Dog On Leash Greetings

We recommend that you avoid dog on leash greetings. If an unexpected encounter occurs, use these tips to keep the meeting brief and safe.

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The modern dog owner spends a lot of time thinking about their dog’s social skills. We do what we can to ensure we make the most of our puppy’s sensitive socialization period; we seek out opportunities for our adolescent and adult dogs to spend time around other dogs, whether to play or to learn to ignore them. For those whose dogs react strongly to other dogs – maybe they bark and lunge – a lot of effort is spent either working on making encounters more pleasant or avoiding them altogether.

Should you allow your dog to interact with other dogs? It depends! It depends on where, and when, and with whom (for starters). Dog-dog interactions are perfectly fine under various circumstances. They can provide enrichment, a great opportunity for play and exercise, and when done well and regularly, they help maintain a dog’s social skills.

There is one particular scenario, though, that gives me a whole lot of pause. I’m talking about greetings between dogs who are leashed; I am not a fan of leashed greetings. I don’t allow dog-dog greetings while the dogs are attached to a leash – at least, not deliberately. Sometimes they’re inevitable, like when someone else allows their dog to drag them toward me and my dog despite my protests, and before we know it the dogs are nose-to-nose.

If this can’t be avoided without making matters worse, there are guidelines I follow to help the interaction go as smoothly as possible. I’ll share them with you here so you can prevent your dog from getting into a potential predicament. But first, let me tell you why I think this scenario can be a recipe for trouble in the first place.

REASONS TO AVOID ON-LEASH GREETINGS

Here are my top reasons for avoiding on-leash dog greetings: 

1. Most on-leash greetings are not consensual. When two dogs meet on-leash, there are actually four parties involved: The dogs, of course, and the humans they’re attached to. In my experience, it’s extremely rare that all four parties agree to – or are interested in – a greeting or interaction.

Not all dogs enjoy being approached by other dogs, and even if both dogs are usually very sociable, it doesn’t mean they like all other dogs or that they’re interested in greeting at this particular moment. 

The owners might have their own reasons for preferring to avoid interaction between dogs. There could be health reasons (the dog might not be feeling well, or he might be recovering from an injury or medical treatment), or behavior reasons (the owner knows from experience that their dog prefers not to greet other dogs).

Even if two owners and just one of the dogs are keen on letting a meet-and-greet take place, often, the humans fail to notice that the second dog is sending all kinds of subtle signals that mean “No, I’d rather not.” Humans are often not as skilled as they think at accurately reading dog body language, which can often be very subtle and understated. Trainers and animal behavior experts tend to see dog-dog interactions very differently than dog owners. For every five videos I see of dogs greeting on-leash, there are four in which one of the dogs is working very hard to make the best of an uncomfortable situation. That’s not ideal, and it’s completely unnecessary.

2. Humans don’t move quickly enough. Dogs don’t stand still, face to face, and shake paws to say hello. (In fact, if they’re standing still, face to face, and one is staring at the other, watch out!) Rather, dogs in a greeting scenario will be in constant motion. They move in a tight “smell-me, smell-you” circle, they hop back and forth, they angle their heads up, down, forward, and back, they create space between them and close it in again very quickly.

It’s an elaborate dance, and each movement is significant. Meanwhile, the humans usually remain still, clumsily trying to detangle the leashes. Or worse, they pull tightly on the leash and create pressure, preventing their dog from participating in the important social movements that make up a healthy dog-dog encounter.

3. Allowing on-leash greetings sets a precedent. Do you want your dog to be able to walk right past other dogs while staying engaged with you, or, at least, while moving in the same direction as you? It’s a common goal! In my experience, owners frequently complain that their dog pulls toward other dogs, or barks and becomes excited at the sight of another dog. 

Allowing your dog to greet other dogs while on leash, even if only occasionally, makes it more difficult to teach your dog to keep walking past other dogs. It’s much more difficult to extinguish a behavior that the dog enjoys but that is allowed only sometimes (what trainers call “on an intermittent schedule of reinforcement,” meaning that sometimes he gets to do the enjoyable thing, but sometimes he doesn’t). 

Also, because it’s not usually clear to your dog which encounters will result in being allowed to greet and which won’t, you risk creating what is commonly referred to as a “frustrated greeter.” These dogs may learn to pull, bark, jump up, whine, and generally become very aroused as they approach another dog. With enough practice, this type of arousal can sometimes cross the line into aggressive behavior, fueled by frustration.

4. Ending the interaction can escalate excitement. When people allow on-leash greetings, they often let them go on for too long, and then when they decide it’s time to move on, they end up tugging on the leash and dragging their dog away. Sometimes, especially if the greeting is laced with an element of tension between the dogs, pulling on the dog’s collar or harness can trigger a less-than-friendly response and, in a split second, one of the dogs being pulled away may snarl and snap at the other dog. 

