If you’re asking this question, it can only mean you have some apprehension about meeting dogs when you’re out for a walk with yours. Your concern could be caused by a myriad of things. Perhaps your dog gets overly excited at the prospect of making a new friend and that makes you nervous and just that little bit embarrassed. Perhaps your dog has experienced some dog-related trauma and is now aggressive or overly cautious when encountering new dogs. In either case, I have some strategies that should help your excursions outside become pleasant once again for both you and your dog.
What do you do when your dog’s unfettered joy and bliss at seeing possible playmates become an unhinged frenzied response, and the ensuing embarrassment totally destroy your happy, relaxed walk? On a couple of occasions, my wife has threatened to hire a dog trainer to help her stop our dog Paula Jean from embarrassing her by jumping straight up in the air and barking when she sees another person also walking a dog on a leash. (Perhaps a slight case of the shoe- maker’s kids needing new soles?) If a dog’s life is the house and back- yard, it’s not unusual to get a holy cow crazy response to another dog walker coming toward you.
Your dog needs to learn some self-restraint, and that comes from learning manners. Upon seeing another dog, don’t try to make Boisterous Betty sit and stay. Hav- ing Boisterous Betty sit and stay while another dog is approaching is equivalent to me telling you to sit on the railroad track as the train is approaching. The closer the other dog gets, the more your dog is being whipped into a frenzy. Keep moving but draw her attention to you with a happy voice and treats (people-food treats).
This is also a good time to use the “Look at me” command which will redirect Boisterous Betty’s attention, keeping her eyes locked on you. She can also be told to “Leave it and then “Heel.” A dog should walk away for any object, animal, or person, no matter how tantalizing, when she hears you say “Leave it!” Like “Look at me,” the “Heel” command can be considered a form of redirection. When your dog is heeling, she is essentially glued to your left knee and never wanders from there. Whether you’re walking slowly, running, making sudden stops, whatever, she’s at your left knee.
You can With these commands, you are taking control of the potential encounter and, if you want, mandating that your dog not insist on meeting this other dog or person. If so inclined, when within earshot, you can ask the other leash holder if his dog is friendly, and, only if all are amenable, allow for the proverbial meet-and-greet. On the other end of the spectrum is the dog who was traumatized and has good reason to be suspicious of any new dog. First and foremost, read the other dog! If the other dog looks relaxed, has a stupid-looking slack-jaw grin with soft eyes and a wagging tail, go ahead and approach.
If you’re looking at a dog with a stiff stance, hard eyes, a stiff tail not wagging or tucked under between his legs (fearful), and growling, then pass. Regardless of what you observe, ask every person you see on the other end of the leash, in no uncertain terms, “Is your dog-friendly?” If the answer has any hesitancy or uncertainty whatsoever, pass. If the answer is, “Usually,” or “Most of the time,” or “I think so,” pass. Have your dog heel and tell him to leave it if necessary. If, on the other hand, the answer is “Very friendly,” encourage your dog to meet this new potential friend.
It’s important to guard against inadvertently transferring your anxiety to your dog. Picture this probably familiar scene: a half a block away, a person is coming straight toward you with his dog on a leash. Anticipating your dog’s discomfort, your mounting anxiety causes you to tighten the leash while nervously saying “Nelly!” Having only said the name, with no command or request given, all your dog hears is nervous energy and anxiety, and to what will she relate your tension and unease? The approaching dog, of course! Then, as she’s fearfully hesitating or displaying aggressive behavior, you tell her, “It’s okay,” inadvertently rewarding her fear response.
If your four-year-old child was frightened by the ghost at the door on Halloween, you could say, “It’s okay, it’s only a little boy under a sheet,” and your kid would understand. But to a dog, it’s all about body language, voice intonation, and timing. Your response to a dog’s action as the actions are happening, is what teaches a dog.
The physicality of tightening the leash (body language) and anxiously saying her name (voice intonation) increases her concern as she’s looking at the approaching dog. Rewarding her fear by saying, “It’s okay” (voice intonation) results in the inadvertent cause and rewarding of unwanted behavior. So, what to do when you see an approaching dog? From now on, I suggest you have treated with you whenever you go out with Nelly.
I wouldn’t be averse to people-food treats if the only time she got them was just before meeting new dogs. Without tightening the leash, the moment the other four-legged is visible, express your unmitigated joy and happiness through your voice at the possible “new best friend” your dog is about to meet, not to mention the treats you’re giving her to further her happiness at seeing the possible “new friend.”
As soon as the other dog comes into view, your voice intonation is expressing your exuberance and elation: “Look at that, Nelly! That may become your new best friend! Isn’t that great?” You never sounded so happy in your life as you’re calling out to the approaching leash holder, “Friendly?” The purpose of your wildly happy tone and treats is to tell Nelly that meeting new dogs is a good thing. If you get a “Yes, very,” answer to the “Friendly” question, keep walking, don’t stop, and let Nelly do her thing, kind of. Keep the leash soft and talk happily to all, and keep the meeting short, because you want success to build on success.
If she wants to have a sniff session with the new dog, great! Stay low-key and happy, give it a few seconds, and say “time to go,” leading her away with a “heel,” and with treats, if you want. If she turns back, add a “leave it.” Even if she’s having a good time with her new acquaintance, leave the scene with her wanting more rather than staying too long. The new friend might get too comfortable, even pushy, and start making Nelly feel uncomfortable.
A short encounter guarantees a successful meeting with a stranger, and may even leave her wanting more, which is what you want. If Nelly pulls hard and wants to create a space wide enough to fit the Pentagon between her and the other dog, don’t let her! I’m not saying try to force her to meet Mr. Friendly, but rather continue walking by while keeping up a positive, upbeat chatter. If the leash goes slack as she stops trying to pull away, add some treats to the happy talk. Her confidence will increase as she has more and more experience being in the presence of and socializing with newcomers.