I’ve been walking two to three dogs every day since April 2021. One of my goals is to give them the most fun and freedom possible within the constraints of walking on leash in a suburban neighborhood. I have a post in the works about the ways I work on these goals. But in the meantime, I’m sharing this fun contrast in the behavior of three dogs.
I minimize the control I put on walks with the dogs. They are on leash, but I give them all the freedom I safely can. I have very few “rules.” There are many paths through the streets of my quiet neighborhood, and they get to choose. I live at the end of a T intersection, so even at the beginning, there are three directions to go. I don’t have a rule forbidding backtracking, which makes for walks that are foreign to a goal-oriented human. One of my dogs (Lewis) sometimes takes “walks” that don’t even go anywhere and seem chaotic to this human. We often spend a lot of time with him doing power sniffing in my front yard in the flowerbeds. That’s his choice, so that’s fine.
A friend recently asked me what rules I do have. Keep in mind we walk in the suburbs, and the dogs are on six-foot leashes. I said 1) a dog can’t go over six feet into someone’s yard; 2) no staying out in the middle of the street for too long; 3) If there is a car parked on the street, we walk around it on the outside (the street side) together rather than walking in someone’s yard; and 4) the dog needs to follow my lead when I have to intervene, say, if a car is coming or we need to avoid something.
But I forgot one rule. The fifth rule is no stalking: no turning to follow other walkers at a close distance after they pass us. The funny thing is that all three of the dogs I walk with want to stalk, but for three different reasons.
Clara is curious. Even though she was formerly feral, and her human social circle is four persons big, she is curious about people. Just not in an affiliative or sociable way. She’s interested in the same way she might be attracted to an inanimate object with a novel smell. Plus people move, so that makes them more interesting! But not as…people.
When we were playing catch-up socialization at the shopping mall when she was young, she got comfortable enough that she wanted to follow passersby so she could get a good whiff. You can see it in the video at the above link. I let her do it sometimes in that locale, since stalking was less obvious with lots of people milling around. But if you are walking on a suburban street and someone passes you, they will notice if you instantly turn around and follow them. So I don’t let her do it immediately, although if she still wants to when they are a socially acceptable distance away, I let her follow or at least watch.
Lewis is often aroused on his walks. He is reactive, but in an excited Tarzan manner. People and dogs thrill him. He might give off a bark or two when he sees a person, but if they beckon, he will be all over them. Literally all over them if I don’t intervene. We don’t interact with most people we see. There are three whom we stop and say hello to. But for those others who move on—nothing would make him happier than to follow them, see what they’re up to, and catch up and jump on them.
Choo Choo is my friend and partner’s chihuahua mix. She had a rough start in life and has many fears. Over several years, she has learned to go for walks. She enjoys it and has become very courageous about new things and exploring on a microscale. Her behavior is an interesting mixture. When she sees people, she appears quite calm about them (except she hackles up). But as soon as they pass, she wants to follow and (possibly) catch up to them. Her philosophy is that the best defense is surveillance, and her experience is that coming up from behind is the safest. Since most people don’t enjoy being stalked by a small, intense dog, I don’t allow this! But we do stop and watch.
The Function of Following
I think it’s interesting that all three dogs want to follow the walkers who go by, but for completely different reasons:
- Clara: non-affiliative curiosity
- Lewis: reactive sociability
- Choo Choo: fear
Their behaviors look different, too. Clara’s is calm and neutral; she is interested but not passionately so. You may see her sniffing the air. Lewis is excited and may strain to catch up. He might let out a yip or two. Choo Choo is hackled up and also intent on moving forward, but for the opposite reason.
If the people going by had wanted to interact, they would have stopped. So in all cases, I prevent the behavior. Unfortunately, it’s socially unacceptable. But if I were trying to modify it by training, I would need to know the function.
For Clara, there is no way to improve the situation with training at this point. Even though she will walk up to a stranger and accept a cookie, she does it as a trained behavior. She is polite and cooperative, but doesn’t want to be friends. So letting her trail people to sniff them can’t end well. Either they will be weirded out, or they may turn around to be friendly, and she’d rather not interact. In most situations, you can’t say to a stranger, “Hey, could you stand still with your hands to your sides and look at that lamppost while my dog sniffs you?” So I manage her behavior. The best I can do with passing people is let her turn around and sniff as they leave (but not follow them) and try to provide her with other interesting things to sniff and investigate.
For Lewis, we are working on his excitement, but not methodically. As he makes more friends, perhaps he won’t want to stalk people so much. With his existing friends, we practice not losing his mind (four on the floor and no jumping or pawing). And when people who aren’t his buddies (yet) pass us by, he gets to watch and sniff (but not follow) like Clara.
For Choo Choo, we are working gradually on her fear. We do ad hoc counterconditioning when we are unavoidably close to people, and that has made her much more comfortable over time. She is also very decisive about turning away from anything she doesn’t like the looks or sound of. But I think it will always be important for her to monitor people we have passed, and she won’t want to stop tailing them. She doesn’t get to do the tailing, but as with the other dogs, we at least turn around and watch the people leave.
The Popularity of Stalking
I’ve learned that plenty of other dogs want to follow passersby!
If you walk your dogs on leash, do they want to stalk people or dogs who have passed? What do you observe as the function? Do you ever let them?
Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson