize them. He quickly calmed down after Sandra gave him treats and put a little more distance between him and the new dog.
The rest of the walk was uneventful - no fighting, no growling, no leash aggression. Just a bunch of dogs desperately trying to overcome whatever human-created circumstances beyond their control that unfairly impair their ability to be calm on-leash at all times.
And they do try. They try so hard you can sense it.
They WANT to be perfect on-leash. They WANT to please their people. They WANT the chance to validate the choice of the person who saw something inside them that made him/her think "You're the dog I want."
This is what Seattle Walkabulls is about - giving these dogs the opportunity to overcome whatever obstacles humans have placed in their paths.
Sadly, Sandra is moving back to Chicago, but the fact that others in Seattle Walkabulls have stepped up to ensure that the group will continue is a testament to the commitment they have to help their dogs.
If you have a leash-reactive dog, this group will provide support and direction to help you need to help your dog overcome whatever fears it may have and make daily walks less harrowing for both of you.
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