Update: What Shiva and I did to avoid disaster

wpid-wp-1407029384819.jpegFirst, I want to thank you again for your amazing response to my question yesterday. I knew it would be fascinating and you proved me right. I loved hearing about your unique dogs and your varied approaches to what could have been a dicey situation. As I read through your comments, I learned several things and none were what I expected.

1. I learned that Shiva’s reactivity – or, assholery – has become much less of an issue than it ever was. There is nothing like a sharp blast of reality to give one perspective. I had forgotten what it was like to walk a dog who loses it at the sight of another dog in the same ten-mile radius. You reminded me and made me realize Shiva can almost pass for normal these days. Perhaps this is why other owners are bugging me so much more. They aren’t running away with their dogs clutched in their arms at the sight of my maniac puppy. I kind of miss those days. But only a little.

2. Space is a personal issue. Everything is a personal issue. Reactivity is one name for very different behaviours and causes. I loved finding out your diverse techniques and ways of keeping stress to a minimum. I had to laugh at the commenter who said she would just wait it out and let her dog bark, she was so used to it that it hardly bothered her anymore. Our fears and experiences lead us down assorted paths but we all have the same goals. I got warm fuzzies from all the supportive comments. It’s lovely to commiserate with people who get it, isn’t it?

3. My theory was wrong. Of all the people who shared their thoughts, no one did the same thing I did. It surprised me. I was most interested by the commenter who chose to go toward the off-leash dog with the lawn mower. That would have been my last choice. It shows how individual every dog-human partnership is.

Now I guess I should tell you how I handled the situation. 

What I did:

I looked at the large off-leash dog and reckoned he was definitely going to approach if we moved any closer. I then looked back at the two medium-sized dogs who were now drifting down the road, noses to the ground, leash handles dragging, as their human balanced her phone in the crook of her shoulder and fiddled with her keys. It took me a second to decide: I crossed the street and took my chances with the dog walker and her wee crew.

The result:

Shiva and I dawdled a decent distance behind the dog walker. I know she saw us and when we crossed she picked up her pace. The dog who had growled looked back at us once but joined his buddies and followed the human’s lead. I made sure to keep enough space between us for Shiva and the other dogs to feel comfortable. At the end of the block, the dog walker turned down another street and we kept going straight. Crisis averted.

Why the dog walker?

Out of all three, the dog walker was the only human paying attention. Shiva’s biggest issues these days are caused by dogs who approach her off-leash when she is on. After she suffered a cut to her eye this year, I won’t put her in a situation in which she feels threatened any more. Not if I can help it anyway. I can’t trust dogs with people who aren’t watching or who are ignorant enough to leave them loose in an unfenced area by a road.

I also had more information than you. The loose dog with the lawn mower was a Doodle we have encountered in the past. I have spoken to his owner and asked him to leash the dog while we passed. He gave me a blank stare.

There is another factor that might apply only to us. Shiva has respect for small dogs. I am not sure why but she will usually back off if a small dog takes umbrage. If a larger dog barks or growls at her, or gets in her space, she will fight back. If a little dog does it, she licks her lips, looks away, and gives any number of other calming signals to show she means no harm. Thus, the Chihuahuas and Manchester Terriers were a safer bet.

All in all, Shiva’s reactivity to other dogs has never been as bad as her reactivity toward strange people. It was an easier thing to work on for us and after a year or two, we could walk down the road several metres behind another dog without too many problems. I would much rather face a pack of off-leash dogs than a crowd of men in hats, or a school bus full of excited children.


Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I hope you learned something too from all of the incredible ideas in the comments. I really appreciate you humouring me. I may have to try something like this again.

Polling all reactive dog owners and walkers

Out of pure scientific curiosity, I would like to pose a question to all those who have experience walking reactive dogs. It is based on a scenario I encountered last evening. I have a theory that I might be wrong about and I would be extremely grateful if you are able to take a moment to lend me your opinions. There are, as they say, no wrong answers.

