It's a dog meets dog world!
How polite is your dog when he greets other dogs? Here are some tips and guidelines for dogs greeting on leash and off leash.
(Young dogs in my class learning to greet on leashes.)
In my community density is on the rise. There is a lot of construction going on – taking houses down and building condos and townhouses in their place. As the density increases our overall space decreases and this includes our dogs’ space too.
For people with dogs, higher density can dramatically increase the challenge of getting your dog out for daily walks. If you have a dog who’s worried about other dogs, this can be a recipe for disaster if you don’t plan your day well. And you need to find time to spend working on helping your dog feel more comfortable some of which also needs to take place outside.
If you have a worried and reactive dog, I highly recommend finding an experienced positive trainer to help you. You will only make progress if you can work with your dog under threshold. Under threshold means your dog isn’t reacting or even close to reacting, he’s simply aware of a dog or person somewhere in the distance and still capable of learning and processing information in the moment. This isn’t always easy to achieve especially in densely populated areas, and a skilled trainer can make all the difference.
(Yikes! That's a little
close for comfort, human!)
If you have a friendly dog, your daily walks will be easier but not necessarily problem free. Dogs, like humans, have a personal distance at which they feel comfortable with other dogs. Each dog is of course an individual so personal space needs will differ from dog to dog. And, also like humans, a dog’s personal space requirements can differ from day to day too.
If I’ve had a bad day, or if I’m really tired – feeling a bit grumpy perhaps – the last thing I want to do is stop and have a chat with a random stranger. Instead, I may go out of my way to avoid people altogether, preferring to take a solitary walk instead or bury myself in a good book tucked away in the corner of my couch (with my dog cuddled beside me of course!).
(Amblin' down the street on a
nice loose leash.)
Other days though, I might be having a particularly productive week; feeling pretty upbeat and well rested and then my demeanor is entirely different. I’m happy to have a random chat with someone and may even go out of my way to engage someone in a brief, friendly exchange.
Dogs also have good days and bad days, mood swings and differing needs too. As pet dog owners seeking to have wonderful partnership and friendship with our dogs, it’s important that we know this and prepare our dogs as well as we can. As the humans in the equation, we can take ourselves away from the general hustle and bustle of daily life for a much-needed break, but dogs are entirely dependent on us to help them get any needed breaks. Their choices are limited as we are basically in control of all of their life decisions.
Preparing Your Dog for Meeting Other Dogs.
When you first get a puppy or you first adopt a dog of any age, it really pays to teach them how to meet dogs in the most successful way.
(Nice loose leashes, pups!)
Meeting another dog can be a little bit intimidating especially for puppies and young dogs. We can make all the difference and help our dogs be successful every time if we put in some training, some thought and some planning.
On-leash meetings seem to be particularly difficult, and I think it’s because dogs feel a bit trapped on their leashes – moving away is not always an option available to them unless we step in to help.
Off-leash meetings can be challenging too because some dogs come at high speed from a great distance, and that can be pretty frightening for a young or socially unskilled dog. I’ve seen more aggressive looking responses simply because one dog rushes up to another far too quickly with far too little finesse.
(Pictured above is Quincy meeting a new friend. Can you see that she's leaning away a bit from the pressure of the slightly exuberant greeting and tight leash of her new buddy? Such subtitles are hard to pick out without a photo!)
It makes a big difference if your dog has been taught some skills that allow you to have influence over their movement on or off leash. I like teaching my dogs a Stop cue, a Recall and some Loose Leash Walking skills for some solid “dog meets dog” preparation.
A Stop cue is a nice way to positively interrupt most behaviour – wanted or unwanted. My criteria for a Stop cue is – “Stop what you’re doing and come back for a really great snack”. This is followed more often than not by a Release so my dog can go back to doing whatever he was doing before I asked him to Stop.
It’s a great way to interrupt play or interactions with another dog, because there’s little risk of creating a negative association. It always ends well for the dog, so he feels pretty good about performing the Stop especially when he gets to go back to an interaction he may have been enjoying with another dog.
(Jack performs an enthusiastic Stop in Tofino on the beach - eagerly anticipating his roast beef!)
