The Pressure Cooker! (And how to avoid it.)

By Sean O’Shea

One of the aspects to keeping our dogs successful (and safe) on walks is the aspect I think that is most overlooked and misunderstood as a training tool…

Space. And how it creates and/or relieves pressure. 

If there’s a crazy person loose in the state next to you, you’re probably not very worried for your own safety. If you hear he’s in your city, you’ll be more aware, but not likely freaking out yet. If you hear he’s in your neighborhood you’re going to be freaking out and likely barricading yourself in your home. If you were outside and he was walking towards you, well, that’s real PANIC TIME!!!

That’s the magic of space. Get enough space and just about anything scary is tolerable. Get too close to something unnerving and panic sets in. Sometimes all you need is a foot or two to be cool, and sometimes it’s a lot more. 

But here’s the thing, it’s not JUST space or proximity that creates the pressure cooker, it’s also observable escape routes (can we safely escape if all hell breaks loose?), and either foreknowledge of the approaching trigger (it’s that dog that always goes ape when we walk by), OR displayed behavior that is unsafe or could be unsafe (a barking, growling, pulling, lunging dog who’s owner has no control).

All these factors determine the pressure your dog (and often you) feel, and can necessitate more space to keep the pressure tolerable, and your dog successful. 

Walking in an open field by a barking dog at 10 feet might be tolerable for your dog. Walking by the same dog (still at 10 feet) if you’re next to a wall and pinned against it might be very different. Walking down your sidewalk and passing a calm, relaxed, polite dog with 3 feet between you might be totally doable. Walk that same sidewalk with a dog approaching that is stink eyeing your dog, tense, and pulling on the leash, and that 3 feet may cause WWWIII. Or, you might even walk by a dog that barks at your dog from across the street, and your dog may be totally cool with it. But if it’s that darn Akita (no offense Akita owners!!) that has been hassling your dog since he was a pup, it might be a very different outcome. 

The point is, the pressure your dog feels, and how he reacts is absolutely situational and contextual. You can’t expect your dog to have a one-size-fits-all reaction. He’s a complex emotional creature, and he’s going to determine the level of pressure he feels – and how he reacts – dependent upon lots of factors. (My hope with this post is to help you understand how all these factors can be in play, so that you’re aware and not bushwhacked (or confused) by them.)

As you’re working through reactivity issues, remember your dog is reacting to perceived pressure/danger/arousal, and your job is to navigate them as best you can in order for you both to be successful. 

Some tips:

-More space equals more comfort. Sometimes just 1, 2, or 3 feet of movement away from the trigger can alleviate the boil-over. 
-Dogs that your dog has developed a grudge with will be the toughest challenges.
-Dogs see and feel being trapped, so be keenly aware of not putting yourselves in no-escape, high-pressure spaces. 
-Dogs see/feel the intent, attitude, nastiness, posturing of other dogs, and act accordingly. 
-Dogs see whether owners have control and whether they are confident or freaked, and act accordingly. 

The ultimate goal is to get you and your dog to the very best space possible, so you’re both able to successfully navigate close encounters of the worst kind –  without having to avoid, use a football field length space to keep cool, and not have a melt down when the neighborhood bully starts barking. But as you work towards this goal, remember to utilize all the information above and be aware of all the possible factors in play so hopefully you and your dog can avoid the pressure cooker. 

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  1. Chuck Bruhn said:

    Really good Sean! I had the good fortune to have a number of dogs through my life the didn’t have these issues. Then a couple years ago I adopted a rescue Lab that was very insecure and leash reactive. I have learned and still continue to learn that I have to deal with him differently. I am also learning that the biggest challenge is me. We’re working on it and your posts help a ton! Thanks!

  2. Chris said:

    That makes so much sense. I often forget to consider this, but Loki generally doesn’t bark or become nervous when out.

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