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"We want to be alone!"

How do you get other people to listen to you when you’re taking your dog out in public? I’m trying to train my sometimes-nervous dog, but when I politely ask people not to approach him, they often don’t take a blind bit of notice.

Nick Jones advises...

Good question! I usually find that if I’m working with a dog in a public area and have muzzled him for safety reasons, the muzzle acts as a visual deterrent to most people. This measure alone can make all the difference when training a dog in public spaces, especially if the dog is aggressive or anxious around people. There does seem to be an exception to every rule, however, and one owner recently told me people said they’d approached his large Mastiff because he evidently couldn’t bite, as he was wearing a muzzle!

In recent years, there has been an effort to raise awareness when walking reactive dogs in public spaces. One popular approach is to use the colour yellow to indicate that a dog requires space, but awareness of the scheme could be higher and I personally think red might have been a better choice. Having said this, you can buy bright yellow dog jackets that say ‘I need space’ from Yellow Dog and internet searches reveal a variety of other dog clothing and leads with messages like ‘Nervous’.

Even if you do implement practical measures like these, I’m aware that some people will still approach you regardless – usually because they consider themselves to be good with dogs, or have an idea that all dogs love them! When this happens, you have a couple of options. You can try to clearly explain that your dog is in training and you would prefer them not to approach. If they continue, you could conceivably hand them a treat and allow them to feed your dog, but if he is very anxious in public, then I’d strongly recommend using a muzzle for protection all round. If, on the other hand, you know you can’t allow any interactions at this stage, then you’ll need to quickly make your excuses and move away. These situations can be difficult to manage, but provided that you remain polite, yet in control of your dog, then you should be OK.

A couple more tips. In the early stages of working with a reactive dog, consider the location and time of day, as these can greatly affect the type of experience you’ll have and, indeed, the likelihood of people approaching you. When desensitising your dog to people in public spaces, try to get ahead of the game by asking some calm, confident friends to walk past at a distance you know your dog is comfortable with. This will help you lay solid foundations for the times when you come into contact with strangers who may not appreciate what you are doing and why.