If your dog found the interaction with that other dog overwhelming or a bit intimidating, he will be happy to have an excuse to take a break. If your dog found that other dog super interesting and a potential playmate, he won’t mind being asked to come away for a tasty snack once he realizes he can head on back for another interaction. Either way, the act of performing Stop, gives each dog a break so any tension or excitement can settle down before any further interaction takes place. Letting things calm down, frequently, is always a good thing with any interaction between two dogs who are new to each other.
(Jack performing a stellar Recall
away from other dogs!)
Recall – Come!
A recall is just calling your dog back – a useful thing off leash but there’s no reason why you can’t practice it on leash. A sold Recall takes time and skilled practice before you can begin to rely on it working in more distracting environments. Practice involves gradually increasing distance from you, the length of time passing before being asked to come back to you and successfully overcoming the competing distractions in the environment.
Distractions are the most difficult aspect of Recall training because there are so many and the context can be so varied. Coming to you for dinner is vastly different from coming to you out of a group of playing dogs.
You should practice your training until you’re able to ask your dog to come away from another dog and get a reliable response every time. There are far too many people who can’t get their dogs to come back to them, especially when it involves another dog. This is a critical skill! There are many reasons why it’s necessary to get your dog to come back to you. Don’t be that person who can’t do it and then shouts: “It’s okay, he’s friendly!” That makes dog trainers and non dog-owning people cringe (and brace themselves)!
Let’s Walk Together!
Quite possibly one of the most under-rated skills a dog can have is loose leash walking. Unfortunately there is a lot of equipment that people can use instead of teaching their dog to walk on a loose leash that they perceive as being the same thing. Worst of those is the tools of the punishment and balanced trainers. However, even using a face halter or front control harness to stop leash tension is not ideal, either, without some training. Put in the time to teach your dog this skill well, and then both of you can enjoy your walks together in comfort.
What your dog wears and how you introduce your dog’s equipment also plays an important role in dogs meeting other dogs. People don’t always think about this, but if your dog isn’t physically comfortable then any interaction he has with another dog won’t go as well as it could – it’s as simple as that.
I’ve seen the most ridiculous (and dangerous or damaging) equipment set-ups imaginable from a retractable leash attached to a prong collar to nothing at all on the side of a very busy street. The right equipment is important!
It should go without saying that all of your dog’s walking equipment should be inherently comfortable for your dog. That immediately eliminates any “tools of torture” like prong, shock or choke collars. These collars teach through the use of pain – don’t let the trainers who use these collars fool you – in order to effectively “train” a dog with these collars, pain is involved.
Even a regular snap or buckle collar can be aversive though if a leash is attached to it and there is tension on the leash. Again, remember that how comfortable a dog is feeling will play a big part in the success of any interaction. Personally I would prefer that leashes are attached to something other than a collar – my preference is a body harness.
Again, comfort is key and harnesses need to fit properly so it isn’t impeding a dog’s free movement of his legs and shoulders and isn’t chafing under his arms. Also, even though the front clip harnesses are designed to help you combat the power of a strong dog, the goal is to have your dog walking straight and square on a loose leash so he isn’t constantly pulled off balance by tension on the front of his chest.
Leashes – I’ll be brutally honest, I really hate retractable leashes! In order to lengthen the leash dogs have to apply pressure, and then pressure is added again when the leashes are retracted. So your dog is taught to add and expect pressure on his leash almost constantly – putting him always off balance and making loose leash walking impossible.
I don’t think dogs really like these leashes either. Any dog approaching another dog walking with a retractable leash has no way to gauge how long that leash is and how much space they are going to get from that dog. I think that makes dogs uncomfortable before they even get close to an interaction.
Finally, I think retractable leashes are dangerous. I know more than one dog that has been killed by a car while walking on a retractable leash - either because the dog was lagging behind and the car couldn’t tell where the dog was, or because a dog dodged out into the road far ahead of his owner and a driver couldn’t react quickly enough. Terribly tragic events easily prevented with different equipment choices.
(Both Jack and Quincy have been taught to put their heads through their harness - and they are welcome to do so when they feel ready to get dressed. The harness presentation is the cue to "get dress", but they are free to take their time. It rarely takes long as they have been heavily reinforced for choosing to put their heads through and they almost always go for a walk right after as added reinforcement. Even though Jack is getting hit in the head by his bear bell, he's still game!)
Let’s Get Dressed!
