Written by Naomi White
People seem to be dangerously unaware of dog-dog interactions and what their dogs are actually trying to communicate. Having an understanding of your dogs’ body language, behaviour and social needs will enable you to avoid potentially dangerous or negative situations. Unfortunately, many people don’t take the time to consider these things and their dogs end up exposed to all manner of stressful or risky interactions.
We aren’t expected to enthusiastically greet every person we meet, imagine the stress that would cause to us, especially if it happened all day, every day! Yet, we often expect this type of interaction from our dogs and seem almost surprised if someone else says their dog doesn’t want to say hello.
How many times have you been walking in the park and had another dog come barrelling over to your dog, perhaps this results in a game, maybe your dog gets chased across the park, or maybe your dog reacts in some way … growling, barking, lunging, snapping…? Have you ever considered the possibility that for months, or even years, your dog has been trying to communicate that he actually doesn’t appreciate this sort of greeting?
We need to be asking our dogs if they even want to interact with another dog (and make sure the other dog is equally okay with it!). If they decline, respect their choice, then move on and no harm will be done.
Forced interactions or negative experiences can have long-term impacts and this damage can be done quickly, especially during critical socialisation or fear periods in younger dogs. Don’t let your dog be victim to this, look at his body language and teach cues to help him out if he is involved in an inappropriate or unwanted greeting (see ‘let’s go’ post https://lifewithrumer.com/2019/02/13/lets-go-walk-away/). Make sure your dog is kept under control so he doesn’t approach unknown dogs without prior consent from their owner.
Many dogs are pretty tolerant with other dogs but on the odd occasion they may react less well to each other. It could simply be that the two dogs are a bad match (Think, we don’t all like every person we meet…) or perhaps he’s just feeling a little stressed or under the weather and therefore less social than normal. This can take us by surprise but it’s important to listen to your dog, don’t get upset with him but instead respect his signals and move him away.
Having an understanding of your dog’s body language and behaviour around other dogs is important in ensuring you’re able to step in and help your dog if he’s ever in a situation where he’s uncomfortable or his signals are being ignored. When a greeting or play session is balanced and enjoyable for both dogs, they should be relaxed and equally involved, they should also be able to take breaks and respect each other’s choices.
If you feel your dog is being greeted inappropriately, you need to be able to notice this and remove him from the situation. It could be another dog is persistently sniffing him, chasing him, barging him around or pestering him, your dog may tolerate this but he will probably reach a limit and give the dog a stronger warning. While this is ‘normal’ behaviour, it’s far better to step in and avoid the greeting escalating to this point. Even if your dog never seems to give a warning or ‘tell a dog off’, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get involved. If you feel uncomfortable about the behaviour of another dog towards yours, chances are he also feels it, so don’t stand there and let him deal with it, step in and help him out!
Sometimes we are so ‘busy’ chatting to fellow dog walkers or looking at our phones, we don’t even notice what our dog is going through on his daily walk. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched a dog being bullied while their owner continues chatting or walking, oblivious to the stress their dog is under. I’ve also watched dogs give multiple warnings or signals, trying to gain space and escape from a pestering dog, but again these are almost always ignored until the dog reaches breaking point and ‘aggressively attacks’ the other dog (okay, he probably made a lot of noise, the other dog screamed and ran off) … the ‘aggressive’ one then gets a telling off and often you hear the owner say ‘he’s never done that before!’.
He may indeed have ‘never done that before’, but he has probably been giving all the warnings, which you were too distracted to notice, and now he’s realised the most effective warning is a strong growl, bark and snap. What if that doesn’t work next time? Maybe he’ll increase that to a bite? And soon you really will have an aggressive dog. Even if he doesn’t ever bite, you will probably still have a dog who is fed up of being pestered by other dogs, has no support from his owner, and finds barking and lunging is the most effective way to gain space from other dogs.
If you ever see your dog struggling with an interaction, whether he’s the one who is ignoring signals, or his signals are being ignored, step in and help him out. It’s far better to show your dog that he can trust you than it is to let him ‘sort it out’ himself. If you’re unsure of an approaching dog or your dog doesn’t seem comfortable then politely decline requests from other dog owners for your dog to greet theirs, and use it as an opportunity to explain the importance of consent and choices.
When it comes to dog-dog interactions, being attached to a lead can create all manner of problems. When two dogs are on-lead they have very few choices and are often restricted into a head-on approach. These approaches tend to involve a lot of eye contact and force dogs into unnatural greetings, it can be very confrontational and create tension to approach in this way. Compare this to an off-lead greeting where dogs are more likely to choose a curved approach and avoid direct eye contact. It’s not uncommon for a dog who enjoys interactions off-lead, to find on-lead greetings extremely stressful and display reactive behaviours when restricted by the lead.
This can seem so confusing for us. How can a dog be so different just because he’s attached to a lead?
You have to remember that dogs communicate and interact in ways we rarely fully understand or appreciate. When your dog is restricted by the lead, he can’t choose to move away from an approaching dog, he can’t change his path or speed of approach, or divert his eye contact … his choices are so limited. This can create a lot of stress or frustration which is often displayed with barking, growling and lunging. His stress may tip over into aggression and he may even snap or bite.
I always feel uncomfortable when watching dogs greet each other on-lead, in my opinion it’s asking for trouble. It’s difficult for a dog to choose to disengage from an interaction if the lead means he’s stuck in close proximity to the other dog. This lack of choice means tension between the dogs may increase and it can lead to a reaction. Many dogs will naturally choose to avoid conflict and use their body language to appease a situation, aggression or reactive displays are rarely a first or preferred choice. However, when these conflict-appeasing choices are taken away, your dog is left with few options.
Negative experiences, lack of choices and unsupportive humans, may mean a dog feels it’s necessary to react and use more aggressive signals to cope with interactions with other dogs. BUT you can help your dog! Don’t just assume he’s got it all together when he’s interacting with other dogs, watch him and make sure you’re close enough to see his behaviour. Follow a 3-second rule, allow your dog to greet the other dog briefly (for 3 seconds), then call them both out of the greeting before allowing them to greet again. By repeating this several times, they can both gather all the important information about each other while remaining calm and relaxed. If at any point, either dog chooses not to interact, respect their choice and move on.
Just as we humans don’t feel the need to befriend, or wildly greet, every person we encounter, we shouldn’t feel that our dogs need to do this either. Try focusing your walk on your dog … be his best playmate and the most fun, rewarding aspect of his walk. Make your walk about YOU, not about other dogs. By all means, choose a few sociable dogs for him to greet briefly, or if appropriate have a polite play session with, but don’t spend your walk bouncing from dog to dog, letting him do his own thing while you get on with yours. Walks should be about bonding, engaging with each other and having fun together!
Whether your dog struggles with socialising or not, it can really help to spend time with a qualified trainer who can observe your dog and show you how to read and understand his body language and behaviour. If your dog is beginning to display more concerning behaviours towards dogs then always seek help, it’s better to act quickly before the behaviour worsens or is reinforced further.
At Adolescent Dogs, we love working on dog-dog interactions and we’re always available to offer advice and support to you and your dog.