In honor of “National Dog Bite Prevention Week” (May 18-24, 2014), here are a few reminders regarding dog to dog greetings. Most bites to other dogs occur when dogs are improperly introduced or put in a situation where they feel the need to overreact in order to defend themselves. Just to be clear, only dogs with a known history of playing well with others should ever be introduced to each other. If you even think your dog is questionable, please do not introduce your dog to any other dog without proper assistance or guidance.
As we have discussed in the past (http://perfect-pooch.com/what-the-leash-should-and-should-not-be-used-for/), leash greetings are never the best option. In case you missed this discussion, the basic idea of allowing your dog to pull on leash towards other dogs or move towards a dog who is pulling reinforces pulling, rude greetings, and increases the likelihood of an altercation. Many dogs who are perfectly friendly and dog-safe off leash in dog parks or at daycare, are leash reactive or have space issues that the leash can aggravate. Always be cautious introducing your dog to another leashed dog.
There are always going to be situations where your leashed dog is in close quarters with other dogs on leash or needs to pass another dog and you would like to try a greeting. Checking out another dog is an awesome reward. Take advantage of the fact that your dog wants to greet another dog! Always assess the situation, including your dog’s body language and the posture of the other dog. Asking the owner is also an important step, also. If they tell you their dog is not interested, take their word for it and move away. However, if they tell you that their dog is friendly but you aren’t sure or the dog looks uncomfortable, move away. It is always in your dog’s best interest not to be put in a dangerous situation, even if that means missing out on a little social interaction, there are better ways to socialize.
A few words on body language: dogs communicate primarily by scent and body language. They are far less verbal than we are and are sensitive to very mild changes in position and eye contact. In a normal dog-dog interaction, you will not have enough time to fully deconstruct the body language that you might be presented with, but in a nutshell you want to see: loose bodies, perked but not stiff ears, open mouths without exposed teeth, and tails lightly wagging or slightly elevated but not stiff. You do not want to see: stiff bodies, mouths closed and puckered, ears or tails held high and stiff.
If the owner indicates that their dog is friendly and the dog looks friendly and under control, you can try a quick initial greeting. Naturally dogs greet by presenting the side of their body to each other, i.e. they curve towards each other and investigate back to front. Unfortunately many dogs are not that polite and will rush right up to the face of another dog. If your dog is a face-to-face greeter, try the 3-second rule: let your dog approach the other dog, count to three, then call your dog back for an awesome reward. If the other dog still looks interested, then let your dog greet again for a few more seconds. This is extra rewarding for your dog since they get to greet, get a treat, then greet again- awesome! It also allows the other dog a chance to see the side and back of your dog, which is more natural than a head-on challenge. Be aware that if your dog is developmentally a puppy (under 18 weeks) their rude behavior will most likely be forgiven. However, once they reach adolescence that puppy license will quickly expire and dogs will not react as favorably. Therefore, it is better to teach an appropriate greeting now. Always keep the leash loose.
If you are looking to introduce your dog to another dog for more than a few seconds, if you want them to socialize with a friends dog for example, I recommend a slightly longer process greeting. This is also a good way to introduce a new housemate or family member’s dog who might be coming to stay for a while. For this type of introduction, you need two people, high value rewards like hot dog or cheese, and a fairly open space (see http://perfect-pooch.com/the-value-of-treats/). Keep the dogs on leash far enough apart that they notice each other but can easily be redirected with a treat. Walk in parallel lines rewarding any calm looks at the other dog or at you and slowly decrease the distance between them, keeping humans in the middle of this walking sandwich. After a little while, when the dogs seem uninterested in each other you can allow them to sniff or greet and practice calling them away for a tasty treat every few seconds. If you are in a safe area you can drop the leashes at this point, if you are comfortable, but still practice calling them away from each other to avoid over arousal. Once the dogs are comfortable, you can take them wherever you were planning to go hang out or socialize. If it is the house of one of the dogs, just be sure food and toys are put away initially.
Again, just to be clear, if you think your dog is less than 100% comfortable or if the other dog looks uncomfortable, walk away. I am definitely an owner that stumps most other owners because my dog looks friendly (and generally is) but I will say, “No thank you” to anyone who wants to introduce their dog. This is perfectly acceptable. Any time an owner says they are not interested, you should walk away. The owner may be training their dog for a specific dog sport or service and not want their dog confused by the occasional greeting, the owner may be working on cool calm leash behavior, or maybe the dog likes other dogs but is dealing with an injury. Take the time to assess all the dogs involved and ask the people involved. For the record, my dog is large, like 130lbs large, so I don’t want her associating the leash with play or I might get dragged over to every wagging tail.
Before your dog is ever allowed to greet on leash, you should have great control of their behavior and be sure that when you call they will turn and move towards you. If you are not sure, you should first work on this behavior before introducing the distraction of another dog. The lobby of your daycare, your vet, or the doorway of any pet friendly venue is not the place to try a greeting. Doorways and entrances are energy vortexes, as another trainer I know recently pointed out, they intensify any dogs’ arousal level and vastly increase the risk of an altercation in close quarters. These are good management situations where you need to have good control of your dog keep them away from others. If possible, extricate yourself as soon as reasonably possible. If you are picking up your dog from daycare or walking into the vet, simply finish your transaction quickly and walk out. Do not try to socialize with your dog on leash as other dogs move around them. It may sound rude, but do not try to hold the door open for another person and dog forcing the two dogs close and cornering one or the other. It simply won’t work. Clear the door and allow the next person enough space to walk through. By following these simple rules, your dog will be more comfortable in situations with other dogs and you can get the enjoyment that comes from having a comfortable, confident dog.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator