I think one of the most important parts of dog ownership is to expose your dog to new things, even if they might be slightly uncomfortable, so that they can grow. What a dog experiences is limited to what is available to them and we are the main conduit in that learning. The ultimate goal is to not only help them become more confident in different environments but to also build confidence in you as their leader. Hopefully along the way, you will also find yourself growing alongside them.
Pet Friendly Stores
Milo used to be very leash reactive. Not out of a fearful kind of way, but because we had over socialized him as a pup and he thought it was his right to say hello to every dog and human he pleased. They are intelligent and powerful creatures who definitely CAN drag you around to get what they want. We used to be able to take him to pet stores when he was younger (ie. greater weight difference = easier to control) but right around the teenage 8 month – 1.5 year mark, it became pretty much impossible. He was lunging and not listening, stealing treats out of buckets, and in general being a very rude customer. I’ve had to apologize profusely many times and buy random things he picked out for himself and started eating off the shelf.
Clearly, that was unacceptable, so we didn’t bring him into any kind of human or pet orientated establishments for a long time. It was only after I started educating myself on how to get him to focus on me instead of all the distractions around him that I even attempted to bring him even close to our local Petco.
The main thing is, build up to it. Whenever we take any kind of walk outside of our house, he is on his prong collar because I set the expectation that he is on duty and that we are working on training. We started to reteach his manners by walking outside of the store and in parking lots where he was able to see people and dogs, but not interact with them.
But it isn’t always perfect and dogs do have their off days. One time we were doing fantastically by just walking around in a loose heel on the sidewalk of a strip mall. There was a Petco close by, so I decided to walk towards it. I put Milo in a sit close to the entryway just so he could watch what was going on inside and not 5 seconds later, a couple and their young Aussie pup came out of Petco. Milo immediately lunged while on his prong (!!) and scared the pup ****less. I don’t blame them for walking away as fast as they could.
But instead of cutting our training session short, I always strive to end on a good note. I gave him several stern verbal and prong corrections, walked away from the scene, and put him in a down-stay to cool off. Then we resumed our walk but away from the store. He wasn’t ready for it yet, and while we must push boundaries, it’s also important to take a step back sometimes and go at their pace.
We continued this for weeks, eventually entering the store, eventually walking down the aisles, eventually taking him to go buy his food with me, eventually moving from a huge store like Petco to small local pet businesses, and eventually to totally non-pet orientated but pet-friendly places like Home Depot, Lowes, REI, and certain restaurants and bars.
Time and patience are key.
After moving to the Seattle area and working in the city, one of the things that struck me was how pet-friendly this city is (maybe because the very pet friendly Amazon headquarters calls this home). Often on my commutes to work via bus and ferry, I would see dogs riding with their humans and using public transit as if it was perfectly natural for them.
So of course, I also wanted Milo to try as well.
I know what you might be thinking. Milo? On the bus?? But he’s huge!
Well I’ve seen Great Danes sitting between their owner’s legs on the bus like some gigantic out of place floppy horses, so Milo’s size would be no problem. What would be a greater challenge is if he became too excited in a new, fast paced environment.
We tried the bus for the first time last month. Milo was pretty nervous at first. It was a smaller bus that often got crowded with riders to the ferry and nearby college, and the seats were too narrow for him to sit next to me comfortably. Once we started moving, of course he wanted to look out the window. He actually half climbed into my lap so he could look outside! After a quick laugh (and to several other riders’ humor), I told him to settle down and lay by my feet.
Once he realized I was in control of this new situation, he was able to relax. I’m lucky that he was not too anxious and let me instruct him so our ride was quick and pleasant. That said, he was not a very polite canine bus rider – he sprawled all his 80 lbs. out under the seats! It’s hard when you’ve got such long legs!
Washington State Ferries
I’ve actually taken Milo on the ferry several times, but previously we stayed below and walked around the car deck. I figured it would be important to build up to being where the people are.
To help set him up for success, walking in the car deck area helped him become used to the feeling of being on such a large vibrating surface. I take some sort of bus and ferry to commute every day and I’ve seen very nervous dogs whining, panting, and barking from being in an unknown environment. While I understand that some situations require spontaneous travel and there isn’t any time to desensitize a dog, I do think there needs to be communication between handler and companion. In some cases, those dogs were clearly nervous but their owners did nothing to help alleviate their fears. Remember that these are sentient creatures who rely on us for guidance and assurance.
Since I had been working with Milo to rely on my leadership, he remained calm and obedient while we were waiting in line for the ferry. A couple of people came up and asked to pet him, which I allowed once he sat down politely. He was also walking in a loose heel next to me as hundreds of people filed onto the ferry. Although he was probably well behaved enough to sit inside (official rules state that pets must be kept to outside areas) as I’ve seen many other dogs do, we opted to stay outside to enjoy the breeze on this gorgeously sunny day. Since I set him up to do well, Milo appeared to enjoy the hour long ferry ride and I caught him sniffing the air and taking in the view.
Reflections and Future Goals
Several people have approached me on our outings and remarked on how beautiful and well behaved he is. When we are settled, I like to take the opportunity and have open conversations on how much work it took to get him to this level of comfort. I think a lot of people have prejudices of GSDs and other big dogs as being aggressive, nervy, scary, or overly “protective” of their owners. The thing with these creatures is that they are highly intelligent and will most certainly make their feelings known and act on their instincts if there is no one is there to lead them. If a handler is not being a sufficient and communicative leader, the dog will feel like it needs to step up instead. This can lead to uncomfortable and dangerous situations, particularly for large-breed dogs (eg. a “protective” dog might be barking and lunging out of fear and wanting to defend itself, not its owner). So while not many people are natural born pack leaders, anyone can learn to be one.
I strive for balance. I want for Milo to experience all that he can while also being mindful of me and his surroundings. I want for him to know what is acceptable behavior and what is not – and he knows that when he acts accordingly, I allow him his freedom to be everything a dog should be. Since we are building trust and respect for each other, doors are open to us.
One of our fun goals this summer is to do more water activities and eventually kayak together! Milo is actually quite afraid of the water and is always reluctant to go any deeper than his belly. He’s certainly not a swimming dog but he’ll play water fetch all day. We’ll start by motivating him to become more comfortable with deeper water over time, then work on getting him comfortable with a kayak on land, and eventually move on to being on a kayak in the water.
Wish us luck!