GUIDELINES FOR ON-LEASH DOG GREETINGS

Dog On Leash Greetings
Contrast the previous picture of two dogs who know each other and are excited and happy to greet each other, with this: The Australian Shepherd does not know the big, excited dog and is signaling that she doesn’t wish to!

Sometimes a greeting between unfamiliar dogs is inevitable, like when you turn a corner and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with another on-leash dog, or if someone allows their dog to approach your dog while you’re standing still. Here’s how I suggest you handle these situations:

*Move with the dogs. Work quickly to follow their circular movement and keep the leashes slack. It’s not easy – especially if the other person is just standing there. Don’t be afraid to speak up and instruct the other person to move in order to avoid creating tight or interlaced leashes. The dogs’ movements will be fast, and the direction unpredictable. That means you and the other person should both stay focused on the dogs (rather than standing and chatting), and you’ll be criss-crossing leash handles over and beneath the leashes as the dogs move.

*Limit the encounter to less than 5 seconds. Just a quick sniff and then “Let’s go!” – it’s time to move away. This greatly reduces the chances of tension or excitement building between the dogs and creating that delicate split-second trigger moment I described earlier, when one dog can snap at the other if he feels the tension on the leash. 

Your dog’s ability to move away with you is a skill that needs to be practiced beforehand. Take the time to teach your dog that gentle leash pressure and a cue (like “Let’s go!”) means he should turn his attention toward you and move with you. (See “Tactical Extraction: Yielding to Leash Pressure,” below.)

If the greeting intensifies quickly, even if still in playful mode, and you’re having trouble keeping the leash slack, drop the leash. Naturally, this can be a very risky move, depending on your surroundings. I wouldn’t drop the leash on a busy street with lots of traffic! But I might do it if my dog finds himself in an unexpected greeting scenario on a walking path or on a quiet street in our neighborhood, especially if my holding the leash is creating a tangled mess that may cause the encounter to morph from playful to confrontational.

*Never allow greetings with a retractable leash. I advise against using retractable leashes in general, but I know they remain very popular and even if you don’t use one yourself, you will inevitably run into others who do. If a dog on a retractable leash is making a beeline for your dog, do your very best to avoid a greeting and move you and your dog out of the path of the other dog.

If you use one of these leashes yourself, understand how quickly it can become a dangerous tool when two dogs begin circling and moving together. You will almost certainly not be able to keep up (the handle is too bulky to make this possible), and the rope, cable, or ribbon can become extremely harmful in the blink of an eye. It can wrap around a human or canine limb and cause severe damage. 

Also, if the handle is dropped, the noise it makes when it hits the ground, followed by the sound it creates as it gets dragged and bounced around can startle one or both of the dogs, leading to panicked behaviors. There’s nothing quite as alarming as dogs in a panicked state who are tied to each other.

SOCIAL DISTANCING

If you decide you want to avoid on-leash greetings, but your dog has other plans and routinely pulls toward other dogs, you can teach her how to politely navigate the presence of other dogs through behaviors like checking in (see “Train Your Dog to Check In,” WDJ February 2017) and loose-leash walking (see “Loose Leash Walking: Training Your Dog Not to Pull,” March 2017). 

I much prefer to teach my dog how to keep a polite distance from other dogs and to accept their presence as just another part of their environment. Unless, of course, the leashes are off and the dogs are free to greet and interact safely in an appropriate location, without the restrictions imposed by leashes that can negatively impact how they communicate. 

18 COMMENTS

  1. My calm and confident Labrador friend loves to say hello to other dogs and people. Any time I ask he sits and waits for a reward. Treats are great but meeting others is his favorite reward. I use a 26’ retractable leash and ask him to sit before others are near. He waits and is happy if he’s approached and moves on if not. He wags the back of his tail as he sits and waits while other dogs bark, snarl, and growl. They often settle then their human lets them close.

    With this behavior he is well known and the favorite dog in the area. People and dogs love him. If a human struggles with whether to let their dog close the dog picks up on that anxiety and gets into a ‘fight or flight’ crisis. I encourage humans who have problems with their dog becoming aggressive or fearful when around others to teach their dogs to sit anytime when asked, heeled or on a long leash. This is teaching the dog to be calm and to trust you. When humans and their dogs learn confidence and to be calm, they can learn to not overreact and to be safe just about anywhere.

