Not all dogs feel comfortable meeting other dogs. Trainer and behaviour adviser Sarah Whiffen advises on how to manage these encounters, so they remain calm and stress-free.
Politely meeting and greeting other dogs, as well as humans, is really important for your pet’s safety and confidence. But the truth is that many dogs are lacking in the social skills department, and sometimes their guardians inadvertently contribute to the issue.
Most dogs show natural behaviours, such as circling and investigating, when meeting other canines, but when on the lead, they have less freedom to move away or to show polite greeting behaviours.
As there are many places and occasions when your dog has to be on the lead (and since most people will start to introduce their dog to others when on-lead) it’s important to know how to manage such meetings in a way that is calm and stress-free for everyone.
Puppy classes can play an important part in early socialisation, but play needs to be carefully supervised.
If a dog misses out on early socialisation and appropriate education, it may impact on his ability to politely meet and greet and interact nicely with other dogs. But socialisation needs to be the right sort; while puppy classes can play an important role in this part of your dog’s education, they must be properly supervised if he’s to develop both confidence and good manners around other canines. Watch out for any bullying behaviour from individuals, or puppies being overwhelmed and needing a break from play.
It’s also often forgotten that socialisation and education isn’t just for puppies, but is a lifelong, ongoing process — all experiences will affect future interactions.
Some dogs may be anxious about meeting others if they’ve been on the receiving end of intense or unwanted attention, or had their lack of confidence reinforced by negative experiences. Their behaviour may change and your support and care will be needed in future interactions. Health and well-being can also play a part in sociability, and what is appropriate for your dog now may change as he matures and ages. With any sudden changes in behaviour a vet check is always advisable.
A tight leash will add tension into the mix.
Walk this way!
Be prepared to put in extra training if necessary. Before you can encourage a polite and safe meet and greet with another dog, your canine companion needs to know how to walk nicely on the lead. He should be able to walk freely with a little slack in it; not pulling forwards, sideways, or backwards. Spend some time teaching him to walk on either side of you; this can be helpful with keeping his posture balanced as well as in managing meet and greets.
● Dogs are constantly learning, and not just in training sessions. Think about what yours may be learning and practising as it might not be what you intended; if you let him drag you over to greet every dog you see and he jumps all over them, then that’s what you are unintentionally training!
If you need to create some distance, call your dog away rather than tugging at him.
Experiment with loose lead walking on both a flat collar and a harness to see which enables your dog to walk more fluidly, as this may influence your dog’s behaviour and interactions. If you use a harness, ensure it’s well fitted and allows for optimum natural movement. A lead that is too short can also force your dog to pull against you, so make sure yours is long enough to allow some slack.
Be fair and clear with your dog. As well as meeting and greeting politely, being able to move on again is an equally important skill for him to learn, so in addition to loose lead walking skills, work on establishing a good recall and putting a ‘Let’s go!’ cue in place before doing on-lead introductions.
If the other dog turns out not to be so friendly, you’ll then be able to move away with a minimum of fuss, keeping the situation as low-key and stress-free as possible for your own dog.
If you also teach your dog a cue to ‘Go say hi!’ as well as to come away, he will understand that he’s allowed to greet some dogs but not others. This can make not being able to meet every single dog he sees less frustrating for him, and help you choose appropriate dogs for him to meet.
It may look like play, but some dogs fool around when they’re worried, uncertain, or need something to change.
Everyone reacts differently under pressure; knowing your dog’s body language in different situations will help you spot when he isn’t enjoying the attentions of another dog, has had enough, or when he’s become a bit overexcited.
Observing and correctly interpreting body language is important; bear in mind that the dog leaping around, barking, rolling on the ground, jumping up at the owner, or even play-bowing is not necessarily one who is keen for the interaction to continue. ‘Fooling around’ may look like play, but some dogs fool around when they’re worried, uncertain, or need something to change.
Knowing when to stop
‘Sociable’ doesn’t just mean playful; dogs with good social skills can read and respond to other dogs’ body language, so they know when to stop. It may be hard sometimes to accept that perhaps your dog plays a little too
rough with others, or doesn’t always make the politest of approaches, or doesn’t know when to stop, but these days, repercussions can be tough on unruly dogs. Don’t allow boisterous play to continue too long, and work on improving his response to you, even when excited.
Be your dog’s advocate and step in if he’s not comfortable in a situation.
Be an advocate
It’s your responsibility to be your dog’s advocate: consider if an approaching dog is one he might enjoy meeting; he doesn’t need to greet every single dog he meets.
If he’s generally friendly and easy going, it can be easy to get a bit too casual and not monitor interactions as closely as you should. Sometimes things can get a bit overwhelming for even the most tolerant of dogs, and if allowed to continue may cause him to become defensive. He may not know how, or be able, to extricate himself from a situation, so always be prepared to step in and protect him from over-exuberant dogs with no recall.
For the guardians of a worried or reactive dog, or one on restricted exercise, a walk can be ruined by the approach of someone else’s bouncy dog accompanied by the words “he only wants to play” when it’s not a mutual feeling. It’s important to recognise that other dog walkers may be keeping their dog on lead, or want to keep their distance, for a reason. If you see a dog wearing a yellow bandanna or vest, or with a yellow ribbon attached to the lead, it means he needs space. If yours is loose, pop him on-lead, place him on the side of you that is furthest away, and allow a bit of extra room as you pass.
● Find out more about the international Yellow Dog campaign at www.yellowdoguk.co.uk
Polite, socially skilled dogs don’t tend to walk up to each other in a straight line — it’s people who do that! Being on a lead can reduce their options.
When on the lead, your dog’s options are limited. He cannot run off or distance himself, and it makes a polite approach — semi-circling rather than head-on — more difficult. If he’s obviously trying to create space between himself and another, and is reluctant to approach, go with it; just as you might avoid certain individuals, this is a dog he doesn’t want to say hello to. Pushing him into a situation he’s not comfortable with may make him behave defensively.
● Practise with known, sociable dogs, so both of you can work on your greeting skills. A training club or class can be a good place to do this, where advice is available if you need help interpreting your dog’s body language.
● Make sure your dog feels he can move to a distance where he feels safe should he be a little uncertain.
● Keep the lead as relaxed as possible so you don’t add tension into the mix. If you need to create some distance, call your dog away rather than physically tugging at him.
● Keep it brief! Dogs can gain lots of information about each other in an initial two to three-second greeting, generally not a long enough period for problems to occur.
● If the greeting goes well, you can walk near each other before allowing the dogs off-lead if you think they’d enjoy playing together. However, it’s essential to know your dog will respond to you and recall before letting him loose.
● Always ask before letting your dog approach another one — on-lead as well as off.
● If you feel you’re struggling to introduce your dog to others, it means your dog is struggling and needs help and support. Telling him off will only make him more anxious. Instead, seek appropriate advice from a trainer who uses force-free methods.