Putting Our Trust Back in Dog

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.

Here I am keeping a loose leash by Johnnie’s shoulder during an intro with an unfamiliar dog. There is a chance that the dog she is greeting would have relaxed a little more without the tension of the leash – though her handler is doing a great job at staying vigilant throughout the greeting. I know it is very difficult to let that security of a taut leash go, even though it is actually generally safer without!

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!

DesBaylor     This was shortly after these two dogs met, and we are still keeping a close eye while holding them both on slack leashes. This means they are able to loosen up and have some supervised fun! I could be closer to Baylor's (the one with the bandana) shoulder, but I am making a point of not being all the way behind him.

This was shortly after these two dogs met, and we are still keeping a close eye while holding them both on slack leashes. This means they are able to loosen up and have some supervised fun! I could be closer to Baylor’s (the one with the bandana) shoulder, but I am making a point of not being all the way behind him.


Slow and Steady Wins the Playdate

Well, as usual, your feedback on yesterday’s post about Johnnie’s feelings towards other dogs was really awesome. I hope anyone who is reading this and has a reactive dog – at whatever level – realizes your dog is not the only one, and in fact there are so, so many dog owners out there dealing with the same thing you are! Johnnie is really not that bad in terms of reactivity, but she has her struggles and it feels so great to hear everyone’s own stories.  Just last night I posed a question on our PLF Facebook page about taking Johnnie to the vet while we’re still working on ourselves, and so many of you responded with fantastic advice almost immediately!

At the end of yesterday’s post I mentioned that I finally scheduled a playdate for Johnnie. Often times a really good off-leash romp with another dog can alleviate some of the frustrations your dog is feeling around other pups. These should of course be well-supervised and held between dogs with similar play styles, and I always recommend reading up on dog behavior and appropriate play so you’re versed in recognizing behavior or body language that might be a red flag.

Many of you guessed correctly: our playdate was with Charlie! Charlie has stayed with us and therefore been featured on the blog twice, once as a Jasmine’s House foster dog and once as an adopted dog after his foster family foster failed! He’s a total doll. He was sick for a long time, but since I last saw him he has gained about ten pounds and his coat looks phenomenal. He looks like a different dog, really.

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By the Sunday afternoon when we had the playdate, Johnnie had already succeeded in a few challenging situations with other dogs. Two that I mentioned yesterday – playing with the puppy and doing well during the adoption event – and then Sunday morning she met an off-leash dog while we were walking in the woods. I had noticed the dog with his person a couple hundred yards behind us, made note of them, and started to think about where we should go should they begin to follow us more closely. All of a sudden I heard a reactive-dog owners worst nightmare: “He’s friendlyyyyyyy!” I turned around to actually see a reactive-dog owners worst nightmare: an off-leash dog literally flying full speed towards us. Thank goodness Johnnie was just exuberantly wanting to play and did not care in the slightest that this dog just ambushed us. In fact, that dog was rather sassy towards her (probably because she’s an energetic puppy), but his growling did not bother her.  Anyone reading this who walks your dog off-leash, even in areas where you don’t think you’ll see many other dogs: please, PLEASE make sure your dog has a good recall! This could have ended so poorly. Thank goodness it did not!

After she passed the off-leash dog situation with flying colors, I felt very confident that her and Charlie would hit it off no problem. Cue my guard being let down – uh oh. Charlie arrived and I asked his mom to take him around back so the dogs could meet and move to the backyard. Unfortunately Rojo was in his yard as well (we live next to each other, remember), had seen Charlie, and was making a huge, vocal fuss over it. This set Johnnie off, and the initial greeting with Charlie was about as far from polite as you can get.

I’d like to pause here to talk about the one thing I want you to take away from this post: you can never, ever go too slow when introducing two dogs for the first time. It is so important to set both dogs up for success by making the intro as stress-free as possible. Face to face greetings are tough and unnatural to dogs, tight leashes increase stress and discomfort, and lots of changes and quick movements at once can be overwhelming. Keeping these factors in mind and aiming to make the meeting low key and relaxed will really help to increase the chances of the two dogs getting along.

So, despite the fact that Johnnie was basically telling Charlie to F off in a very not nice way and Rojo was in the background egging her on, Charlie’s mom and I remained calm. We immediately removed the dogs from the stressful situation and walked to the road, which was much quieter. We began walking them up the street parallel to each other. This was huge in letting both dogs get comfortable in each other’s presence without the pressure of actually meeting. I continually asked Johnnie to check in and rewarded her with treats when she did, so she was much more willing to move her focus from Charlie to me. By the top of the street we had them walking almost touching each other without much fuss. Because things were calmer and they were more used to each other, Johnnie initiated actual play instead of just telling Charlie off. The difference between her body language was clear – her body was loose and relaxed, she was play bowing, she was not vocalizing – and Charlie responded well. It was time to let them play.

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We let them go in the backyard, leaving their leashes on initially in case we needed to pull them apart. It became clear pretty quickly though that the dogs were getting along beautifully. The play was pretty even between them with neither dog being too pushy towards the other. The play was also not getting either of them too worked up, which was what I was worried about. The tough thing about play between dogs is that it can go from really fun to really not fun in a matter of seconds.

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Charlie and Johnnie are actually two fabulous playmates. They have a similar rough and rowdy play style. Neither of them mind getting a little dirt or beat up. They don’t get offended when the other takes it a step too far (that’s what the humans are there to watch out for though). We were so happy to let these two play for nearly an hour!

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They both got so much energy out; it was really great. By the end of the session they were both able to just chill out in each other’s presence – a far cry from where they started. Because of the slow, patient introduction that lead to successful results, we can easily say Charlie is a pup we will add as a go-to friend for Johnnie. Thanks to Charlie and his mom for coming over and helping out with our learning experience – we had a blast!

09To adopt Johnnie Cash & help her find friends to play with, check out her Adopt Me page.