As a dog trainer, these words set my teeth on edge.
“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!”
This is usually being shouted by a clueless dog owner whose off-leash dog is barreling toward me and the dog I’m walking or training (on leash, of course, since in this scenario we’re in an area where leashes are legally required). If I happen to be holding a reactive or fearful dog, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Even if I’m holding a dog who is generally friendly, this situation has the potential to sour quickly, possibly creating lifelong behavior problems for the poor leashed dog who is about to get pummeled.
The dog who is coming toward me might be friendly. Often, they are. But the leashed dog is trapped, and has no choice to greet or move away. The off-leash dog can do whatever they want, “friendly” or not. This is not an even playing ground, and even normally friendly dogs can react in a defensive way, thanks to the instinct for fight or flight in situations they perceive as threatening.
So how can you set up for successful dog-dog greetings?
Rule #1: If you are in an area where dogs are legally supposed to be on leash, have your dog on leash. Every time. Even if your dog is friendly, well-behaved and has a good recall, it is not fair to the other dogs in the environment who are respecting the rules. They are automatically going to feel more threatened by an off-leash dog, even if you are able to call your dog away before they reach the leashed dog. And I regularly see dogs who are “well-trained” unable to resist the lure of greeting another dog when I’m out in these environments. If you want to let your dog run off-leash, choose an area where dogs are allowed off-leash.
Rule #2: Always ask before you let your dog approach another dog. Even if the dog looks calm and friendly, some dogs are okay until another dog gets in their face, some dogs show their discomfort in very subtle ways, and some dogs just don’t want to greet your dog. It is also possible that the other dog could be in training to be a working dog, and you could seriously damage their training by letting your dog race up and distract them. (As a service dog trainer – this happens all the time and can be a big setback to our training.)
Rule #3: Teach your dog how to do a polite greeting. This means having them "ask for permission" first to avoid racing up to every dog they see, and it means keeping the actual greeting short and sweet. To have your dog ask permission, I like to have them do a "sit" and "watch me" (at a distance until it becomes a more automatic response), and when I tell them “free” they are allowed to greet the dog. Ideally, walk your dog parallel to the other dog so they are sniffing sides and butts instead of greeting face to face (which is much more intimidating). Count to three, tell your dog “Let’s go!” in a cheerful voice, and walk away. Short greetings are important because the longer the dogs linger, the more likely they are to decide to either play (not ideal on leash) or fight (never okay). If you keep the greeting short and pleasant, you will have a much more successful, friendly dog. And dogs who are uncertain will be able to move away before they decide things aren’t cool and react in a negative way. Reinforce your dog for walking away from the other dog with excited praise, petting, movement, treats or toys to help encourage them to be willing to leave the dog quickly.
Obviously we have less control over how our dogs greet off-leash. I recommend having a really strong recall trained before going to any off-leash areas. I also never recommend taking a dog to an off-leash area if they are not comfortable interacting with other dogs. Watch your dog’s body language during any greetings and encourage them to move away after the initial greeting if you are uncertain both dogs want to play - usually you can do this by moving away yourself, calling them as you go. If the dogs do want to play, ask your dog to take breaks by calling them away and reinforcing them when they come back to you, then allowing them to go play again if they are being good. This helps keep the play calm and appropriate.
And what if you do find yourself in the first situation, holding an on-leash dog while an off-leash dog races toward you? If you have time, get the heck out of there. Tell the other owner to call their dog, loudly and repeatedly if necessary. If they don’t get the hint, or if the dog is too close, my favorite method of keeping the other dog at a distance is to toss a handful of treats, distracting them with goodies on the ground while I make my getaway.
If your dog is reactive, aggressive or afraid when faced with other dogs, get the help of a qualified trainer to set up safe, successful walks.
Appropriate dog/dog interactions can be a lot of fun, but for the sake of your dog and other dogs in your community, don’t be the person shouting, “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” Instead, be the person asking, “Can my dog to say hello?”
Sarah is a trainer in the Austin/Dripping Springs area specializing in reactive dogs and service dogs. She lives with a bundle of doggie mischief named Percy.