No wrong answers, just like there are no bad dogs

No wrong answers, just like there are no bad dogs

Picture this:

It is a warm summer evening and you are strolling along a quiet residential street, enjoying the soft breeze and the rustle of leaves in the tall trees. Your best canine friend is walking next to you, stopping here and there to sniff at a tree trunk or blade of grass. As you pause to watch him, or her, investigate a pebble, you glance up ahead and realize things are about to get dicey.

On one side of the street you see a single large dog standing in a front yard. The dog is watching you with interest, tail swinging at medium height. This dog takes two steps toward you and you realize he or she is not restrained. Behind the dog you see the owner mowing the lawn.

Easy to handle, right? Cross the street.

Not so fast. When you look over, on the other side you see a five small dogs and another larger dog being walked by one person. The dogs have seen you and your dog and one emits a low growl. The dog walker is moving at a very slow pace and looks to be a professional based on the t-shirt he or she is wearing to advertise a dog-walking business.

Well, it’s unfortunate, but you will just have to go back the way you came.

Alas, when you turn around, you see two medium sized dogs being walked down the middle of the road on extendable leads. The dogs don’t seem to see you and neither does their owner who is talking on a cell phone. The owner stops by a car and puts the leash handles on the ground while he or she tries to unlock the door.

What do you do?

Thank you very much for taking the time to share your thoughts. Once I receive your comments, I will tell you what I did and why.

Dear ignorant Edmontonian dog owners

I know you are doing the best you can with the resources you have. In all fairness, you don’t know any better. You have a dog but you put no effort toward learning how that dog lives and behaves and interacts with the human environment. You are lucky, however, as your dog was born more gentle, more forgiving, and more tolerant than many dogs. I don’t blame your dog, please know this. It is never, ever the dog’s fault. The only one who should bear any guilt is you.

You are the owner who brags about never having to use a leash and then exclaims “she never does that!” when your dog tears across the street after another dog.

You are the owner talking on his cell phone at the dog park, not caring when your dog’s overly friendly actions cause distress to others.

You are the owner who gives me a blank look when I ask you to please get a hold of your dog as my dog and I pass in an on-leash park.

You are the owner who cries how his dog was abused as a justification for her asshole behaviour.

You are the owner who never scoops and then complains when my dog marks on a tree on the public boulevard in front of your house.

You are the owner who walks multiple dogs on extendable leashes and blasts my dog for riling them up from the other side of the street.

You are the owner who ignores my warning that my dog is not keen on strange dogs lunging in her face, and then flips out at me when she growls.

You are the owner who alpha rolls instead of trying to understand the reason behind your dog’s actions.

You are the owner who relies on tools to do your work for you but don’t bother to learn how to use them properly.

You are the owner with the electric fence and the broken chain and the over-used crate.

You are the owner taking pictures of your children climbing on your dog’s back and chasing him with sticks.

You are the owner who demands that all dogs be friendly to everyone at all times but is too lazy to train her own dog.

You are the owner who euthanizes without asking questions when her dog snaps at a child.

You are the owner with the miniature labradoodle on television, demanding the reinstatement of BSL, asking why anyone would want to own “those dogs”.

You are the owner who dominates rather than builds a relationship.

You are the owner who blames everyone else.

You are the owner who rants about the boxer-pit bull-malamute “or whatever it was” and how it should be banned from your city just because one dog who kind of looked like that breed hurt another dog.

You are the owner who doesn’t love dogs, not really. If you did, you would spend more time learning and training. If you did, you would put your dog ahead of your ego. If you did, you would learn the local by-laws and do your best to keep all dogs safe. Most of you might love your own dogs. I will give you that. But not enough, not the way responsible owners do.

You are the owner who views her dog as a status symbol, who spends a lot of money on grooming and outfits or spike collars to make her look tough but almost no time.

You are small in number yet your presence is felt on every street. The responsible owners know how to avoid you but you have a way of ruining the happiest of strolls. You are impossible to ignore. You are the reason the laws exist yet you never follow them.

