As a young woman I lived in Spain. I had no idea when I arrived to teach that an experience that would take place on the streets of Barcelona, would be both life altering and important. One night walking home from work I was attacked by three young men. My bag, tied across my body, would not break free as they tugged on it. When the strap (and my finger) eventually did snap, the prior ongoing struggle had resulted in a surge of adrenaline. As a trained martial artist and previous Kung Fu instructor, the next steps were completely clear: run away. As all good martial arts instructors I had told students to always run away from confrontation. You win all of the fights you don’t have.
So what did I do that night, pumped up on adrenaline? Gritted my teeth and chased them, chased them down streets and deserted alleys until they got home. Did I stop then? No. I ran into their house and started trying to smash things. When they ran out I continued to chase them. My saving grace, my angry yells attracted others and someone called the police. Am I proud of what I did? No. Was it incredibly stupid? Yes. Could I have been killed? Possibly. Was I thinking straight. Absolutely not. Was I embarrassed? Very much so.
So why tell this story at the beginning of a dog handling course? So often I hear people say “it seems like my dog couldn’t hear me”; “in a split second all the months of training had gone out the window” or “nothing would stop him”. Yep, that my friends, is adrenaline. Once your dog has a surge of the magical stuff, he’s not going to hear you. If I, a semi-rational human, could forget years of martial arts despite understanding completely what the risks were in chasing them (baring in mind your dog has very limited understanding of risk) then all that human: training ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘speak’ – gone. What’s happening is fight or flight, and with most predators fight kicks in.
One other thing about the night of my attack that is useful to know. The doctors in the emergency room told me they were concerned about my hand being broken. I told them not to worry I could move it fine. I then held up my hand and squeezed it into a fist. The doctor yelled at me to stop and sure enough the x-rays revealed a massive break in the joint. Enough that today I still have a skew finger. I could not feel any pain for nearly 24 hours. If your dog is chasing something to kill, fighting another dog or attacking someone they cannot feel. The only way to stop them is to remove them physically from the situation.
Crucially we need to ask: what’s the solution then? In all situations the key is to avoid adrenaline (unless you’re training an attack dog, but that’s another story). Easier said than done. Some dogs are scared of cars, some are scared of lights, birds, helicopters, brooms, trolleys, each other… As for very items well the usual are always there: cats, squirrels, sheep, the postman, your neighbours’ chihuahua; but some dogs think bikes are prey or, rather worryingly, some of our dogs think children are a perfect snack. The list of adrenaline triggers can be unending. Quite simply you cannot know what will trigger a boost of adrenaline. Therefore, to go from a good dog trainer to a bullet proof dog handler you need to become an expert in dog body language because once the red mist comes down, you have lost control.