When dog meets dog – what’s the worst that can happen?
When it comes to a dogs’ meet and greet there are essential rules of canine engagement and dog communication that we humans need to understand to ensure things go smoothly. This is even more important if you have a reactive dog who sees other canines as a potential threat.
When a puppy grows out of the gregarious ‘I love everyone and everything and can I be your bestest friend’ stage and matures into a young adult dog, the way they interact with other canines can change – and it’s often a bit of surprise when it happens. While some dogs retain their friendly demeanour when an unknown canine comes into view, others may choose to completely disregard them, preferring to walk straight past with no interaction. Other dogs may suddenly become reactive – growling, lunging and using all kinds of fierce sounds from their warning barks vocabulary. The question is, why?
When a dog uses aggression, canine behaviour experts agree that it’s almost invariably because they think that they’re under some form of threat – to their personal safety, to take away something (or someone) they value highly, or by preventing them from doing something they really want to do, which causes frustration.
Dog training expert and presenter of TV’s It’s Me or the Dog, Victoria Stilwell, says: “Leash lunging, leash reactivity and leash aggression are all behaviours that are caused by a dog feeling restrained, frustrated and uncomfortable in a social situation while attached to a leash. In normal circumstances, an unleashed dog would be able to put sufficient distance between himself and a fear source. But if the same dog is leashed and unable to increase that distance, he will react or behave defensively in the hope that the fear source will go away.”
Overreacting to the situation
According to canine behaviour expert Sally Gutteridge, author of Inspiring Resilience in Fearful and Reactive Dogs: “Reactive behaviour is a sign that the internal state of the dog has changed and that the dog is dog suffering with an emotion such as stress, fear, frustration or anxiety. It is strictly speaking, an overreaction and can include lunging, barking, threatening or trying to get away. The exact behaviour type and reason for it will depend on the dog, their personality and capacity to cope.”
What’s more, as dog owners, we often unwittingly contribute to the negative experience. Victoria Stilwell adds: “The anticipation of a problem tends to cause human tension, which is transmitted down the leash to the dog, effectively making the lunging behaviour worse. Dog and owner are then locked in a vicious cycle of tension and leash lunging that becomes hard to change.”
Sally Gutteridge explains it like this: “Dogs communicate really well with each other when they have learned to and are given space to do so. A competently social dog will never go directly towards an unknown dog eye to eye, or even face to face. They would curve around and sniff. They offer signals that unless we watch really carefully will go unnoticed by us. A blink, a glance away, a lick of the nose can be a definite request for space and if the other dog is socially savvy, they will respect that, and everyone will stay happy. When a dog greets another on lead, the dynamics change quite a lot. First of all, they usually walk face to face towards each other, they then don’t get the chance to curve around naturally for a sniff because of the physical barrier between them. That physical barrier really is as psychological as it is physical. The dog who is a little bit worried about other dogs will be really worried if they have a lead on. They will feel super vulnerable because they don’t think they could escape from the other dog if something went wrong.”
Freedom of choice
So what can you do to help your dog overcome the fear that causes them to overreact? Sally says: “It’s all about freedom you see, freedom to move, freedom to go the other way and freedom to stay safe. if they are on a lead don't force them to walk towards or meet other dogs. The only true way to help a stressed dog is to help them to decompress by ensuring their needs are met, teaching them to be calm, empowering them via positive behaviour modification and building their natural personal resilience in the long term.”
Canine behaviour experts agree that he best way to tackle reactivity and work towards calm, polite meetings is by using positive reinforcement and giving your dog plenty of time to adjust their emotional response and, therefore, behaviour. Here are some practical tips that you can follow:
- When your dog sees another dog in the distance and is curious but not yet uncomfortable, bring out their favourite toy or food and play with them or feed some treats. This will help your dog not only focus on something else, he or she will also associate the sight of another dog with positive things. This is the key to changing the way your dog feels about the perceived threat.
- When you spot another dog, ask their owner if it’s okay if your dog says hello. Not all canines like to greet dogs that they don’t know.
- Avoid letting the dogs rush towards each other for a straight on, head to head greeting. This makes it very hard to read each dog and watch for signs of trouble and, in terms of dog etiquette, is just plain rude.
- Avoid standing just out of reach of the other dog so that your dog lunges and barks. This just builds frustration and the chance of a disastrous meeting is high.
- When you are ready to let your dog say hello, ask them quietly to sit. This calms them down and ensures that you are still in control of the situation. Now give the command ‘Say Hello’ and walk towards the other dog on a loose lead. Remember, tight leads build tension.
- Allow the dogs to sniff each other and circle while making sure you and the other owner don’t get the leashes tangled.
- After several seconds say in a happy voice ‘Let’s Go!’ and confidently walk away, rewarding your dog with a food treat when they come with you. End each greeting session on a good note.
- Don’t let on-lead greetings descend into play – this only teaches your dog that other lead encounters should be equally exciting when what you are aiming for is calm, polite exchanges.
- Stay relaxed, calm and confident. Dogs are experts at reading your body language and will take cues from you if you are nervous.
- Be ready for setbacks and never punish a dog that lunges on the leash for any reason, especially if the cause of the behaviour is insecurity, which is the case for most dogs. This will simply confirm the negative association he or she has with seeing dogs and bad things happening. Keep all sessions positive, using lots of rewards, as this will have longer lasting success.
EXPERT ADVICE FROM DOGS TRUST
ALWAYS seek help for behavioural problems from your vet who will be able to offer practical tips and, if required, refer you to a qualified pet behaviourist.
NEVER look for ‘quick fix’ solutions such as anti-bark collars or punishing a dog. These approaches will exacerbate the problem and result in more serious and more difficult to treat problems in the long run.
NEED PROFESSIONAL HELP?
- FIND INFORMATION on how to prevent and mange problem behaviours at Dogs Trust Change the Tale. You can also find lots of advice and training videos through Dogs Trust YouTube Channel
- VISIT the pet advice section of rehoming charity Battersea’s website for lots of tips and techniques
- FIND an Association of Pet Dog Trainers qualified dog trainer in your area at apdt.co.uk
- FIND an Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors member near you the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors at apbc.org.uk
- TAKE AN ONLINE COURSE at Canine Principles – Dog Skills for Humans
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Sources: apbc.org.uk, apdt.co.uk, positively.com, sallygutteridge.com, canineprinciples.com, lovethatpet.com, rspca.org.uk