A client recently asked: “My dog goes to daycare and plays well at the dog park, but if we meet another dog on a walk, he completely freaks out! Is he possessed?”
Great question! This split personality phenomenon can be traced back to the leash. Yes, a simple tool intended to keep our dogs out of harm’s way has become a source of tension, frustration and miscommunication.
Here’s why: It changes the canine conversation. Dogs communicate through body language and space, and a leash interferes with their ability to express greeting signals freely and clearly.
NATURAL, OFF-LEASH GREETINGS = relaxed & circular
In a friendly, non-threatening meeting, dogs approach each other cautiously in a slightly curved arc, respecting each other’s space, and greet nose-to-tail. They spend a few seconds circling in this manner until they decide whether there’s any interest in additional interaction. Facial expressions and body posture are alert, but not rigid or fixated. Tail might initially be raised but wag loosely, not stiff.
UNNATURAL, LEASHED GREETINGS = tense & linear
Dogs meeting on a walk approach in a more direct, head-on fashion, and straining against the leash creates a rigid, forward-leading posture – both of which send a more confrontational message. In addition, the leash prevents the shy dog from fleeing in self-preservation and creates barrier frustration in an over-zealous dog. Handlers unwittingly compound the problem by becoming stressed and tightening the leash in an attempt to gain control. Given this tense introduction, the “conversation” typically escalates in snowball fashion.
While we have the best intentions in wanting our dogs to be “social,” it’s not a good idea on-leash unless your dog is familiar with the other dog and you can anticipate how the encounter will go.
If you’re determined to facilitate on-leash introductions with unfamiliar dogs, be proactive:
* Loose Leashes Only! – Do NOT allow your dog to “pull” you to another dog or any other destination unless you want to reinforce that behavior. If you use a flexi-leash (not recommended!), don’t give your dog free rein. Instead, consistently teach your dog that pulling on his leash causes you to stop, not move forward. “Slack” will help set the stage for more neutral introductions. Anything that increases tension or causes pain (pinch collars, etc.) will increase the likelihood of a negative exchange and future reactivity (your dog will associate other dogs as the source of his torment).
* Be Selective – Your dog shouldn’t expect to meet every dog he sees, and you’re in the driver’s seat in determining when it’s appropriate. If either dog is highly aroused and animated, that is NOT the time to make an acquaintance. We want to reward patient, calm behavior.
* Respect Other Dogs and Owners – Give them space! Not every dog is social; avoiding an introduction is better than allowing a bad one.
* Learn Canine Body Signals – Is your dog really social? Is his greeting etiquette polite or rude? How receptive is the other dog? Does he look agitated? Scared? Trying to avoid you? Your ability to read the situation can help prevent negative interactions.
* Teach Focus – Dogs don’t multi-task; if you train your dog a cue to focus on you, he cannot react to another dog or other distractions. With this method you can slowly close the distance between dogs for a gradual introduction.
* Create Positive Associations – If certain triggers (like the presence of another dog) stresses your dog out, presenting positive rewards (like cheese whiz) before the dog has a chance to react can change his response. Wow - another dog = tasty treats!
Now, this is not to say that well-socialized dogs can’t or shouldn’t coexist. Dog parks and dog-friendly events create welcomed opportunities for human and canine interaction – it just makes understanding canine behavior even more critical. Find out more below, and make plans to join us at Bark-N-Brew this Saturday, June 23, at Chips in Ankeny and WeimaRunner 5k, June 30, at Raccoon River!
- ASPCA -Canine Body Language
- Companion Animal Solutions - Leash Greetings
- Kathy Sdao, MA, ACAAB - Leash Aggression
Got a question? Ask the Trainer: Renee Jetter, ABCTC, CPCT
* Professional dog trainer; co-owner of Canine Craze Performance Center in Urbandale – an 18,000 sq-ft. dog training, daycare, boarding and events facility. Animal Behavior College, 2006 graduate.
* Expertise: puppy development; positive reinforcement training; obedience; competition; agility; tricks; freestyle; scent detection; canine good citizen/therapy dog testing; Paws & Effect volunteer service dog trainer.