Why is it so inconsiderate when people allow their off-leash dog to approach and greet an on-leash dog? And why are on-leash greetings so ripe for misunderstanding?
I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago, but it’s something worth repeating.
Being considerate means giving thought to how one’s actions may affect others. When it comes to dog owners, there are many ways to be considerate or inconsiderate.
One of the most common impositions actually involves dog owners on both ends: one person allowing an off-leash dog to approach (often at a dead run) another person’s on-leash dog. This is a sticky situation at best. Most dog owners do not realize that just because another person has a dog does not necessarily mean they want your dog to come visit. For those of you who have outgoing and forgiving dogs, it’s hard to imagine a problem. Sometimes you see the concern on the leashed dog owner’s face, and shout, “Don’t worry. He’s friendly!”
The fact is, it’s usually not about your dog, friendly or not. It’s about not putting someone else (and their dog) in a compromising position. The other dog owner may have a good reason for having their dog on leash, including not wanting the dog to closely interact with others. They may have a fearful dog, or a dog who doesn’t enjoy having new dogs rush up into their face, or they may be working at training basic skills. They may have a service or therapy dog in training, dogs required to ignore other dogs. Some dogs are on leash restriction for medical reasons and having your dog “go say hi” could set back their recovery — or worse. For dogs who are immunocompromised, every close interaction with another dog could possibly spell life-threatening illness.
Even if none of the above is true, many dogs that are perfectly comfortable around other dogs are significantly less so when leashed. This is so common that you probably already know a dog or two who is friendly off-leash but becomes feisty when leashed and another dog comes to greet him. You may even have a dog like this yourself.
Why is this?
For starters, leashes greatly diminish a dog’s ability to communicate. Instead of carrying out typical greeting behaviors, like circling around one another and sniffing, dogs are really limited in what they can convey to another canine when leashed.
In the same vein, being attached to a leash also means the scenario is ripe for miscommunication. Often a dog strains at the leash to greet another — leaning forward and standing on tiptoe — resulting in what can easily be interpreted by the oncoming dog as an aggressive posture. Or leashes tangle. A tightened leash can tip a tense dog over to aggression.
Dogs have two options to have something unpleasant go away: They can move away from it themselves or they can challenge it to encourage it to move away. When something makes a dog uncomfortable during off-leash interactions, they can move away. But many dogs quickly learn that moving away is not an option on leash, and this leaves them with one alternative.
And so leashed dogs can learn that a good defense is a strong offense, growling or snapping when other dogs come near. Owners will then move their dog away from the other dog. And so the dog learns that growling really does make the other dog go away. Since the dog has been rewarded for the behavior, it’s likely to happen again.
Of course, there are cases where a dog actually had a terrible on-leash experience with another dog, not to mention cases where this dramatically affected the human, whose tensions can easily be transmitted down the leash.
There are also cases in which a lunging and barking leashed dog is simply frustrated. In these cases the dog just wants to meet the other dog. But that’s not always possible, or realistic. Dogs do need to learn they cannot meet every other dog they see.
When your dog is on leash it’s his job to pay attention to you, not other dogs. Because of all the above, a great rule to follow is allowing your social dog to meet and greet other dogs only while both are off leash. If that’s not possible, pass on the meeting.
Don’t forget that if a friendly, off-leash dog approaches you and your on-leash dog, a reasonable option in some situations is to simply drop the leash and let your dog go say hi. Best to let him have this reward (access to another dog) for some kind of good behavior first, like looking at you or sitting.
The reality is you won’t always be able to do this, even if you do have a dog that enjoys meeting other dogs. What if you are on a busy street or your dog’s recall is not yet reliable?
The good news is that it is absolutely possible to teach your dog to be more at ease around other dogs when on leash. It requires training, management, time and patience. Unfortunately, this kind of training can be set back by the experience of having a loose dog try to greet the leashed dog before their training program is up to that kind of interaction.
Becoming a considerate dog owning community is a lofty aspiration; it starts with every dog owner thinking about erring on the side of caution. Assume that others do not want to interact with your dog until you receive an invitation. This includes dogs on leash. There are legions of dogs and dog owners who will be thankful for your consideration.