Leashes are a problem. When I first started teaching Reactive Rehab, my class for reactive dogs, the class consisted mainly of mature dogs some of whom were truly dog aggressive. They had histories of dogfights and bite records. Within the last several years the demographic for Reactive Rehab has changed. The ages of the dogs have become younger and younger and now the majority of dogs in this class are not truly dog aggressive; in fact, most of them are fine with other dogs off leash or at the least have a couple of doggie friends/roommates they interact and play with on regular basis.
The majority of the dogs I have in Reactive Rehab are reactive for one (or both) of two reasons: 1. Fear 2. Poor impulse control/frustration. This blog is not about my reactive dogs though. It is instead intended for those of you without reactive dogs. Yet. Although I absolutely love teaching my Reactive dog class, I would much rather meet folks first in Puppy Pounce and The Basics and avoid the hardship/frustration/even sadness I see in both the dogs and the humans in Reactive Rehab.
Along with the change of demographic of my Reactive Rehab class, my opinion of on-leash greetings has changed over the past few years as well. I do not think your dog should greet other dogs on leash, yes even if they are NON-reactive and here’s why…
I know this may be a strange concept for our American dogs (and their humans) but in many European countries it is not the cultural norm for dogs (or humans) to greet unknown dogs on leash. These European dogs are often seen as better behaved with far fewer reactive behaviors. Most sport and obedience dog handlers have been practicing this (non-leash greeting) for years. If you go to any dog training conference you will see everyone giving each others dogs space when they pass (and usually treat their dog as they go by).
When dogs greet on leash one of three OUTCOMES is going to occur:
- The dogs come head to head and dog #1 goes over the top of dog #2’s shoulders. Dog #2 says “never mind, no threat here” and gives appeasement gestures or dog #2 goes back at dog #1 for his rudeness and a fight ensues.
- The dogs come at each other and dog #1 goes into a play bow (elbows down, rump up) and dog #2 ignores OR dog #2 says “ok, let’s play!” Polite dog play is nose-to-tail and circular so if the dogs start playing on leash they often become tangled and instead of play, one or both of the dogs gets nervous (because they are now tied together) and now a fight can ensue. Even if a fight does not happen, one or both of the dogs can certainly be frightened by the experience. Definitely not good for a puppy or young dog. Greeting other dogs while exuberant and on leash is not a good way to socialize your dog.
- The dogs come at each other (calmly), have a brief sniff (1-3 seconds) and then go on their own way.
Since we often do not know which of the three above examples will occur between our dog and an unknown dog, I always try to facilitate #3 above (see teaching “Go Say Hi” below).
Because of the outcomes listed above there are three additional REASONS WHY I do not recommend dogs greeting on leash.
- The leash is a trap and it makes for an unnatural canine greeting. Any dog on a leash is trapped; they cannot get away if they want to. When dogs greet naturally (off leash) they come to each other at a slight arc, and greet nose to tail, circling each other. That is a polite “how-do-you-do”. On leash, that normal greeting is impossible (head on, leash tension).
- When dogs are allowed to “just say hi” to every dog they see, they start to expect it and then get frustrated (and reactive) when they are not allowed to do so. When we sometimes let our pups meet other dogs/people on leash and sometimes don’t (“I’m in a rush,” “that guy looks weird”) we exacerbate the problem and can create reactivity. The dog is wondering “Can I say hi to this one, this one, this one?” and frustration and arousal levels increase.
- Your dog is literally connected to you on leash. His (and your) attention and focus should be on each other.
The two main types of leash reactivity we see are fear-based and a lack of impulse control/frustration. So, to be proactive with your dog and prevent leash reactivity before it starts here’s WHAT CAN WE DO:
1. Don’t coax your dog into a greeting he may not want (fearful), or one he doesn’t know how to manage in a polite, calm way (impulse/frustration).
2. If you are uncomfortable telling folks to leave you alone for fear of seeming rude or antisocial, one little trick I have found that works is to try to get busy (work on “look” or “sit”) with your dog when someone approaches and then say “oh, sorry, we are training right now.” That usually works to back them off.
3. Teach your dog a “Go Say Hi” cue. This facilitates the 1 -3 second greeting (see above) and can be used when people thrust their dog (or themselves) upon your dog. The “Go Say Hi” is a bit of a fake out – this cue means: go out towards the person/dog, have a sniff (1-3 seconds) and then come back to my side. We teach this by letting the dog approach (someone they want to) and then have them come back and target your hand. Of course, If the dog is at all leery of the dog/person, do NOT give a “Go Say Hi” cue.
4. Teach your dog to stay by your side (in a sit, stand or down) while the humans shake hands and chit chat. If your dog is not used to pulling towards and greeting every dog or human he sees, he will be relaxed and calm whenever you approach others on leash.
5. Allow your dog to greet dogs by parallel walking or parallel play. See How To Introduce Dogs here.
So, I promise I’m not just being mean or anti-social when I don’t allow your dog to greet other dogs in obedience class or when I don’t want my dog to “play” with yours when we see you out on leash but no thank you, my dog doesn’t want to “just want to say hi.”