  2. Okay I have a question for you. After years of having very large dogs, as we’ve gotten older we now have two very small dogs (8 pounds and 10.6 pounds). I made it a point to socialize them to other dogs when they were younger and they both are fine with other dogs (of all sizes). However, I am NOT willing to let them met dogs that are hugely larger than they are meet them off-leash. First, I want to see the dog they are going to meet to make sure I don’t see any body language from that dog that would indicate the dog isn’t interested in meeting a little dog and might harm my little bundle of joy. If that’s okay, I’ll let the meeting take place. But not off-leash. I don’t want an 80-pound dog suddenly deciding he doesn’t like my 8-pound dog. One inappropriate bite and my 8-pound dog is dead. I keep meetings to a minimum (3 to 5 seconds) and my little 10 pounder tends to want to jump up on the larger dog (something she is learning she is not to do). My dogs do have play dates with smaller dogs, but I am not one for letting them meet a much larger dog that I don’t know well off-leash. And by the way, if the owner of the dog asks that I not allow my dogs to meet their dog, I honor that request and do not allow my dogs to approach the dog. That’s common courtesy. And I would hope everyone would observe some common courtesy now and again. So how would you suggest I allow my dogs to meet other dogs? Just not let them meet any dogs at all? I spent a great deal of time and effort socializing them to large dogs so they wouldn’t be fearful of larger dogs and act with aggression when they saw one. They do not do that and often appear to want to meet a larger dog. So should I just say “no” to ALL interactions unless they’re off leash?

  3. You can exempt retired racing greyhounds greeting each other from your concerns. But then again, are greyhounds really dogs? If the leashed dogs meeting each other are retired racing greyhounds this is not a problem 99.9999% of the time. As for a leashed non-greyhound, please do not let your dog come towards my leashed greyhounds. If your greyhounds are unleashed, you had better be in an enclosed area because many times when they meet another greyhound the race is on. Yes, greyhounds are different; so if you are a retired racing greyhound owner, be careful of some advice from those who do not understand the breed.

  4. I think this is very good advice. I don’t let my very sociable with dogs rescue meet dogs I don’t know when she’s on a leash. Also agree about retractable leads-people where I live use these to walk their dogs along pavements next to roads with the lead fully extended! So silly as dog could move into the road and be hit by a a car! When my dog is on a lead I want her walking nicely by my side not 10 feet in front!

  5. Great advice Nancy, and the advice that I give my clients all the time. I tell them to adhere to the 3 second rule usually if they find that they cannot avoid meeting other dogs on leash. I believe that if the dog has off leash time during which he can be sociable with other dogs, then there is never any need to risk on leash greetings.

    The only time I might allow it is if the dog is on a loose long line, and by that I mean a line and NOT a retractable leash. Those things should definitely be banned because of the danger and injuries they can cause. I use a horse’s lunge line which is inch wide webbing with a proper connection for the harness. It’s 30 feet, so there is no need for the line to be tight at all and can be dragging on the ground with less chance of getting caught up in another dog’s legs, or human’s legs. However of course my first preference is no on leash greetings.

    I always tell my clients that for the most part, behaviour clients who have reactive dogs will have them because of an incident that happened when their dog was younger, maybe a puppy or at some time when their dog was on leash. At that time an on leash greeting was allowed, and the other dog snarked at, or attacked their dog, causing them to develop on leash reactivity. While we can treat leash reactivity, it’s not a quick fix and it involves a lot of time and committment (not to say cost) on the part of the owner to help the dog get over it.

    You are perfectly correct when you say that the handler at the end of the leash usually thinks they know more than they do. I think that’s evident from comments on this blog where it is inevitable that people will think they know more than someone who has studied dog behaviour for years and whose job it is to help clients who have behaviour from their dog that they need help with.

    It is a fact that the average dog owner does not recognise the subtle signs of a dog who is uncomfortable with what’s happening and who is about to let the other dog know this. ( I do explain to my students that I do not expect them, as a dog owner to understand all the nuances and subtleties of dog body language, though I wish more dog owners would educate themselves in this direction, after all, there is plenty of information out there these days). Their dog may growl and they may punish the growl, making things even worse. As you say, they may try to pull their dog away, again, causing the situation to become tense. I find even when a dog freezes in place which is a very obvious sign that all is not well, the person at the end of the leash most likely won’t recognise what this means. That is why it is better to be safe and avoid situations where problems can occur.

    I make sure that i give a talk about this to all my class students as well as my private behaviour clients.

  6. If you do want your dog and another dog to meet (and hopefully get along), what is a better method that still allows for the safety of both dogs?

