by Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot TTouch llc
It depends. The question is really two parts: Does your dog (let’s call her Fluffy) actually want to greet this particular dog at this time? Fluffy’s answer may very well change according to the environment, the weather, time of day, her mood, and many other factors. It can be yes, no, or I’m not sure. And equally important, how does that second dog feel about a close encounter?
Knowing how to read canine body language in this situation requires much more than noticing whether tails appear to be wagging. (See my last post, on “tail talk.”) Is the body loose and flexible, even wiggling (friendly)? Or is it tense or stiff, with high head, piloerection, and vertical tail (worried or fearful)? Look at the eyes: are they wide and staring (time to move away!), or blinking and glancing away (appropriately)? If one dog seems to be deliberately ignoring the other, that’s a clear No.
Don’t interpret barking and lunging as real aggression. That’s nearly always a symptom of fear (wanting more distance) or frustration (wanting to get closer). And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference: many dogs are excited yet worried, unsure whether they want to get closer or further, and so they give conflicting signals.
What do you do if either Fluffy or the approaching dog is over threshold: growling, barking, lunging, unable to respond to cues or redirect attention? Quickly change direction or get behind a physical barrier, to put more distance or block their view of each other.
To help prevent hostilities, consider the equipment you use for walking Fluffy. If her leash is attached to the collar so that the sight of another dog predicts hard pressure on her neck--made much worse by a pinch or choke collar--that means Fluffy’s emotional response to seeing another dog is likely to be Oh Nooooo! Putting her in a comfortable harness can help a great deal by taking the pressure off her throat. A harness with two points of contact (such as the Freedom No-Pull Harness) helps dogs to be balanced, physically and mentally.
Ironically, holding the leash tightly just makes Fluffy feel more upset. Physical tension adds to mental tension, which usually leads to undesirable behavior! Fluffy now feels that she has no control, no ability to flee (the first choice of panicky dogs). A tight leash also tells her that YOU are nervous, increasing her apprehension. Over threshold! A better option is to shorten the leash by sliding it through your hand closer to her--while keeping it slightly loose--so you can keep Fluffy near you. Use your body, parked cars, or shrubbery to block her view. And use your happy voice to help her stay under threshold. (Chanting “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay” does not convey to her that you are relaxed!)
A retractable leash such as the Flexi-Lead is a very poor choice for several reasons, including that it actually rewards pulling; it gives you zero control if Fluffy decides to rush forward, which can cause the other dog to react defensively; and it can be impossible to hold on to the handle if she is strong and moves quickly. A 6-foot cotton or nylon leash gives a dog enough room to roam without letting her get disconnected from you.
Dogs can feel and behave very differently when they are not constrained by a leash. Unfortunately the reality is that most dogs encounter each other while on leash. Some really badly want to say hello but are never allowed to, even when the other dog is clearly willing. So frustration may be what’s driving Fluffy’s reactive behavior. In that case, if you can identify a possibly compatible dog, judging by their body language, maybe they can meet first through a fence, preferably on neutral territory. If they can sniff each other out through a barrier, or with handlers keeping both leashes loose and untangled, that’s a good first step.
Three warnings: Nobody likes a stranger in his face for more than about 2 seconds, so call or move them away from each other before someone gets upset. And never walk your dog straight up to an unfamiliar dog. That would be viewed as a threat. Polite dogs approach each other on a curve. Don’t let Fluffy drag you get to another dog. Even if they know and like each other, you could trip or fall—and it also teaches your dog the wrong lesson.
If both dogs can be across the street from each other without going over threshold, try parallel walking, where two people and two dogs are walking in the same direction but far enough apart to avoid any reaction. If one dog is a little worried, let that dog be the one to come up from behind, after the pair have started walking. Both dogs should be on the outside, to start. If all goes well, you can put one dog, then the other, on the inside. Only if things continue to go well should you narrow the distance between you. Walking together changes the dynamics and gives the dogs something to do other than focus on each other.
If Fluffy is reactive most of the time she sees other dogs, avoid taking her to the dog park or to public places where other dogs will be. That’s flooding, not socializing, and can make things much worse. Instead, hire a positive trainer who knows how to change her emotional response from Oh no! to Oh boy! That’s how to change behavior for the better.
Here are a few great resources for learning to read body language:
an introduction to the Calming Signals DVD by Turid Rugaas, a Norwegian trainer who was the first to identify these signals
Learn to Listen by Janet Finlay, a British dog trainer and Tellington TTouch practitioner
a collection of videos by a highly educated dog enthusiast who does an excellent blog about training and behavior
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!