Dogs are generally social animals, but a lack of doggy manners and etiquette can make interactions between dogs stressful for both dog and owner.
We hear all the time how important positive socialisation with other animals is vital for a young pup, and we agree! But a well-mannered pooch will be able to say hello when appropriate and ignore passing dogs when it’s not.
Let’s set the scene
Your dog is a bit of a social butterfly who loves everyone and everything they meet. You’re walking along with your dog on a lead and everything is peaceful and relaxed. Suddenly, another dog and owner come around the corner on the other side of the road.
Your dog becomes very excited, pulling you towards the approaching dog, barking and lunging to meet a new friend. You’re forced to say the words ‘It’s ok, my dog is friendly’ as your dog drags you over and bounces all over his new friend. Sound familiar?
But it’s not always appropriate for your dog to say hello. Perhaps they’re the other side of the road and it would be dangerous for your dog to drag you over there. Perhaps the other dog is elderly or frail and wouldn’t appreciate being clambered all over.
Maybe the other dog is reactive or fearful of strange dogs, or undergoing training and the approach of your well-intentioned dog won’t be helping their personal situation. The performance from your over friendly dog may leave you feeling a little embarrassed and will likely cause stress for both you and your dog.
On the other end of the scale, perhaps your dog is reactive, aggressive or fearful of other dogs. They may bark, growl and lunge at the approach of others. You may be anxious of their behaviour around other dogs and may choose to avoid all interactions where possible.
Over friendly or under friendly
Whether your dog is over friendly or under friendly, they need a little help learning how to interact better in order to have a less stressful time when exploring the great outdoors. If your dog is already having a tough time interacting with others, please consult the advice of a behaviourist or trainer dedicated to using positive, reward based methods.
For most pet owners, meeting other dogs out on a walk is unavoidable and how you react can be affecting your dog’s reaction. Do you tense up on your dog’s lead when you see another canine? This tension is transmitted down the lead to the dog, making them feel that there is something to be tense about.
Perhaps you try to walk where there aren’t many other dogs around. This can exacerbate your over friendly dogs reaction when he finally gets to see another dog!
Maybe your dog’s reaction to other dogs is stressful and embarrassing for you, leading you to tell your dog off or punish him. You might tug on the lead, pull him back, tell him off or shout at him. This kind of reaction will be detrimental to your dog’s behaviour.
By inadvertently training your dog to expect a punishment on the approach of other dogs, they will develop or exacerbate a negative association to other dogs.
It is up to you to remain calm, in control of the situation and to provide your dog positive training and reinforcement. Distance is very important to dogs and a powerful training tool. Below are some steps on how to use distance and desensitisation to alter the response your dog has at the approach of other dogs:
• Build on that connection
The most important step is to have a strong connection with your dog so that each time you call their name, they reliably look to you. Pair yourself with tasty bite size rewards that are different to what you would usually work with.
Think of something really worth working for, like hot dog or cheese! Call their name and the instant they look at you, praise and reward. Work inside the house with no distractions, then up the ante to work in the garden and out in quiet areas.
• Reward calmness at a distance
You need to reward the behaviour you like when you see it. Dogs will have a distance at which they can see another dog and not react. For some dogs, this distance may have to be quite large at first.
We often hear ‘but my dog won’t take food’; this is likely because he is too close to the problem source. At this point, the dog will not learn so you need to increase the distance until he is no longer so close to the problem source, is able to take rewards and focus on you and is able to learn.
So whilst your dog is remaining calm and not reacting to the other dog in the distance, keep popping them those tasty treats!
• Work on the distance
Decrease the distance between you and the other dog gradually, continuing to reward your dog for calmness. If at any point, your dog starts to react, calmly say ‘Let’s go’ and turn in the other direction to increase the distance and start again.
Don’t push this step too quickly and slowly work on the distance. What you are teaching the dog is that calmness around other dogs is rewarded heavily whilst a reaction is not.
In time, you can reduce this distance until the dogs are walking relatively close. You can do some parallel walking with another dog, heavily rewarding yours for calmness. This is a great exercise to ask a friend and a calm pooch to help with!
• Allow calm and positive interactions
In the case of the over friendly dog who was rather rude in their approach, you can reward their calmness by allowing them to say hello to other dogs. It’s great for dogs to be able to meet and play with others and we don’t want your social butterfly to never play again!
Always ask if it’s ok for your dog to meet and only allow them to approach when they are calm. Try to avoid face-to-face interactions, as this can be quite intimidating. Instead, allow your dog to sniff from behind. Keep an eye on their body language and keep the meet short if need be.
For your under friendly pooch, work with your behaviourist on a slow and detailed plan to alter your dog’s association to other dogs.
How we have used this to help our centre dogs
Here in our centres, we often see the effects of under socialising or frustration around other dogs. Freya, a five-year-old Labrador cross, was great with other dogs but she was highly frustrated when she saw them out on her walks. She would bark excessively and jump up and down at the end of the lead and, for a dog of her size, this was very difficult for her handler.
It also made other dog owners not want to let their dogs say hello as her performance didn’t make her look friendly. This only added to her frustration, as all she wanted to do was make friends! We needed to lessen Freya’s over the top performance and teach her to greet dogs in a calm manner.
So we worked through the distance work given in the steps listed above. Initially, Freya wouldn’t take food rewards from us so we needed to build a very strong connection between her and her handlers.
Then, we had to start at quite a large distance to the other dog for Freya to be far enough away from the problem source; ensuring we armed ourselves with tasty food to reward her good behaviour. We used two or more of Freya’s favourite handlers to make sure she kept her focus on us rather than the other dog.
Freya was a smart cookie and cottoned on quite quickly. Before long, we were able to reduce the distance until she was then able to say hello nicely and continue on her walks with her new friends!