Many dog owners have the idea that meeting every dog you pass during a walk is an essential part of dog socialization.
It is not.
On-leash greetings are actually the opposite of what you want to do. Rather, they are a great way to cause fights, reinforce poor behavior, and damage the bond between you and your dog.
Social distancing is the greatest thing to happen to dog owners.
Other dog owners stay away.
I’ve been practicing social distancing with my dogs way before it was a mandate, and we’ll continue to do so long after the pandemic ends.
9 Reasons to Avoid On-Leash Greetings with Other Dogs
It couldn’t be easier to avoid meeting other dogs on leash. The hardest part is getting over the feeling of being rude to the other owner.
You’ll hear them say things like “oh that dog isn’t nice,” or “that dog doesn’t want to play.”
Just ignore them and keep moving. Your job is to keep your dog safe and sometimes, it just means that you might come off as anti-social.
I learned the hard way about why it’s a bad idea to allow two dogs to meet on leash. I lay out the reasons below and hope that it helps you avoid the same mistakes I have made.
Leashes Don’t Allow Dogs to Properly Meet
Dog greetings happen in a very specific manner, it’s a bit of a dance.
When dogs meet, they approach from the side, not face-to-face. This is rude and threatening in dog language. From there, the dogs will do a little circling as they sniff one another’s rear ends.
Then they move on, engage in play, or fight.
On leash, dogs only have a six-foot radius of space to move and it is based on where their owner stands. If they are only able to approach another dog based on the space allowed with the leash, they can send mixed signals to other dogs.
As dogs circle around one another, the leashes can become tangled, which further reduces their ability to greet properly and increases the tension on the leash, which can ultimately lead to fights.
Tension causes Leash Reactivity
On leash, dogs cannot move away from one another to create space, and instead remain in forced close proximity. This can fuel discomfort or anxiety, often resulting in leash reactivity.
On-leash greetings trigger a dog’s fight or flight response. When they are unable to move away from a situation (flight), they’re left with the only other option, which is fight.
Dogs create space in a number of ways:
Dogs Respond to Human Stress
The tension that travels down the leash speaks volumes.
Nervous dog owners send stress signals down the leash to their dog, causing them to react accordingly by lunging, barking, or biting.
Now, think about how you react when this happens.
You pull on the leash to get your dog away from the other dog, creating even more tension, causing even more reactivity.
It’s a vicious circle, folks.
Dogs Don’t Need Dog Friends
I get that dogs are cute.
I get that it’s fun to watch dogs play together.
However, I don’t get why dog owners think that just because we both have dogs, they need to meet.
Sure, dogs are social creatures, but they don’t need dog friends. Some dogs don’t like other dogs. Some dogs are more introverted.
I mean, do you go up to every single person you meet on the street and shake their hand? No.
Do you see parents allowing their child to meet all the children they encounter? I’m not a parent, but I don’t think this happens.
Forced on-leash greetings make many dogs uncomfortable, but their owners are so caught up in the belief that they need to meet all the dogs that they’re missing clear signs of stress or reactivity, such as:
- Lip Licking
- Tail between the legs
- “Whale eye”
- Avoidance behavior
Dogs are incredible communicators, their humans need to learn what their dog is trying to say.
On-Leash Greetings Reinforce Poor Behavior
Let’s say you let your kid pick a treat from the checkout line every time you’re at the grocery store.
Then, one day, you decide that they shouldn’t have so much sugar and you deny them the treat.
They probably throw a tantrum.
Dogs act similarly when they don’t get something that has become a repeated behavior.
For a dog, the candy at the checkout line scenario looks something like this:
Your dog is overjoyed to meet a new dog friend.
Soon, they start pulling you toward every dog they meet, because they have learned this is acceptable behavior. (and you’re reinforcing the pulling by allowing them to go toward the thing they want)
When you are in a rush and need to avoid a greeting, your dog throws a temper tantrum by barking and flipping out.
Now you’ve created a monster.
You Don’t Know the Other Dog
Parents teach children about stranger danger, so why do we force our dogs to trust strange dogs?
Untrained dog owners will
walk allow their dog to drag them right up to you without permission and invade your space. Rude!
These are the same people who let their off-leash dog run up to you on the trail while shouting “my dog is friendly!”
Dog owners of “friendly dogs” don’t understand leash reactivity because they don’t experience it with their dog.
