On lead greetings with other dogs can be very restrictive for both of the dogs involved. The following is an example of what often occurs between two dogs and their people when there is an on lead greeting. You are walking down the street with your dog on a loose lead and spot another dog and person coming towards you. Both dogs’ stop and stare for a second or two, the owners grab hold of the lead further down towards their dogs’ collar and both dogs’ have to strain against the lead, sometimes rearing up, in order to greet each other.
The kind of on lead greeting above is something that I see daily. The problem with it is that when dogs’ are restricted they tend to become more anxious, more excitable, and more reactive. Tense, on lead greetings, also send the wrong kind of message to the other dog. If one dog is rearing up, or straining because they are on such a tight lead, how is the other dog going to interpret this?
When dogs’ meet they cannot use anything else to communicate as effectively as their body, and if their movements are being restricted it is shutting down this primary form of communication. Then, the dogs’ must resort to other methods of communication such as barking and growling to get their message across. But there is a better way to handle on lead dog meetings.
A major part of making the on lead greeting process a smoother one is to appropriately socialise your dog off lead as much as you can with unfamiliar dogs. This off lead socialisation will teach your dog how to communicate with other dogs’ without any restriction placed on them. It will also allow your dog to be more settled around other dogs, thereby reducing the excitement factor when they meet another dog on lead. Much of the straining when dogs meet is due to excitement, as many dogs do not have ample (ample being, daily) opportunity to interact with other dogs off lead.
Once a dog is appropriately socialised, they will be aware of certain greeting etiquette when they meet a strange dog. In a natural scenario two dogs that are approaching will greet each other in a curved manner, bending their heads inwards towards the other dogs’ nose or backside. After engaging in a bit of polite sniffing, either play will be instigated, or they will simply move on.
This polite sniffing is essential information gathering, the dogs’ are determining age, sex and emotion of the other dog. They need this information to form the basis of near future interactions. Without this polite sniffing, signals can be misinterpreted, and misunderstandings can occur.
In order for this polite greeting to take place both of the leads must be loose. A loose lead allows your dog to move their body in the appropriate way to communicate with the other dog. Never underestimate your dogs’ ability to speak ‘dog’. This loose lead greeting requires you to have trust in your dog and the only way that can happen, is with lots and lots of appropriate off lead greetings.
You have two tools you can use for approaching another dog- heeling and loose lead walking. Both of these will have to be practiced enough so that your dog is able to apply them even when they are feeling emotional. You might even like to practice these tools with known, low excitable dogs first.
After a polite greeting the dogs may become tangled, if the dogs are moving slowly it shouldn’t be too much of a concern to detangle them. However, when two dogs’ are excited the leads can become a mess. At this point you have two options, if you are in a safe area and you have time, allow the dogs to play off lead. Dogs’ that play on lead run the risk of becoming tangled and injuring themselves or their people. If you cannot allow the dogs’ to play (and this is OK) simply lure, or call your dog to you in a happy voice, and move on. If the dogs’ seem to hit it off, arrange to meet at the park some time in the future, nothing weird about that, many dog people do it.
With all of this said, there is no rule that says you must meet every dog you pass. Until you master loose lead greetings using the above strategies, you can simply cross the street when you see another dog coming. Don’t make a big deal of it, just ask your dog to come ‘this way’ in a happy voice and hot-tail it to the nearest smelly bush so they are distracted. You may even like to get them to heel with you while you pass the dog on the other side of the road. Once your dog becomes excellent at heeling you will even be able to ask them to heel right past another dog. This will eliminate any straining on the lead, minimising the risk of reactive barking if they cannot greet another dog for whatever reason.
Lets not forget about the humans involved in this interaction either. You can always ask the person you are approaching if it is alright for the dogs to say hello. I do it all the time. Some people say ‘yes’ and that’s great, you will probably notice an instant relaxation of both leads in this instance. Other people say ‘no’, and in this case I simply ask Ben to sit in front of me while they pass, or I heel him past the other dog. No big deal. Good heeling will get you out of many sticky situations.
Maintaining a loose lead during greetings also ensures that if your dog is feeling frightened they can move away. If your dog is backing away from another dog or person, always back off with them. You may find that your dog needs some approach and retreat time before finally making contact with the other dog. Giving your dog this kind of ‘space’ means that they will never feel trapped, and reduces the likelihood of them resorting to aggressive behaviours to defend themselves from a perceived threat.
The lead that you use will also influence on lead greetings. Most people have a five foot lead, I always use a six foot lead. A longer lead will give your dog more room to move and means that he does not get used to pulling on the lead. Most dogs’ who have been walked on a short lead tend to become very used to pulling because they have to pull in order to even lower their heads to the ground for a sniff. If you walk your dog on a retractable lead always lock it in place (with about 6 foot of lead) when you greet another dog. Retractable leads can become dangerous if your dog decides to run around other people and dogs.
Loose lead greetings can be a wonderful opportunity for your dog to meet lots of other dogs for a brief encounter, in this time they will practice polite greetings many times over. It is an insurance policy that develops confidence, and guards against having a dog that strains, barks, growls and intimidates other dogs on lead. It will also allow you space to be able to enjoy your on lead walks, take in some fresh air, and spend relaxing time with your dog.