I know you won’t listen to me, even if you read this. I am under no illusion. You don’t listen when I ask you nicely to re-leash your dog on the side of the road so you aren’t going to take a blog post by a stranger to heart. Besides, you don’t think I am talking about you.

I am not writing this because I am expecting anything to change. You don’t care what I think and you certainly don’t care about my dog’s discomfort with your dog’s behaviour.

All I ask is that you stop blaming the dog. All I want is to prevent the harmful notion of BSL from hurting the good dogs and good people of this good city. I worry your ignorance will lead to something that will only make the situation worse. Blaming dogs instead of the real culprits solves nothing. It doesn’t prevent your miniature cockadoodle from getting attacked. All it does is spread a culture of fear toward dogs who were unlucky enough to have owners like you.

Please stop. Stop going to the media. We all know they smile with glee every time a canine incident is reported. Stop feeding that machine. Stop using the term “pit bull” as a synonym for “dangerous.”  I assure you, the two are mutually exclusive.

If you stop blaming dogs for their ignorant owner’s mistakes, I will stop glaring at you when your Siberian labra-chug tries to hump my dog.

Well, I will try, anyway.


Kristine Tonks, lover of all dogs, including Hungarian cocker-jacks.

Rules, What are They Good For?

IMG_20140315_135815Rules. Dogs need them. Every book I read before we adopted Shiva dictated this. Dogs require clear and consistent boundaries. Dogs need to know what is acceptable behaviour with no deviation. Rigid structure. All four on the floor. No affection without exercise and discipline first. Humans must state the law and never give in. No take-backsies. If we slide a little, dogs will think they own the place and turn into aggressive, drywall-munching monsters. Nom nom. Peaceful co-existence of dogs and humans is not possible unless the human is in control at all times. Rules keep everyone safe. Rules keep dogs from eating our houses. Rules keep dogs out of animal shelters.

These are things we all desire.

Once again, I find myself in a place of deep shame. Back when we lived in a world filled with obedience instructors and training regimens – in other words, the land that time forgot – our lives were bordered with decrees like “no dogs on the furniture” and “no dogs in the bedroom”. There was even everyone’s favourite canine statute: “no begging allowed.”Oh, how black and white Shiva’s realm was then. How absurd she must have thought us, we naive humans who imagined making her enter the house last meant we were in charge. As if the order in which one eats has anything to do with familial bonding. If the semi-parade we formed in each doorway made any significant difference in how she conducted herself, I don’t recall noticing anything.

On the other hand, my dog’s sit-stay continues to soothe my lazy trainer’s soul.

That's right, we win all the medals.

That’s right, we win all the medals.

I should be embarrassed by how many rules we no longer enforce. It connotes a sort of undress, an almost déshabillé quality to the way we run our household. Perhaps if we add a little more uniformity to the way we organize our lives our dreams would be less deluded. Alas, I kind of like our mess.

Certain dog trainers would be stunned by how lax we have become, and yet our dog has not run like a savage through the streets. The former me would be just as surprised by how accepting I am of Shiva’s libertine habits. For example, here are some of the rules we used to demand:

1. No dogs on the furniture.

Simple. Shouldn’t have been hard to uphold. Yet, this slid into, “dogs only on the furniture with express permission”. And then became “dogs on the furniture if they dog a cute trick first.” Which is now, “dogs on all the furniture whenever they please.”

This doesn't look very comfortable...

This doesn’t look very comfortable…

2. Dogs sleep in their crates.

This one took a bit longer to lose it’s significance but it eventually became “dogs sleep on the couch or the bed in the spare room.” And then “dogs can sleep in the bedroom but on their own bed.” And now, “dogs sleep on our bed every single night”

Ugh. I still don’t know how this one happened.

3. Dogs aren’t allowed in the kitchen.

This rule probably hit the garbage can the fastest. Don’t get me wrong, it is still technically in the law books. There is just no precedent for upholding it. The judge lets Shiva off with a warning every single time. In practice, the rule has now become more of a “dogs can be in the kitchen as long as they don’t steal things off the counters or get in the human’s way, but if they do get in the way, it’s okay as long as they look cute.” Or something. We are still working this out.

