In this post I want to talk about how to have your dog greet other dogs and people, whether they’re on- or off-leash. This is a question that I hear a lot from clients here in Utah, who like to go out on the trails. Over the years I’ve developed a formula over the years to facilitate this situation, and encapsulate that formula into one single, solitary word. Cool, right? In theory, it’s very easy too. What’s the word?
I know, maybe you were waiting for that. But my answer is always the same: don’t let your dog meet other dogs on a trail walk, on- or off-leash. This might sound a little extreme, like I don’t want your dog to have fun. Now, I’ll admit that I might be a little more conservative on this topic than some other trainers might be. But that’s purely because I’ve witnessed and heard about so many nightmares that I don’t see any reason for allowing your dog to do this. Let’s devote some time to figuring out why this situation so frequently turns into a problem.
Dogs are social creatures, but the overwhelming majority of them haven’t learned proper social skills. There’s a difference between being social and being able tobehave socially. Humans are social creatures too, but that certainly doesn’t mean that every human learns social skills. Plus, humans learn these skills at different rates; some people act better in social situations, while some behave worse.
But humans have the benefit of a built-in mechanism for meeting. We call it “society.” Some people develop (or destroy) their social skills in a school setting. Others learn to interact with other people at work, or in family groups, or with the other neighborhood kids. We get a lot of repetition within these social mechanisms, which helps us learn what is and is not appropriate in our society.
Most dogs simply don’t get that repetition. Even the owners who try to give their dog a lot of exposure do it inappropriately, and end up with a dog that has lots of social problems. Perhaps he’s too exuberant, or he’s a jerk when he’s playing, or he’s too submissive to other dogs. That’s what happens when owners try to socialize their dogs without understanding dog behavior, alongside other dogs who also have bad social skills.
When you encounter another strange dog, therefore, the chances of that dog being balanced and able to carry on a good canine “conversation” aren’t huge. Most dogs are already behind the eight ball, which means that an encounter could put your dog in a position where there’s a considerable chance that the dog you’re encountering will be a jerk. It doesn’t make sense to put your dog in that position.
The way that most dogs have learned how to greet each other is also a problem. Many owners want their dogs to freak out and jump all over the place when they arrive for a play date. The dogs play very rough for half an hour, and then they go home. These exuberant greetings are crazy and counterproductive. They don’t mimic the way that a good, well-behaved dog will greet another dog A lot of people do that with friends or neighborhood dogs, but this practice teaches very inappropriate greeting skills.
If we introduce a new dog into one of our training groups, we insist that both the new dog and the group are calm. Most owners have unintentionally taught their dog to have very bad manners, letting him pull on his leash, whine, and bark. “Oh, he really wants to play!” they’ll tell you. But they’ve given their dog the worst manners that he could have. In addition, a lot of owners—and even professional dog trainers—don’t teach their dogs to walk on a loose leash. These dogs tend to strain on the leash, which creates tension, frustration, and even aggression. This means that most of the dogs you meet on the trail are already in a bad mindset for interaction.
All of these elements converge together. We don’t know who the dog is or whether it’s been properly socialized. We don’t know if he’s been trained well or knows how to greet properly without pulling on the leash and creating a lot of nervousness for your dog. We don’t know if he has a good mindset. There are so many things about this other dog that we don’t know! So why would you allow your dog to meet that?
Are there any exceptions? Possibly, if you’re good enough at reading the scenario. Imagine that my neighbor is walking his dog, who’s calm by his side, and calls out to me, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” I calmly walk over with my dog, and we ask both dogs to sit. We can tell that they’re getting along really well. Maybe we’re in a good position for a greeting at that point.
So there are exceptions. But most of the time, when people want their dogs to greet another dog, they’re on the trail trying to get from Point A to Point B, and they don’t want to have a discussion. If I had a nickel for every time someone has called out “Hey, my dog’s friendly!” and the dog promptly tries to attack, then I’ d probably have something like $4.38 right now. I’ve seen that happen so many times over the years. Many people have no understanding of their own dog, and think that all dogs should be able to just play with each other.
Of course playing is an important part of canine communication, but it’s fairly low on the list. You shouldn’t start there. Every interaction should start out calmly and under control; later, you can evaluate to see if it’s a good idea to move into play. Be careful out on the trails. Shoo dogs away if they start to come at you. Get off the trail and have your dog sit at your side if you need to do so. When you’re out on the trails, do everything you can to be your dog’s protector.