Close Encounters

It’s been a week of weird encounters for a certain wonderful dog and I.

Are you my new best friend?  I think you might be my new best friend.
Are you my new best friend? I think you might be my new best friend.

Last week, a terrier. Just hanging out in a front yard–not necessarily its own. It looked like an Australian silky terrier, but that seems improbable–it was probably just a Yorkie with unusual coloring. Anyway, it saw us across the street and charged.

About four feet from Nala, who had seen the other dog and turned away to sniff, gently wagging, the yorkie appeared to notice how big she is. He skidded to a somewhat comical stop, sniffed a little bit too, then turned and trotted away. Mission accomplished, I guess?

That was an interesting little bit of dog communication, but I was also fascinated by what happened on our way home. The yorkie was on the side of the street with a sidewalk, sniffing the bushes and anointing them with his own contributions. Nala saw him and stopped. Mid-level wag, head lowering, ready to lay down. She does this a lot when she greets dogs that are smaller than her and seem uncertain about approaching. My best guess is that she’s trying to reassure the other dog–look how small, how harmless she is! Feel free to approach, new best friend! Or maybe it’s herding behavior, which crops up in her play a lot. Either way, she means well, and she’s incredibly sweet and very restrained with puppies and small dogs.

However kindly Nala probably meant the gesture, the other dog was not comforted. He took one look at her and trotted away, then laid back down in his original yard and watched us pass.

Another morning walk, another stray dog. If Nala were reactive to other dogs, I’d really hate our neighborhood.

This canine encounter also began with a charging dog who was significantly smaller than our canine heroine. Like the one on Friday, he was collarless and tagless. Unlike that one, he thought that Nala was incredibly cool. Not in a so-cool-it’s-intimidating way, like the yorkie. More of a so-cool-I’ll-follow-you-to-the-end-of-the-earth way.

And follow us he did.

so shepherd
Oh, you’d like to take a break? I’ll be waiting, right here, staring at you, until you play with me again. Please play with me again?

At first, Nala and the little dog co-explored, Nala still checking in with me frequently and walking fairly politely. But then, when we paused, the little doxie mix bowed and it was on! Chasing, zooming! Great fun for the dogs; not very fun for the human attached to Nala’s leash–that is, me. Finally, I realized that as long as we stayed in one place, the dogs would fixate on playing with each other–and since the doxie kept zooming into the street, I was quite ready for a change of subject. While the dogs mostly resumed co-exploring and sniffing once we moved on, Nala’s ability to shift her focus smoothly back and forth between the environment and me had evaporated.

Spending an entire walk with a playful dog was a new challenge, and we simply weren’t ready for it. That’s what I get for bragging about Nala’s nocturnal recall off of something in our bushes. I see more games for helping Nala think through her arousal in our future. Still, aside from her inability to tear her attention away from the world and the doxie, Nala was a model citizen and a fabulous playmate for the feisty little dude, who fortunately stopped to gobble up some bird poop instead of following us into our house.

I’ve only heard Nala bark–like really, deeply, german shepherdly bark–twice in our year together.

One of those times was today.

Do you feel the hate?
Do you feel the hate radiating from kitty’s eyes?

Something about a cat–usually an exciting thing, but viewed as a potential friend–on the fence of her backyard–otherwise only the abode of squirrels, which I let Nala chase because she enjoys it and I know she won’t catch one–sent Nala into a frenzy. Full mohawk down her back. Barking. Alternately charging at the cat and backing away. The cat, meanwhile, was making goblin noises and spitting, mad, but not mad enough to leave.

I was at a loss. I don’t even own a slip lead. Nala rarely wears a collar around the house, so I had nothing to grab. And even if I had, I’d never seen her so wound up. I didn’t want to risk grabbing her and have her turn and redirect onto me.

I ran into the house. I grabbed a couple of cheddar cheese curds. I ran back out, stood two feet away, and called Nala. She turned–frantically, but she did turn–got her treat, and leapt back toward the fence. Call again. Treat, release. Call again, and this time I was ready. As she came to me, I put my arms around her in a gentle, cradling restraint (thank god we’ve been working on her comfort with this kind of thing!). I slowly fed her several pieces of cheese, then I rubbed her chest, and spoke quietly and soothingly.

Okay, I had my dog. Could we move?

No, Nala wouldn’t take a few, gently coaxed, slow steps with me. So there we stayed, me holding her and petting her, until I saw her start to breathe more normally, felt her begin to relax. I watched her dramatic mohawk deflate. When I let her go, Nala was fine. She wagged gently and cheerfully at the cat, then turned back to me. She followed me to the house and asked to stay outside and play with me a little bit. From that point forward, the cat became merely an object of interest to her–a mild distraction from the games we were playing, possibly a potential friend, but not a particularly big deal.

I’m…pleased, but mystified. What worked here, and why? Did the food reduce Nala’s arousal? Or was the cradling and soothing petting responsible for her restoring her equilibrium? Is this a useful discovery, or an unrepeatable phenomenon? I certainly don’t know enough about what happened to recommend that others try this on their dogs, even if it did work.

sweet face
Okay, so I barked and growled at the cat a lot. But maybe he’ll be my friend anyway?
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4 thoughts on “Close Encounters

  1. So many adventures this week! Poor Nala, that kitty must have been super scary and my dogs can attest to that! Kitties can be evil creatures with lots of pokey parts!

    On a side note, if you ever need a slip lead you can loop your leash through the handle and it works really well. I’ve had to do it a couple of times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I bet you’re right–kitties who are spitting and making weird goblin sounds are totally scary! That makes more sense than any theory I could come up with.
      That’s a good tip about leashes! I’ll have to practice it for emergencies!

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  2. Barley gets worked up about cats that come into our yard (even though she has a cat of her very own), especially if they make weird noises. I’d think that your success was probably a combo of the treats (which helped make you more interesting than the cat and redirected her attention) and the calming behaviors. When Barley wants to bark and be nutty in class, we do a combination of relaxation activities and also focus games to keep her mind on something different than the distractions, so it sounds like that’s what happened with Nala. Glad that big, bad kitty didn’t keep her from enjoying her yard!

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    1. I think you’re probably right! I already knew that food reduces arousal for Nala; I’m feeling optimistic that we might have another tool in our arsenal for this kind of thing! And we do the same kind of combination in classes. Herding dogs get frustrated when they can’t be part of the action, huh? 🙂

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