I never tire of watching Polly delight in racing across an open stretch of land. She isn't ever permitted to be off lead unless the area is as safe as I think the great outdoors can be for her and before I take off her lead, I always scan for other dogs, elderly people, children, vehicles, roads, gaps in fences - you name it, I scan for it!
Polly rarely stays off lead for the entire duration of a walk either, I always pop her back on the lead whenever I am uncertain of the surroundings; in fact, most of our daily walks involve time both on and off lead, so Polly is used to having her lead clipped back on/off and thankfully doesn't challenge these decisions.
As I've harped on about before, building a reliable recall has been so worth the months of effort and I am pleased we are now reaping the rewards of all the months of training. However, last weekend I was taught a lesson about off leading I certainly won't forget in a hurry ...
We were thinking about heading home through the woods and back along the lane after our tea time walk. Polly had been a good girl both on and off the lead so I decided to give her one more opportunity to play freely at our favourite spot by the dip at the top of the woods. While we were there we met an older gentleman with a boxer dog who had a similar idea. Polly was at my side, so I reached to clip on her lead, but the chap called out that his dog was friendly and to let them play and by then, both dogs were already saying their hellos, so I thought 'why not' and let Polly chase round with her new acquaintance while the gentleman chatted ... and chatted some more ... and some more ...
Both dogs were initially having a lovely time racing up and down in the dip until they wore themselves out. I was conscious of time passing, but having been brought up to be polite to my elders, found it very difficult to end the conversation with the chatty man and depart homewards. Polly attempted to check in with me several times, but each time she tried, the boxer dog also came over, even plonking his rather heavy bottom on my foot as if to claim ownership of me. I tried to interrupt his owner a few times to say I needed to take Polly home for dinner, but the boxer began to bounce around again. Then he tried to mount Polly, which was plenty enough to spook her. She raced round the corner with her tail between her legs and in her distress, completely ignored my recall. Consequently, I spent the next twenty minutes trying to suppress a rising sense of panic as I ran through the woods and surrounding area, calling and whistling like a demented mother hen, trying to find my poor girl while all kinds of terrible scenarios played out in my head.
In hindsight, I can see I failed to string together several subtle signals which should have told me Polly was becoming uncomfortable with the boxer's attentions and that she needed me to put on her lead and take her away from the situation. Without fully realising at the time, I put my gut instincts on hold to avoid being rude to the chatty gent, even though I knew we needed to head home and that Polly was looking less keen on play with the boxer. After trying to get my attention several times by coming to my side, but failing to draw me away the man, Polly became overwhelmed by the other dog's attentions, yelped, then spooked, fled without me.
It could all have ended very badly, but thankfully, after walking Polly through every conceivable route home many, many times during the past year, she simply headed back through the woods, up the lane and along the road to home, where my husband opened our front door to find her sitting patiently on the doorstep, politely waiting to be let inside.
There is no doubt in my mind, I made the mistake of allowing my polite upbringing to override my instincts. Consequently, when the boxer suddenly became a bit too excitable for Polly to handle and she had tried to make me aware several times she was feeling threatened, but to no avail, she headed back to the safety of our home. I don't blame her one little bit, I am just so relieved she was safe and clever enough to take herself straight home.
One thing's for sure, I won't ever let politeness override my gut instincts again. An acute awareness of the dog's body language and changing circumstances when out and about, can prove to be every bit as important to their safety as a solid recall ...