Not only should it be comfortable to wear but your dog’s equipment should also be comfortable to put on. Now I’m talking about the dog’s comfort getting dressed! I’m a huge advocate of involving your dog and having their choice taken into consider when putting any piece of equipment on them whether it’s a leash, a muzzle, a harness, a collar, or even a coat or a sweater. Work with your dog so they are completely comfortable having anything put on AND taken off, and make sure you know how to make it the most comfortable experience for them you can.
I’ve taught all my dogs to work with me to get their harnesses and coats on, and I train it in such a way that they are happy and willing to do so. There can be many steps involved depending on how touch sensitive your dog is, how young he may be or what his previous experiences have been. Take the time it takes, get the help of an experienced positive trainer if you need to – it’s important! Choice is a powerful motivator and an invaluable relationship booster!
Human Skills are Important Too.
You, the human, need some skills too. First is observation and a basic understanding of dog body language. What does your dog and most dogs look like when they’re friendly – neutral, loose and waggy tail, happy loose mouth, or…? What do they look like and what do they do when they’re trying to deflect or avoid (or simply calm down) another dog – turn away, back up, move on, or…?
How are YOUR leash skills – can you follow behind your dog and avoid the leash tangle dance? Tight leashes are to be avoided at all costs. Spending some time practicing following behind your dog and see if you can avoid tangling and tightening leashes. It makes all the difference.
Keep your energy calm and neutral. A friendly greeting to both human and dog can make a world of difference – and keep breathing!
It’s All In The Approach.
Think about the Approach – it MUST be calm, on a loose leash and with your dog easily looking away from the other dog, frequently, as you close the distance between the two dogs. Dogs’ staring at each other is rude and often considered threatening. Use your Stop or your dog’s Recall or just use their name. Your goal is to cause your dog to turn away, return to you for a quick snack, Release and then do it all over again until you reach that other dog.
(Puppy Jack meets big buddy Thor and Thor asks him to stop staring so intently.)
You will see a BIG difference in the demeanor of an approaching dog if you follow the simple rule “don’t let my dog stare”. This is one of the first steps I employ when I’m working with a dog-reactive dog – teaching him not to stare. If you watch skilled adult dogs interacting with young puppies, the “Look Away” is often exaggerated as they strive to teach the youngsters how to “talk dog” more appropriately.
If you can, take a more indirect path vs. approaching straight on. Veer slightly off the sidewalk or move to the side or off the trail. Left to make their own choice, dogs will generally move toward each other in an arc rather than choosing a head on approach.
(Quincy is doing a very exaggerated "look away" in order to try and get her message through to this small dog - you're too intense, please soften your approach".)
Meeting On. Meeting Off.
Now that you’ve got some skills – Stop, Recall and Loose Leash; some comfortable equipment, and you’re feeling pretty calm and your dog is responding to your cues – let’s meet!
A good rule of thumb is the 3-second meeting. 3 seconds is an appropriate length of time for each dog to get a quick run down of that other dog. Any longer could be perceived as uncomfortable for either dog, which may cause things to go sideways very quickly. Exactly 3 seconds and not a moment more - is a polite and appropriate length of time before calling your dog away and doing a quick assessment of the interaction.
Ideally, your Leash skills and your Stop or Recall is well practiced and you can achieve these 3 seconds with your dog on a loose leash vs. straining at the leash toward the other dog. Leash tension will add quite a lot of discomfort for both dogs. Think of someone trying to hold back his friend (who is a complete stranger to you) by the back of their sweater as he/she strains to rush toward you at a cocktail party – eyes locked on you – yikes!
(Talullah meets puppy Joe, then both dogs quickly look away - good work taking the pressure off that first meet and greet!)
Here we go, quick sniff – 1, 2, 3 and Stop! Both dogs briefly disengage and return to their owners for a tasty snack. Now you can think about another 3-second meeting. Usually by the 3rd or maybe 4th greeting you will get a good sense of whether the dogs want another interaction. Look for loose, playful and play-inducing behaviour by one or both dogs. See what the other dog is saying – is there a return of loose, play inducing behaviour or is the other dog looking away, happy to simply move along; or is he standing stiffly, really unsure of how to respond? Pay attention and act accordingly.
