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Greeting Dogs on Leash

It is common norm in North America to think you need to have your dog greet as many other dogs on leash as possible to help “socialize” them to other dogs.

The pros and cons with this are very similar to dog parks. However greeting on leash is often more problematic than dog parks because the “flight” response is taken away so only the “fight” response remains. This is the case where your dog or an approaching dog feels threatened. We have had many people tell us that there dog is terrible with dogs on leash but at the park they have no problem. This can also be due to leash aggression.

If you have an Omega or Low Beta type dog they can do well their entire lives greeting other dogs out on a walk. Even if they get attacked by another dog they can still do well. Mid-Betas and higher can develop bad aggression problems after one bad incident greeting another dog on leash.


The potential issues with greeting dogs on leash.

Different Views from People

Your view may differ from another persons view as to what constitutes a friendly dog. Years ago when I was first getting into training dogs we were out for a walk with our dog and coming up the trail was another guy with his dog on a leash. He asked if my dog was friendly and I replied yes. He said his was too and was wondering if I wanted to let them greet. His dog had a muzzle on and was snarling and lunging at my dog. I thought to myself that his definition of friendly must be a whole lot different than mine.

We have also seen many cases where people contact us and said that their dog had attacked another dog on leash for the first time a while back. They thought they had done a good enough job socializing their dog and decided they should do more. They then went out to greet other friendly dogs and their dog attacked the next dog as well. Quite often people think the issue is due to not enough socialization. So they do what they think is best and try to greet other dogs. Sometimes it is not until the second or third time a dog attacks another dog on leash before they think a bad trend is forming and they seek the help of a trainer.


Dog Types

Omegas as mentioned above can be excellent their entire lives at greeting other dogs. Mid Betas and higher often develop bad problems when greeting other dogs on walks. They can snap or get into fights with the other dog. Sometimes they just go completely crazy when seeing another dog and try to get over to the other dog as quick as possible.

Knowing and trusting the other dog is important if you are going to let your dog greet another dog on leash. If you don’t know and trust the other dog you are better off not letting them greet on leash.


Habit

There is a core rule we use when training dogs that states you are Training Every Second. Whatever the dog does they get better at it whether it is a good behaviour or bad.

If you always have your dog greet another dog on a walk they will get used to always greeting first. This can turn the dog into one that is a bit of a nightmare to walk. They may get very excited, reactive or aggressive and try to pull you over to any other dog they see.

On the other side if you never let your dog greet another dog and just always pass them on a walk, that is what you teach your dog to be good at. Go for a nice leisurely walk and ignore the other dogs. This seems to teach the dog that you are a good leader and protector. You will keep them safe and you are not going to require them to settle their position with any dog approaching.

You will sometimes see a dog get very excitable and the person may drop the leash and let their dog run over without asking or they may ask you if it is ok if they “say hi”.

Our hypothesis to the “excited greeting” is due to one of the Pack Structure rules, Greeting. A higher ranking dog greets before a lower ranking dog does. These excited dogs are trying to figure out if that other dog is a potential threat. By getting fired up they will read the other dog’s body language and determine if they are a threat. Often when the dog comes running over they sniff nose to nose and if neither make a move they can decide neither want to fight. Sometimes they will then pass on. There is the potential for a game of chase. There is also the potential for a fight if neither dog looks like they want to back down.

If you ask someone that has a dog that is reactive or aggressive on leash they will often tell you that if the other dog looks at their dog or acts excited it will really get their dog fired up. If the other dog pays no attention to them, they do much better.

Out of respect for others it is always best to ask the other person if you want the dogs to greet. It is best to not assume it is ok for your dog’s own safety as you don’t always know what the other dog is like.

To help with your bond between you and your dog, to ensure their safety and to set the habit that you pass other dogs calmly you may want to avoid having your dog greet any other dogs on leash. Since it is such a common norm to let them greet, if you say you don’t want to some people may look at you as snobby or think you are doing a bad thing by not letting them greet. Two ways to get around this are:

  1. Look like you are training - Praise your dog and ignore the other dog and person and a lot of people will leave you alone as it looks like you are training.
  2. Working dog - Tell them your dog is a working dog and they are not allowed to greet other dogs or people. You can say they are going to be working in the presence of a lot of other dogs and people and your dog has to learn to ignore them and focus on you. A lot of people understand those rules and will respect them. They will often ask what kind of working dog you are training. You could say you are training them to work with kids at the children’s hospital, seniors at a senior’s home, tracking, nose work, search and rescue, etc. It is very easy to do those things when your dog is well trained.


