On a humid evening in July, I am hanging tightly onto Angus’ collar with one hand and gripping his chest with the other as we waddle in the direction of another dog’s butt.
There is a wire barricade between us, for safety, and the other dog is being fed a fast and steady supply of treats to keep it from turning around. Angus swoops past the furry butt and we retreat. Success!
Yes, we are back in school. This time the class is Dog-to-Dog Socialization, and tonight’s lesson is: Butt-sniffing 101.
It had never occurred to me that dogs had to learn how to sniff each other’s hind quarters — isn’t that something they just do instinctively? It is, but nervous dogs, timid dogs or aggressive dogs — dogs with a whole range of behaviors that fall under the umbrella term “reactive” — sometimes need to be taught. They can get so wound up when they see a strange dog that all niceties vanish in a flurry of barking, snarling and lunging.
So here we are, with four other skittish dogs, learning how to play nice.
After puppy class, obedience class, leash training, private leash-walking lessons and now this class, Angus is surely on track for his master’s degree. But the more classes we take together, the better I understand him and, I hope, the better we communicate.
For instance, it has become clear to me that for all his barkiness, Angus is not aggressive — he is timid. He doesn’t like strange noises, situations or animals (human, canine, or other). He barks to try to make them go away.
But once he warms up to them — and it doesn’t take long — he is friendly. He barked at our instructor on the first day of class but since then has been happy to see her.
He has gotten so comfortable with his classmates that he keeps trying to initiate play (which is not allowed). He’s sneaky about it: He lies down flat and then worms his way across the floor on his belly, trying to get closer to Jasper, the springer spaniel who is his current obsession. I roll my eyes and haul him back.
Whenever Angus looks at one of the other dogs and doesn’t bark, he gets a big YESSSS and a treat. He got the hang of this very quickly, and one evening he was so enthusiastic I nearly ran out of food — look at Jasper, get a treat! Look at Jasper, get a treat!
But dogs are not good at transference, and what Angus does so beautifully in class he will not automatically do anywhere else. So during the week we practice, practice, practice. There are millions of other dogs out there, and he needs to learn to be nice to all of them. Hopefully not one at a time.
The other morning on a walk we saw a couple coming toward us with a big, bouncy German shepherd. They were on the other side of the street, and the shepherd was playful, hopping up onto retaining walls, dashing out into the street, pulling its retractable leash out as far as it would go.
Angus did not care for this. He stared at the dog, and I could see him begin to stiffen, ears up, intensity building. Before he could bark, I said, YESSSS and stuffed a treat in his mouth. He looked at me, looked at the shepherd again, and I said YESSSS and stuffed another treat in his mouth.
You could practically see the wheels turning in Angus’ head — relieve the pressure by barking? Or keep getting fed? YESSSS, I said, and the decision was made.
The couple waved cheerily and called hello as they passed, oblivious to the consternation they were causing. The German shepherd bounced along.
YESSSS, I said, and Angus and I walked on, treat bag emptying fast, but dignity intact. And no barking.
Follow all of Angus’ adventures at startribune.com/puppy.