DSC_0188There are all sorts of other rules that I have forgotten about at this point. Decrees about no cat chasing (now acceptable, as long as one is quiet about it) and posted ordinances about no people food, ever, or how dogs must lay on their mats when people are eating. It is a vague memory, but I also recall something about dogs not being allowed to look out windows or run zoomies around the living room.


No doubt my PH could remember many more than I. There is no disputing the fact that I am the softie of the lot. Though I maintain we are better off this way, Shiva’s wild nature, and our lack of interior decoration, might speak something a little different.

If rules are so important for a dog’s sanity, our laissez-faire attitude could be part of the problem. Maybe I should re-instill some of the order I’d intended five years ago. Remind Shiva who is Alpha. Teach her not to jump on me when I get home from. Let her cry it out and guide her back into her crate every night. In her own room, downstairs. Only pet her when she is lying calmly on the floor. Refuse to share my veggies and turn away from her adorable pleading face. Finally teach this mutt some household manners.

Life would be much more structured. I might even be able to own nice things. Shiva will know what is expected and I will be able to read my book without a tongue lapping at the pages. We will be nice and calm and predictable.

Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? On second thought, I am happy with my speckled canine tyrant. Maybe other people couldn’t live like we do, with everything left on the floor fair game for Shiva’s jaws, but I think of it as our own adventure. We may never achieve greatness, we may always remain le maison de rêveurs égarés, but we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves. We revel in our mess.

Are there any rules you have tossed out after a several years of dog ownership? Or are you better at maintaining these than we are? Should we feel ashamed for letting Shiva get away with everything but murder? Is it possible to let Shiva be a dog while still creating a magazine-worthy home?

Sentimental Sunday: Off Leash Freedom

mms_20140308_123702The hardest part of living where we do is the lack of safe, off leash areas within walking distance. In Halifax, Shiva was accustomed to running without restraint six days out of seven. We took our isolated forests for granted, never thinking that one day we’d be relegated to paths – or worse – residential sidewalks, for the majority of our adventures. Edmonton is a city filled with dog parks of numerous sizes and the largest continuous green space in North America. Once the trail system is connected by all seven municipalities along the North Saskatchewan River, the resulting 88 kilometres of park will be the largest in the world.

Too bad designated off leash areas don’t make up very much of this space.

I don’t want to whine. Shiva and I have it pretty good. The ravine is a beautiful place to walk in all seasons and there are numerous leash free zones within driving distance.

Too bad driving is my greatest fear in all of fearland. Getting over that will take a lifetime.

No doubt there are dogs who have it much worse. Some dogs who live in the inner city, for instance, may never know what it is like to scrawl up a cliff side or chase a porcupine up a tree. Running without a leash is a privilege, not a right. Shiva can be just as satisfied without it.

Can’t she?


I’d like to believe so. The part of me that is still grieving for the confidence I had before Shiva’s autumn injury, likes to think she can be just as happy if she never runs free again. However, the part of me that sees how much she has slowed down since our Halifax days worries just as much.

I have to face it. Shiva is not as fast as she used to be pre-injury and pre-Edmonton. She still looks good but I know her levels of physical fitness have declined. She grows tired much faster and she’d never be able to keep up with her old Vizsla agility pal any more. It makes me feel terrible, like I have failed her once again.

mms_20140308_123720A Shiva isn’t a Shiva unless she gets to run. Speed is something that has always defined her. She used to be the dog park fitness guru, the one who stirred all the other dogs into action. She is the instigator, the bratface, the tornado.

It isn’t that she isn’t still these things sometimes, her twister-like behaviour has not gone away even on our more relaxed strolls, but there is a noticeable change in her energy. It could be age, that’s true, but it isn’t that simple either.

Maybe it is okay if she isn’t the roadster she used to be. Our lifestyles have changed and she doesn’t seem to be suffering for it in any emotional sense. But I worry. I don’t miss the stress of handling a crazy demon but I do miss the fun. I can’t help but wonder if she misses it too.

