Tuesday at the park Silas did something that he hasn’t done in a long time–he barked at someone who tried to pet him. He had learned, finally, that if he didn’t want to be petted he could walk away. I was so proud.
This particular encounter was a bad setup. Just as we got out of our car, the person parked next to us went to get in to her car. Silas had to walk past her at close range to get out, plus we were in a place (the parking lot) where Silas is already nervous. The lady was obviously not a dog person–Silas was shrinking and crouching to get past her, and she reached out for him. Then he jumped up on her barking. Ooops.
That particular behavior has worried me for a long time, because it is so dangerous. Silas has no intention of biting anyone, but with jumping plus barking all it takes is for someone’s hand to be in the wrong place for there to be incidental tooth contact. Plus, I’m always afraid that the person is going to startle and make some kind of noise that escalates the situation in a bad way, even if it’s just to reinforce Silas’s fear that people are unpredictable and scary. Not to mention that nobody likes being barked at.
Lesson one: get quicker about asking people not to pet him. I wasn’t expecting a person there, so I didn’t get my words out in time.
It also highlighted a bigger, but much more subtle mistake that I’ve been making.
It has been months since Silas met another person.
I haven’t been avoiding them deliberately, but it’s surprisingly easy. I take him to the park while most people are at work. Over the summer I had no choice but to avoid the parks that fill up with children–there’s just no margin for error with children and a nervous dog. The most popular running trails are too close to the road, and most of the die-hard, willing-to-go-out-at-100-degrees people are over there. That leaves Silas and I pretty much alone in the park. We do see people, but all summer it’s been at a distance. Aside from the behaviorist (who quite deliberately limits her physical interaction with her patients) and her staff (who haven’t been involved in our more recent appointments), I can’t remember when Silas was within leash distance of an unfamiliar person.
Somehow I stopped taking him to the local pet store, which is his “safe place” to meet people. We’ve been to PetSmart once or twice, but it’s a big store and, again, it’s easier than you would expect to get in and out without actually encountering anyone at close range. Especially because I know better than to try waiting in the checkout line. If I’d realized how important they were, I would have kept up our trips to the smaller store, but I was focusing on other things.
I feel like I keep learning the same lesson over and over again: you cannot assume that your anxious dog is “over something” and that you can devote all your energy to the next problem. Maybe one of these times it will stick.