Other dog owners (and I have been this dog owner) desperately want their dog to be friendly with other dogs, so they allow the greetings even though their dog starts a fight.
Just cross the street, my friends. Immediately. Don’t let Fluffy come into your dog’s space. I’ve learned the hard way, learn from me.
On-Leash Greetings Undermine Your Training
Not only are you reinforcing the poor behavior mentioned above (pulling, barking), but you’re not teaching your dog to walk nicely.
We love training and the majority of our on leash walks are structured walks. This means that my dog is focused on me, not everything around us.
I love structured walks because they help build the bond between my dog and me, teach my dog to look to me as their leader, and we can use passing dogs to work on our reactivity, with an eventual goal of ignoring them.
Diminishes Your Leadership
When you continually put your dog into a situation where they feel uncomfortable, they lose trust in you as their leader and protector.
Your #1 job as a dog parent is to keep your dog safe.
By forcing your dog to repeatedly meet strange dogs that may start fights or that they don’t want to be around breaks the bond you need to be a team.
A broken bond means that your dog won’t respond to commands, won’t value you, and will find ways to get what they need (i.e. start fights, growl, lunge, etc.)
Now, you’ve got yourself a “bad dog,” and guess whose fault that is? Hint: It’s not your dog’s fault.
Teaches Your Dog to Value Other Dogs Over You
If you allow your dog to meet other dogs whenever they please, they learn to value the greeting over you, the handler.
Now, when you say no, they protest or when you say yes, they don’t listen.
You need to be the most valuable thing in the world to your dog. Devaluing yourself damages your relationship with your dog and leads to frustration on both ends.
How to Properly Introduce Dogs
There are a few different ways to properly introduce dogs. I don’t even allow my dog to greet their pals on leash for many of the reasons I mentioned above.
Above all, I carefully select the dogs that I allow Sitka to meet. I make sure that the owner of the other dog and I are one the same page regarding ground rules (explained below) and that both dogs are well-trained.
I try to prevent introductions with unknown dogs as much as possible. This may seem restrictive; however, it’s just not worth the risk to me.
Structured Dog Walking
This is my go-to whenever I meet a new dog. I pick a wide trail or park where both dogs and owners can walk side-by-side (dogs on the outside) at a heel. This keeps the dogs moving, which helps them from settling into a reactive mindset.
Since I often meet new friends on the trail, this is probably the method I use most often, for both on and off-leash hikes.
If we are planning to allow the dogs to hike off leash at some point, I make sure to communicate clearly with the other dog owner prior to meeting to get an understanding of their dog’s skill level off-leash.
Start off walking single file on the trail, leaving plenty of space between the dogs. It’s ok to let them sniff their surroundings, as long as you keep the space between them in the beginning.
When you see that both dogs are calm, you can switch to single file walking and allow the back dog to sniff the rear of the front dog briefly, then proceed to the head of the line to allow the other dog the opportunity to sniff.
If you see that both dogs are calm, then you can let them off leash, provided both owners have the skills to recall their dogs and break up a fight, if necessary.
Training Sessions in Shared Space
Another great option for introducing new dogs is to work on separate training sessions in a shared space. This can be at a park, in a large room, or anywhere there is ample space for each handler to work with their dog.
Not only does this method provide a great training opportunity to work with your dog around distractions, but it also gives each dog the chance to spend time working around the other dog.
Remember, dogs don’t socialize by play alone, just being in the same space counts.
What about Off-Leash Greetings?
While off-leash greetings are more ideal for dogs, in terms of not being restricted by a leash, I choose not to allow my dog to meet any dogs that we don’t know, for many of the same reasons listed above.
I want my dog to value me.
I want my dog to trust me.
I don’t trust the skills and handling of the other dog owner if I don’t know them. (Because, remember, I have been that unskilled dog owner before)
If you do choose to allow dogs to meet off-leash, here are a few recommendations:
Avoid dog parks. Dog parks are breeding grounds for spreading disease. They are also great places to go if you want to see dogs fight and if you want to completely devalue yourself to your dog.
Further, there is simply not enough space for a dog to escape among a group of dogs if they choose.
Keep moving. If an non-agressive off-leash dog surprises you and your off-leash dog on the trail, try to fend them off by saying “NO!” in a firm voice and keep moving with your dog in the opposite direction. If you have a trekking pole, use that as a blocker.