Less Wordy Wednesday: Only Love

I love this dog. It is that easy. She isn’t super smart and she ate all of my shoes, but I love her just the same.


Only love gets me up at five-thirty every morning. Only love prevents me from crying when the thing I just pulled from her mouth smells ranker than a teenaged boy’s hockey gear. Only love has me sighing and washing my hands in the snow before carrying on with our walk.


She is crazy and annoying and destructive. She makes me worry and she keeps me up at night and she gets peanut butter on my clean work pants.


She changed my life. She helped me discover a new passion. She gave me more confidence than I’ve ever felt and she taught me patience, something my mother never thought possible. She makes me a better person. She isn’t my “heart dog”, whatever that even means, but she is my first dog, and she always will be.


I feel sorry for all those people who don’t get it, who have never been lucky enough to love a dog, who treat them like disposable toys. Or worse. Dogs aren’t easy to understand and they often cause trouble. But they have so much to give. It is only our loss if we choose to ignore or shove them aside.


I love this dog. It doesn’t even matter if she loves me.

Real Life Confession #85: Things For Which I Will Not Apologize

018Shiva the dog is a dog. She makes a lot of mistakes. I am a human. I make a lot of mistakes when I am handling her. I am happy to own up to these gaffes. In fact, I have been happy to take the blame for every misstep ever made by a human since the beginning of time. Ones that included dogs and ones that did not.

For thirty-two years I have retracted, I have repented, and I have redressed things that happened under my supervision and things that happened when I wasn’t in the area code. It is always my fault.

But there are straws and there are camels and there are backs.* After all of this time I am drawing a line. There are now certain things, dog-related things, for which I will no longer apologize. I vow:

1. I will not apologize when my dog reacts to another dog who invades her space when the other dog’s owner is disobeying city bylaws. These bylaws include not being off-leash outside of designated areas and not being on a leash that exceeds two metres in length. So to the man walking the dog on the extendable leash in Old Strathcona tonight? I am not sorry Shiva snapped and otherwise flipped out at your dog. Your dog, while perfectly lovely I am sure, should not have been able to cross the road to get in her face. This was your fault, kind sir, not mine. You should apologize to me.

2. I will not apologize when I break the bylaws and annoy someone else who is also breaking the bylaws, especially when my flouting of the rules does less harm. So to the man walking the dog on the extendable leash – this seems to be a common law-breaking habit – in the ravine Wednesday morning? I am not sorry I failed to re-leash my dog in an on-leash area. It was dark and your dog was trotting so far away from you I assumed her or she was off-leash as well. My dog obviously did too which is why she was clotheslined on your illegal leash’s cord. I am not sorry we irritated you. I am sorry your leash almost hurt my dog.

3. I will not apologize when my dog slips her collar and gets an illegally off-leash dog riled up to the extent he or she cannot be recalled. This is not my fault. If your dog does not have a solid recall with all distractions, including nutty on-leash dogs, he or she should not be off-leash in an on-leash area. So to everyone who walks their dogs off-leash in the clearing of the ravine every weekend morning? You have been warned. The next time, I might just let her go on purpose.

4. I will not apologize when my dog lunges at people who stand behind trees and then leap out in front of me. Especially when it is dark. You are lucky all she does is bark.

I'm just a dog in the world. That's all that I wanna beeeee.

I’m just a dog in the world. That’s all that I wanna beeeee.

5. I will not apologize when my dog sets off dogs whose handlers are walking them in groups of five down the middle of the road on extendable leashes. The size of the dogs is irrelevant. My dog deserves to walk in peace as much as those belonging to other people. If I can walk on the sidewalk and keep my dog in her own space, other people can too. If my dog’s presence is so arousing that your dogs just can’t take it? You need to do some training. I recommend starting by walking one at a time on a shorter leash.

Am I being unfair? Is there anything for which you refuse to apologize?

*Line shamelessly stolen from one of my favourite Canadian films. Betcha can’t guess which one.