If they look like good play companions in the making, then perhaps a longer interaction may be initiated – no longer than 30 seconds this time and on loose leashes because you’re going to follow behind your dog and ensure that they stay that way.
The same rules apply off leash – a 3-second greeting followed by Stop or Recall to assess how things went. Off leash is harder! Your dog is free which means your dog has to have some really good skills and lots of training practice to be able to come away from a potential playmate.
The preamble to the greeting is really important off leash. My goal is to keep asking my dog to come back to me until we’re about 15-20 feet away from a dog I see approaching. I don’t want my dog to race over to another dog at high speed from a long distance. That’s so rude!
I usually use my Stop and ask my dog to keep coming back for some really high value snacks, as we keep moving, gradually getting closer to the dog we see in the distance. Like the on-leash exercise, this keeps either dog from staring or being stared at. The eventual meeting will far more pleasant and uneventful. Because my dog knows that more often than not, he still gets to say hi to that dog, he’s pretty happy to perform his Stop. He knows he’s not losing any opportunities.
If you have a dog that tends to use stalking behaviour when he sees another dog, this is a particularly useful exercise. Contrary to popular opinion, stalking behaviour is NOT friendly. It will make the dog being stalked very uncomfortable and he is far more likely to be reactive in response. Using a Stop or even a Recall cue, keeps your dog moving and upright in a normal posture.
Once we’ve gotten reasonably close to the oncoming dog, I can Release my dog to go and say hi. Again, we stick to the 3-second rule and I use my Stop to get my dog back. Because we’re hiking, we generally carry on unless both dogs are pretty playful with each other and can’t resist a bit of a play – usually a chase game. Chasing can be pretty adrenalizing, so I’m careful that I call my dog within 30 seconds of the start of a chase so it doesn’t get out of hand.
Off leash, you have to be quite conscious of dog body language too. There are times when we encounter one or two dogs who are somewhat bully-ish in their behaviour.
(These dogs are "flanking" Jack - something I see quite a bit with large males when presented with another large male on the trail. You can see Jack is uncomfortable and is doing his best to avoid conflict by remaining in place until they decide he can go on his way. Ideally owners would call their dog quickly and be mindful how this situation could escalate quickly should Jack object to the intense scrutiny being performed here. 3 seconds, and only 3 seconds, makes a world of difference!)
Dogs like that will literally, by their behaviour, “force” Jack to stand still while they check him out. I can tell by Jack’s behaviour that he’s not comfortable with this but he’s also not comfortable with trying to take his leave until they have decided it’s ok. In these moments, it’s not fair for me to ask him to come back to me – and, in fact, I run the risk of poisoning my cue if I do so. (See my article on the Poisoned Cue in my Blog.)
More importantly, I don’t want to put Jack in a position of conflict – wanting to do what I ask, but feeling unsafe doing so. In these situations, I keep a cheery tone talking to both dogs and owner (if one is present) and use my body and, if necessary, the other owner’s cooperation to calmly step between the other dogs and Jack and we carry on. In my experience, this tends to happen more often between young boys than older dogs or but I’m sure there are some bully girls out there too! How we handle it and making sure our dog knows we are there for support is what’s most important to our relationship.
(Jack decides another conversation might be in order, but I have other ideas and use his Stop cue to ask him to come back to me instead. Beautifully performed - all that hard practice pays off!)
Of course, most helpful of all is when you encounter neutral and cooperative owners of other dogs – on or off leash. If I ask you to call your dog, or I move out of the way so you can pass – there’s a reason. It’s for the sake of my dog, it’s nothing personal – please just respect my decision and move along without getting angry or deciding I need some unsolicited advice. If something goes sideways, please just be as helpful and as neutral as you can.
It’s also helpful if all of us would consider doing our best to abide by the leash laws in our area. There are few things more irritating to me than having an off leash dog rush up to mine when we are walking in an on-leash area. Almost equally as irritating is an off leash dog that is completely untrained with an uncaring owner.
Be aware that one of the most dangerous pieces of advice out there is that “dogs will just work it out on their own.” They might, but in my experience they would prefer that we step in and help out. It’s a rare dog that has the social skills necessary to be a natural peacekeeper.
How does your dog do when he’s out meeting new dogs? If you think you and your dog could benefit from some more training, look us up! Above all, keep it positive – and neutral!