I feel like everywhere I go, I’m encountering material for my blog.  Dogs are everywhere.  I’m starting to realize that living in a “doggy Mecca” like Toronto, where people casually talk about calming signals and organic dog food as thought they’re discussing the weather, has left me spoiled rotten.  I forget that it’s really quite different when you leave the city.  Granted, there are pockets of amazingly educated people all over the province, but it’s much harder to find when you’re in rural areas.

This past weekend I packed up my camping gear and headed up to to Tobermory, which is about 4 hours North on the Georgian Bay.  Science-based dog trainers are about as rare as a reliable phone signal.  Thanks to the decal on my car, I’m constantly being stopped by people wanting to know what to do about this or that crazy thing their dogs do and I’m always happy to hear people’s stories.  This weekend I was staying at a campground that doubles (at the front) as a gas station and convenience store.  There was an absolutely gorgeous dog (looked like a shepherd cross)  tied up on a long leash to a dog house just adjacent to the area with the most traffic.  When I went in to pay for our cabin our small talk led us to talking about this sweet boy.  When I told her I thought her dog was fabulous I thought her head was going to explode.  She said nobody’s EVER said that.  She then went on to describe how her dog was “dominant” and how he’d bitten a woman right through the hand and now everyone was scared of him.  Of course, there’s always more to the story right? I asked her how often the dog was tied up out back and she said, “oh all day.  He loves it outside”.  Inner cringe.  What I was seeing was a classic case of isolation and barrier frustration.  Let’s talk about what exactly goes on in a situation like this one.


Dogs are extremely social animals.  They’re hardwired to operate in groups and have a strong need (just like us) to be in the company of others.  I can tell you right now, that if most dogs had to choose between blue skies and fresh air or you, they’d choose you. Every time.  When we were kids ( I grew up in rural Ontario…don’t judge) we simply tied our dogs up at the edge of our acreage, gave them straw in their dog house and let them be.  We didn’t know enough to understand the psychological damage we were doing to our dogs.


I’m always telling my clients this little story to help them better understand what happens to our dogs when they’re not given the social interaction they need.  If a man lives next to a river, he won’t think much about where he gets his water.   In fact, he’ll probably take it for granted.  However, if a man lives in a desert he’ll be so excited to see that water that he’ll throw himself face down in it and drink from his hands and knees.  See what I’m getting at here?  The constant isolation causes your dog to be MUCH more aroused and excited when he finally does see someone because he’s so deprived.  Therefore, when he finally does get the opportunity to interact, he’s so revved up that he gets labelled “aggressive”.


Because of all of his built-up excitement he’s much more likely to experience what is called “barrier frustration”.  Think of this as literally what happens to you when you’re stuck in traffic, when your computer crashes or when your printer jams.  It’s when some obstacle or “barrier” prevents your from accomplishing a desired goal.  In your dog’s case, the barrier is his leash.  Pretty straightforward right? It’s made more potent because he REALLY wants to see you.  It’s what happens when a traffic jam prevents me from getting to the cottage.  I’m a lot more peeved than if I was just going to a meeting.  Furthermore, by the time I do finally get to the cottage I’m so annoyed that I can’t enjoy myself for the first couple of hours!


Here’s where we put this all together and the aggression toward people actually starts to materialize.  We start with a friendly dog.  We remove him from any social interaction.  He’s so frustrated that when people DO come to say hello he is often punished or yelled at for being so crazy.  So now he’s not only lonely, he’s also afraid when people approach-people he previously would’ve welcomed.  But guess what? He’s tied up! Imagine you were afraid of bees and I tied you up right next to a beehive?? You would of course turn into a hyper-vigilant, anxious person.  Instead of overcoming your fears of bees, your fears would worsen…we call that sensitization.  Your dog doesn’t stand a chance.  He can’t win.


Are you curious to hear how the conversation ended?  The owner of the dog, after commenting that she DID see some boys poking her dog with a stick, decided that her dog might actually prefer the air-conditioning better. We spent the whole next day without hearing him bark once or seeing him be tormented by strangers pumping gas.  One small step for dog, one giant leap for dog-kind!