Today, let's talk about what happens when a dog slips a leash. You would be amazed at how fast that can happen, and how it can happen to even very seasoned people. This info is for pet owners as well as pet sitters. As you have likely seen in the first two articles, I cannot emphasize enough that every dog you pet sit is a potential flight risk unless they know you and your home.
Even if your pet sitting home visit has been perfect and you are sitting a dog who was a complete wigglebutt wanting endless belly rubs from you, once mommy or daddy leaves, it's a whole new ballgame.
BTW, How well do you speak Dog? If you didn't follow the links in the first post, please do check out this dog stress symptom checklist. Your guest is yawning, and licking their lips because they are terrified, not because they are thirsty and bored! Stress signs are varied and wide ranging. Know them and pay attention to what the dog is telling you. If you don't, you will increase the chances of having a flight risk AND a bite risk on your hands.
Let's start with the walk, itself.
Pay attention to the leash system the owner gives you. Flat (traditional) collars alone are very risky as they can often pull off if you are dealing the a panicked or pulling dog. Not if they are pulling forward, of course, but what if they back up and change directions very fast, like when they see a squirrel or hear a firecracker or a garbage truck?
Maybe they have never pulled their collar off on their owner's watch but that does not translate to what happens when a stranger is walking then in a strange place.
A Martingale collar (a humane choke collar) is a much safer alternative.
Strongly consider a harness and make sure it fits properly.
Pet sitters, if the dog owner has not provided one, you may find yourself making trips to your local pet store. Remember your guest may normally have a fenced yard and may or may not have great leash skills. In fact, they may not have good leash skills even if they DO get walked often.
YOUR safety, as well as your guest's safety should be your primary concern when pet sitting and that may mean you need to supplement the equipment Fido is dropped off with.
If you are a pet sitter, you are running a business. Businesses have costs. This may be one of them. (The next post will cover things like talking about these issues before the pet sitting engagement starts do don't forget to subscribe at the end.)
The Freedom No Pull Harness is a great option, particularly if you are working with a puller, or a dog that is usually good but SQUIRREL! suddenly isn't. (There are similar versions of this style harness from other companies, but sizing is sometimes and issue an for some dogs, like short-haired breeds, the unpadded versions can lead to raw armpits.)
You can also check out a Thunder Leash which adapts to multiple dog sizes with ease.
There are also vest-style harnesses (quality and construction can vary...be careful of fashion accessories masquerading as safe walking systems). Give special consideration to harnesses that allow for a double leash (trust me, you will be happy for the back up if the need arises). In fact, as an extra precaution, clipping a leash to both the vest/harness AND the collar adds extra protection.
Your job is to pay attention to the dog. DO NOT TEXT AND WALK. Just don't. Especially if it is not your dog. In fact, don't talk and walk. Dogs are FAST and they can bolt at lightening speed when they see animals to chase (and they may see them before you do) and novel noises in strange environments can terrify even the most fit and hearty dog. My friend Frank had a total meltdown when he heard a garbage truck around the corner in my neighborhood. I could not get him past my next door neighbor's driveway until our third walk.
Let the dog sniff...a lot. And take them on a predictable walk in a routine way.
Let's say the dog is new to your neighborhood and does slip a leash and go missing. Wouldn't you feel better knowing it has at least some idea of how to find your house again?
Your job is not to take the dog on a whirlwind tour of all the cool places you know. Let the dog scent and sight map your neighborhood. After a few walks, you will see Sparky knows which driveway is yours and leads you right to your front door (and to your treat jar once you get inside). That is a good thing. They will feel safer and more oriented, and they will trust you more and like hanging out with you. I've had dogs so anxious to walk that they nearly put on their new harnesses by themselves. TRUST BUILDING IS KEY.
If you have a nervous Nellie who is hesitant about moving forward, don't get in a power struggle, or get frustrated and start pulling them (especially if you have a collar that may pull off as the dog back away from you!). Instead, get happy and fun as you coax them back to your house.
One of the techniques I use that works wonders is running in place with quick tiny little steps and saying, "Come on, let's go check this out!" Dogs like to run and they are curious so this is a way to engage that. The trick is KEEP A LOOSE LEASH while you do it. A tight leash will add tension that will make the dog more fearful. But a loose leash combined with quick scuffly running steps in place with an invitation to fun can be a great combo (think having a race with a little kid, you pretend to run fast but you are just inching forward) .
Back to the issue of paying attention to the dog...redirecting techniques work best when you see the dog BEGIN to tense, NOT when their freezing gets you to look up from your cell phone.
Your job is to make mental notes of what triggers the dog to be frightened or ramped up and also to know when the dog has had enough and is finding the walk over-stimulating (if that happens). The walk is almost secondary to the trust building, bonding and learning that you are doing. (I'd recommend this even if you have a fenced yard, just in case someone leaves the gate open.)
Also, please don't let your pet sitting guest meet other strange dogs on your walks. Why risk it? Not all tail wags are invitations. A cheery, "I'm actually pet sitting so since this isn't my pup, I have to pass on letting our dogs meet" is a statement most people will immediately respect and not feel the least bit offended by, no matter how friendly they are sure their dog is.
Okay, so let's say the unexpected happens and Spot slips the leash.
Mentally rehearse this because you MUST train yourself to go against the instinct to chase and tackle.
Your job is not to run after the dog (it will always beat you), but to coax the dog into approaching and following you.
Yes, you WILL be freaking out inside. But on the outside, you want to be as fun, engaging and tempting as you can be. Not like a scary clown, so don't go crazy, but do act like you have found the can of squeeze cheese at the end of the rainbow and that you totally want the pup to check it out with you.
Don't run toward the dog, because their instinct will be to run away. And the dog will not only be scared but will also likely realize that it might get in trouble now. Keep your emotions in check. Don't yell, don't get angry, don't insist the dog come. Coax, cajole, get happy, invite.
Remember those fast baby steps with the "Hey, come on!" Don't be afraid to use them along with "Want a treat?!" as you run away from the dog. You just may get them to turn around and follow you and at the very least get them to stand still as they try to figure out what you are doing. (Carrying prized treats with you is always a good idea). And when the dog does come, praise the heck out if it and treat generously! Resist the "Don't ever scare me like that again!" thing. Just be happy and relieved and reward the dog for returning. You can collapse in private later.
There is a great article here with several more ideas. I highly recommend you read it and check out the comments as well.
Like I said, this can happen to anyone (been there). It's a rare person who works with lots of strange dogs (think shelter volunteers, for example) who hasn't had a *gulp* moment. But the more you learn about what to do before you get in the situation, the better your chances of having a happy (if rather heart-pounding) ending.
Coming next, interviewing pet sitters, what to ask and why you want to have a home visit. Don't forget to subscribe so you'll get an alert in your email when it posts.
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