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Let’s chat a bit about on-leash greetings…

Updated: May 29, 2020

Every dog has a unique personality, just like humans. Some dogs are calm and collected; some dogs are loud and boisterous. Just like with people, I cannot expect my dog to be ‘friendly’ with every dog they see – I don’t like everyone I meet; why do I expect my dog to? Some dogs are absolutely fine never meeting a dog up close or having any dog friends. Some Dogs are the life of the party and want to be friends with every dog they see.

In class, I often see people letting their exuberant, life-of-the-party dog pulling towards a dog who is calmly sitting there looking at their owner for direction. Many people think that if their dog wants to go say hello, they should encourage the “socialization”. So the owner innocently approaches the calm dog and allows their dog to sniff them. This is when I have often stepped in during my classes to ask the owners to not allow their dogs to meet on the leash. The most common response I get is a head tilt and a “But why? My dog is friendly”. And, they very well maybe!

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Does this Lab exude friendliness to this Chihuahua – look at the tension on his face

As a trainer, I have spent thousands of hours reading dog body language. Even before two dogs get close to each other, I can see tension, even in the friendliest of dogs. I can tell that even if a greeting starts out as friendly that it won’t stay pleasant for long. Let’s take a look at why this is happening.

We first need to understand dog greetings. When off-leash, dogs greet each other by curving their bodies into a “C” shape, and then they say “hello” by sniffing the muzzle, the ear and the butt. They do a small dance where they continue to spin in a circle until they have decided that their greeting is sufficient, and then move on. When you have a restraint (ie. leash) attached to the dog, you take away their option to do the normal greeting dance and leave at the end.

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Proper dog greeting between two dogs – Note the C Shape their bodies make

Dogs, like humans, have the three F’s under stress: Freeze, Fight and/or Flee. When they start their greeting, everything may be going fine, but by the end, they (and you) are tangled in a clumsy mess.

When they are tangled, they become uncomfortably close, and normal body language is distorted. Moreover, you take away the ability to flee which results in a pause (aka freeze) to see if the other dog is going to leave… but they can’t because they too are tangled! So you only have one option left, and that is to fight. Not all dogs will fight but in a situation that is this uncomfortable, it is a strong possibility that even the most well-mannered dog can react.

  1. On the topic of how dogs greet each other in the “C” curve, it gets interrupted by head-on interactions. Dog’s meeting head-on is considered rude. If your dog is staring down a dog, maybe on his hind legs pulling to get closer and he doesn’t have a relaxed body, he is displaying a number of behaviours of a rude and aggressive dog. It’s a social disaster in dog body language. So your super friendly dog is coming off as unfriendly, and the dog he is approaching may not take kindly to that interaction. When you finally get to the dog, the other dog might react – who is to blame? The dog who reacted or your dog who approached like a boisterous, overly-friendly, drunk guy at the pub?

  2. It's unpredictable! The calm dog I described above; he may be fine walking past dogs, walking close to dogs, but he doesn’t like stopping and making friends with dogs. If you approach too quickly or the owner is preoccupied, they will not have time to let you know.

  3. Lastly, you’re reinforcing bad behaviours! If your dog is barking, lunging or pulling to get to another dog, and you allow them to go over, it’ll happen again and again because “it works”. Dogs are smart enough to do what works, and in this case, greeting the other dog is not only reinforcing, it becomes your dog’s default way to achieve this interaction. It may be cute as a puppy, but it certainly isn’t cute when your dog is 60lbs! Instead, teach your dog to leave their friends alone unless told to “Go Play”. It’ll help your loose leash walking skills, focus on you, and general impulse control.

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So what do I recommend?

Off-Leash! When dogs are not on a leash, they are free to present proper body language. They can do their greeting dance and initiate play, or walk off to sniff and explore on their own. If you know someone who has a friendly dog or your dog has some doggie friends, call them up, and let them play in a large fenced area. I would also recommend that you intervene with a few recalls to give your dog a break between play sessions, and be sure to end the play before the dogs are tired so no unexpected fights break out! Small playgroups with known playmates are the most successful type of social interactions.

What if you don’t have any dog friends who want to play off-leash, or are senior, too small or too young? You can always do on leash parallel walks or hikes. Socialization does not mean strictly playing! Socialization also includes being polite around other dogs while on the leash, being able to focus around distractions, and ignoring other dogs.

If your dog is already a “serial social butterfly”, it’s a good time to start working on focus on you, and loose leash walking around other dogs. If you must approach other dogs in a tight space, allow a quick sniff and move on, rewarding (with treats or toys) for his attention being returned to you. Teaching your dog to have polite body language will win him more friends in the long run.

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Two dogs presenting appropriate off-leash play

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