A colleague posted an interesting question on her Facebook page last week: “Do you let your dog greet other dogs on leash?”
The question wasn’t as interesting as the trend the answers took. There were almost 200 responses at last check. Most of the responders were professional dog trainers, although I’m sure there were a few pet owners responding, too.
The interesting thing was that the answers followed a trend: dog trainers were emphatic that dogs shouldn’t be meeting on leash, whereas dog owners were either neutral or liked the idea of dogs saying hello while on leash.
Why the discrepancy?
The differences were clear. The pet owners didn’t see anything wrong with letting dogs greet on leash (some even encouraged it), while professional dog trainers rarely let their own dogs greet other dogs while on leash. I think it’s because trainers have thousands more hours experience reading dog body language and can tell, sometimes before the dogs even get to greet, that the interaction won’t be a pleasant one. Many dog owners think that their dog should like — and want to greet — every dog it runs across, when in reality lots of dogs don’t really want to meet (or shouldn’t meet other dogs). Think of it this way: do you want to shake hands with every person you come across in the mall? Probably not — and neither do most dogs want to sniff up another dog.
What are the risks of on leash greetings?
Why are so many professionals against the idea of having dogs greet on leash? Here are some of the common reasons dog trainers keep their dogs out of the “say hi” melee. Here are some of the most popular reasons why dog trainers are wary about letting dogs say hi to another dog while leashed.
Fear of the Unknown
I witnessed a friendly 12 week old puppy trot up to another dog to say hello, only to have the other dog grab the puppy by the muzzle and not let go. The puppy was screaming, the owner was screaming, and the owner of the other dog was horrified. It was ten long seconds of screaming before the other dog let the puppy go.
The moral of this story: if you don’t know the other dog well, it’s safest to keep your dog away. The owner of the other dog may either not know the dog isn’t friendly to other dogs or may not have the chance to say anything to you if you allow your dog to approach too quickly. Sometimes, the other dog might be friendly most of the time, but finds the occasional dog offensive. I’d hate for your dog to be the odd dog that gets the stranger dog riled up.
Bottom line: if you don’t know the dog and the owner really well, keep right on walking — no dog-to-dog greetings. It’s just too risky.
On Leash Greetings are Clumsy
Dogs prefer to greet other dogs in a very specific manner. They like to approach from the side, head down a bit, and like to sniff the rear end of the other dog. When both dogs greet in this appropriate manner, owners can be left trying to untangle leashes and try to dance around to keep up with the dogs. In an instant, dogs (and people) can become entangled in the leashes and doggie tempers can flare with the unexpected restriction of movement. Also, if there is going to be a dog discussion, it’s not a great idea to become entangled in their leashes — the dogs get stuck and can’t get away from one another even when they try (and people get knocked down, too, adding to the chaos).
Other times, leashes prevent the natural greeting behavior and the without the prescribed ritual, the dogs can get the wrong impression of the other dog. If, for instance, a dog would ordinarily approach from the side, but because of the leash restriction must approach from the front, the other dog could find this direct approach a social offense that results in a stiffer body, which in turn signals to the approaching dog possible unfriendliness, and things devolve from there and the result could be an unfriendly discussion.
Our dog, Lily, is a horrible dog-to-dog greeter if she’s on a leash. The restriction of movement that the leash imposes is enough to make Lily uncomfortable around other dogs. That uncomfortable feeling is translated into what dog trainers call “reactivity.” She barks, jumps, and pulls toward other dogs if she’s on-leash — and not in a happy, carefree manner. If she’s off-leash, she’s a happy camper and is quite appropriate with unknown dogs.
I suspect that Lily’s reactivity is caused by some conflict — one part of her would really like to greet the other dog, but she’s not exactly comfortable with the situation and the leash restricts her ability to get away if she chose that option. Therefore, when the opportunity to greet is presented, we get two different reactions depending on whether she’s on leash or off.
Reinforces Bad Habits
Even if both dogs are friendly and would love saying hello to one another, they’re likely so excited to see one another that they forget their leash manners. You might think “Oh, what’s the harm in a little pulling when they’re visiting friends?” The harm is that dangerous and inappropriate behavior is being reinforced. Reinforced behaviors get stronger, better, and occur more often — do you really want your dog to get better at pulling? Pulling to get to another dog is problematic for several reasons: (1) you’re reinforcing pulling — the dog gets what he wants when he pulls; (2) pulling is dangerous for you and for the dog. You could fall, hurt your arm/shoulder, or any number of other injuries. (3) Tight leashes can contribute to tension between dogs which can increase the stress level of one (or both) dogs. Often, when greeting on tight leashes, dogs will explode into barking and lunging which can turn quickly into a dog fight that no one saw coming.
Better Alternatives to Leash Greetings
So what’s an owner to do? You’ve got a dog who loves to play with other dogs and who probably craves that social interaction and physical activity. How can you get your dog the socialization and exercise he so desperately needs?
Securely fenced yards are the best places to let dogs play with pre-screened, compatible dogs. Our neighbor has a great dog, but her yard isn’t fenced. So when our dogs are driving us batty from being cooped up too long, we simply text one another and she’ll bring her dog over to our fenced yard. I’ll let our dogs out and let the fun unfold. Of course, we supervise their play and end it when the dogs get tired.
If you have a friend with a dog, leash up your dogs and go for a nice long walk together. Parallel walking keeps the dogs busy walking, but they’re able to have some social time as well. All their needs are being met and you’re getting some exercise and social time with your friend. It’s a win-win for the dogs and the people.
Another option to get your dog some exercise and social time is an on-leash hike with a doggie buddy. Sometimes the trails won’t let the dogs enjoy parallel walking, but going single-file on a trail is fine, too. The sights and sniffs on a trail hike are amazing for the dogs and just like parallel walking, they’re able to get several needs met (and you, too)!
You may notice that I’ve not mentioned dog parks as an alternative. I like dog parks if they’re empty. I don’t like the free-for-all that happens at dog parks if there are inappropriate, overly enthusiastic, rude, bullying, or aggressive dogs. If you removed those dogs from the park there’d be very few dogs left in the dog park. I’m all for finding your dog’s bestie and heading off to an empty dog park so the dogs can enjoy a leash-free romp. But to walk up to a populated dog park where you don’t know all the dogs and their owners and just let your dog take his chances with whoever happens to be there — that’s a risk I’m not willing to take regardless of how much exercise my dog could get. I can provide a safer, more structured, less stressful exercise environment than a dog park with unknown dogs.
We want to hear from you: do you let your dog meet other dogs on leash?