This post is about dog-dog intros, and it is geared more towards non-reactive dogs. There might be some takeaway tips for owners with reactive dogs, but when it comes to reactivity there are many other factors to work on for dealing with on-leash greetings.
I am the first to call myself a micromanager when it comes to my foster dogs. In so many situations I am quick to make the decision that involves more management rather than the one that involves less. This includes controlling my dog’s behavior around other people, making every decision about the way my dog is handled at home, making sure those who interact with my dog on a daily basis know how she is being trained, etc. So when it came to dog-dog intros, I found it tough to put some slack in the leash – literally.
On-leash introductions with two dogs can be very tricky, often because they’re a high stress situation for the handlers. I know those of you with dogs are probably very familiar with on-leash greetings (and, in turn, if your dog is okay or not okay with them). It might be a dog on the street you don’t know, or maybe it’s a dog you’re introducing to yours for the purpose of perhaps bringing them into your home, or sometimes it’s with a friend of your dog and they’re about to have a play date. Often times there’s a lot of nervousness, anxiety or anticipation around an on-leash greeting – because who knows what could happen, of course!
Because of this stress, it is human nature to want to micromanage the greeting. I know I used to be the one to hold my dog on that extra tight leash – you know, “just in case.” However, I quickly learned that being over-bearing during an intro is not the best approach.
There are a lot of ways you should manage an introduction between dogs. The location should be somewhere neutral and very open. Both dogs should be as calm as possible, or at least not extremely over-stressed. Dogs should, if possible, be wearing gear that helps keep stress levels low, like a harness or martingale collar. The introduction should happen in a parallel or nose-to-butt fashion – absolutely not head on (two dogs meeting face to face is not friendly in the dog world, despite how normal it is for us humans!). These are all factors that should be thought about and controlled during a greeting.
The most important thing, in my opinion, is what the handler is doing – or, depending on how you look at it, not doing – during the introduction. So many of us, like I mentioned above, want to keep our dogs on an ultra-tight leash as they walk up to the other dog (remember, not head on!). This, however, adds oodles of unnecessary stress to the situation. The tension travels straight down the leash into our dogs and makes them wonder what the heck there is to be worried about, and when they see the other dog they often find their answer. We want to do as much as we can to help our dogs think that meeting another dog is no big deal.
In order to keep an introduction as stress-free as possible, keep the leash LOOSE! When I finally started doing this with Johnnie, I saw a dramatic decrease in her tension and an increase in successful greetings. Of course you want to still be 100% ready to pull the two dogs apart should things go south, but trusting the dogs to do their own thing during the intro is much safer than trying to hold both back by keeping the leash extra tight and pulling at their necks.
I recently mentioned this tip to one of my volunteers. When she relaxed the leash, her dog relaxed as well. She saw the visible response and said, “It’s like putting the trust in back with the dogs.” And it really is. There are lots of things you want to control and even *micromanage* (hooray!) about the situation, but the leash is not one of them.
The bottom line is that our dogs can either think meeting other dogs is a big ordeal and something they should be worried about, or they can think that it’s nothing to bat an eye over. There were two situations in particular with Johnnie where leaving it up to her meant a much better outcome than if I had tried to control the whole situation, and those were encounters with off-leash dogs. When the off-leash dog came flying up to Johnnie, I immediately loosened the leash and let her work it out. If I had immediately tightened my grip, Johnnie would have picked up on the new tension and figured, “This dog must be something to be worried about!”
Another quick tip I have found helpful is to try to stay by your dog’s shoulder during the greeting, not behind them like you would if you were walking. Staying by your dog’s shoulder is another way to help keep the leash loose, and it makes it more difficult for the two leashes to get caught up should the dogs start playing (or spatting).
If you want to read more about on-leash intros, check out this article by Pat Miller in the Whole Dog Journal. As usual, I also always think it is important to read up on canine body language so you know what your dogs are saying to each other when they meet. There is nothing more beneficial than setting your dog up for success and knowing when to get the heck out of Dodge!