Stressful

If there is value in thinking dogs share commonalities between wolves and if it is true that the biggest cause of death in a wolf is being killed by another wolf or wolves from a different pack then greeting another strange dog can be quite stressful to a dog.

Even with coyotes we have heard of people doing male challenge calls in another coyotes territory. People sometimes say they are hiding in a blind and the coyotes will come running right up to them or over top of where they are hiding trying to find the intruder. The intent could be chasing them off or even killing them if necessary.

As humans we are a primate species and we are quite social. It can be a lot of fun to meet new people. We may often think that our dogs will enjoy the same social lives that we do in meeting new people.

It seems to us after watching dogs interact over the years that the first meeting can be quite stressful as they don’t know what the other dog will be like. Will they try to hurt them, take what they love, etc.

Many people think that a dog with a tail wagging means they are happy. A high wagging tail shows confidence and a desire to engage the other dog. We have witnessed and heard of a lot of other dogs with high wagging tails right before they bit another dog or a person. A low wagging tail means they want to engage in a more submissive manner (the iconic Golden Retriever very happy to greet with the tail down low and wagging so hard the whole body wiggles).

Next time you are out take a look at the dogs you see. The ones that look pretty fired up, are their tails up high? The ones that are real easy going, are their tails down low? Drive passed a dog park and watch the dogs interact. Take notice of where their tails are and what they are doing.

The hypothesis we have formed when you see two dogs approaching one another on leash and one or both get fired up and the other owner says “They just want to say hi”. It looks to be a strong possibility that they are getting fired up to look like a dog that won’t back down if challenged. Imagine if you saw a person coming that looked like they might do you harm. If you started shouting at them and acting real tough you might be able to scare them off or they may give you a body cue that you know they don’t mean to be a threat. If they act tough and run toward you, you may think “oh crap, they called my bluff”, I better run!

We have found it helpful to think of this in human terms. What if you were out for a walk and you came across me and I came running up to you full speed and my wife yelled “it’s Ok, he’s friendly!” Would you still think I was a weirdo and be a bit creeped out if I was sniffing you nose to nose? What if you were with some friends or family and they let that happen to you. They said, “He sure does want to say hi to you, is he ever friendly”.

So if you think that we as a primate species are likely more social to strangers than our dogs are. If this doesn’t seem to be an acceptable method to approach other humans then is it possible that our dogs are even more stressed out by this approach?


Summary

Knowing the pros and cons to letting dogs greet on leash will help you make better choices. If you know you have a naturally lower ranking dog and you are good at identifying other low ranking dogs then you may never come across a problem.

Remember that you don’t always know what another person’s definition of friendly is. You don’t know if their dog was just attacked by another dog and your dog is the first victim after that dog’s bad incident. Your dog may also be the guinea pig as the nice dog the other person wants their dog to greet because it has gone after one or two other dogs before. These people can think they are trying to do the right thing by getting their dog to greet more nice dogs.

The safest bet is to teach your dog that you are a great leader and you will keep them safe. If you teach your dog to pass all other dogs on the walk, that will become your dog’s habit. They will socialize by learning to see those other dogs and knowing they just pass them.

The Big Take Away

Never let your dog run up to greet another dog without first asking the other people’s permission. We work with a lot of people who are rehabilitating dog aggressive dogs. Letting a dog run up to another dog you don’t know can trigger extremely bad fights.

Put another way, if you had seen everything we have, you would never let your dog run up to another strange dog.

The same respect should be given to other people without dogs. We have worked with people who have been attacked by dogs or have severe phobias of dogs. It is always most polite to ask if you can let your dog come over to say hi.

If you have ever had a dog charge at you and bite you, you will understand. If not and you would like to, let me know as we can use some guinea pigs for dog to human aggression cases we work with.

Even the toughest of the tough of bad guys are afraid of dogs. There is a prison close to us that had a riot. They called in extra prison guards, police, TAC teams, all with guns, tazers and mace. The only thing that worked was cutting loose 3 police German Shepherds. All of the inmates went running back to their cells.

If someone has been attacked by a dog before, even a friendly dog that comes running up can trigger bad bouts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

So if you have ever let your dog go run up to a stranger and they weren’t happy about it, you don’t always know what their background has been. It can be quite difficult to get over a bad ordeal involving another dog.

If you have, don’t beat yourself up too badly. We are pretty sure every one of us has done that before we learned it wasn’t polite to do. I know I have and people weren’t happy and I just thought they were jerks that didn’t like animals. After working with dogs and people as long as I have, I now realize differently.