    • Parallel walking. Not too close. Stop at a distance and read both dogs carefully.
      Also be very very wary, because some dogs actually look friendly but attack strongly when the other dog is close

  7. I don’t entirely agree with this. I think it depends on your particular dog, and where you live. I’m in an urban environment, with a very sociable 10lb dog. She truly enjoys meeting other dogs, why would I want to deprive her of that? And in a city that almost always means on-leash meetings, since fenced yards are a rarity. In a 30 minute walk, we typically pass at least 5 or 5, or even 10, other dogs. Many have now become her friends, with lots of on-leash frolicking with her favorites. She was well socialized as a pup and knows how to behave submissively when appropriate to keep things from escalating- in part because she meets so many other dogs on leashed walks.

    People in the neighborhood are very good about crossing the street or making it clear when they don’t want their dog to meet other dogs, as I do if it’s a dog I’m seeing signs might not be friendly or appropriate for my pup to meet (or I read signs the *owner* isn’t interested– in a hurry, avoiding eye contact, or working on keeping the dog focused on them.) I pay a lot of attention to the stance and behavior of new dogs when making the “meet or walk the other way” decision, with additional caution toward larger or more aggressive breeds, and don’t take the owners word on “oh, he’s friendly”

    If we are about to cross paths with a new dog that seems OK for mine, I always ask the other owner (when still 20 or 30 feet away) “would you like them to meet?”. Usually the answer is a happy “sure!”. If it’s something like “no, we’re working on training right now” or “he’s a little aggressive” or “she’s afraid of other dogs” or “we’re running late”, I respect their answer and move out of their way with a friendly “that’s why I ask first! Have a great day”

    In fact, the times I have been most afraid or had uncomfortable engagements, it’s been when at a dog park or when an unleashed dog came at us while we were on a leashed walk. A bold excitable 10lb dog brings out the “chase” instinct in other dogs, which can quickly lead to her being aggressively chased or pinned down by bigger dogs.

    Meeting other dogs on leash was a godsend for socialization for my pup, especially when covid was raging and in-home play dates, even with trusted friends, were out of the question.

    • Please do NOT let your leashed do anywhere close to any of my dogs. it is a recipe for disaster unless you hang arounf nearby until the dogs actually BOTH ask to greet.

  8. My dog is shy and skittish and he barks in the lobby of my way huge apt building populated with way too many dogs and people .I live in a heavily populated urban area and meeting other dogs on the street is miserable.My dog does have a fondness for cavalier king charles spaniels and they are usually not aggressive( I believe they are the most docile breed) but I give nearly every other dog a wide berth especially larger dogs.Usually it is a dog walker on the phone -paying no attention or an owner saying” my dog is friendly”.I tell those owners with the “friendly” dogs “mine isn’t”and I skirt around -crossing streets pausing near planters to avoid the walkers paying zero attention . I have to be defensive and the burden is on me usually as most of these dog walkers and owners with rare exception are CLUELESS!!

  9. Aside from the dog park, there is no scenario for my dogs to greet other dogs that doesn’t involve being on leash as neither can be trusted off leash unless in a very secure area.

    • You can try seeing if there are fellow dog owners willing to have play dates in private backyards. Post inquiry on sites like Nextdoor. Ask other owners from obedience class. Also, breed groups often have meet-ups in dog friendly open spaces.

  10. The article provides many good guidelines but I do not think it applies to all dogs. My last dog was very sociable with other dogs, a pacifist, and was a evidently a canine diplomat. Even when the other dog behaved aggressively—growling, snarling, snapping— he would not respond aggressively in return but look surprised and back off. He was always friendly and tolerant with other dogs of all ages and sizes.

    However, my next dog is the complete opposite. He is lacking in canine manners, unintentionally offends other dogs, doesn’t respond well to other dog’s cues, and will respond in kind if another dog gets in his face when on leash. I noticed he got more easily frustrated as a young puppy so it is not surprising he developed leash frustration in regards to dogs. At the time there was no mention of this in obedience classes, books, or articles. All the literature encouraged socialization, as many positive meetings of dog & people as possible, and exposure to new experiences. It was only at 6 mos when I was told by the trainer to limit dog-dog greetings. By that time it was too late as the basis had become established.
    Consequently, I have been counterconditioning him for reactivity and participated in a highly coveted & difficult to find Reactive Rover class.

    In hindsight, I would have limited and controlled any on leash dog greeting more severely, as well as trained him for them in a controlled situation with lots of repetitions and practice sessions. I did unsuccessfully try to find an adult mentor dog to improve his dog manners and respect their cues. Surprisingly, it is extremely difficult to find other compatible dogs with owners willing to work on training on a regular basis. Seemingly the only option is to find a trainer willing to use their own dog and pay for expensive private lessons just to train a puppy controlled dog-dog greeting?!?!!🙁

    I find it surprising that this is not accentuated in young puppy classes. Perhaps this is the reason for there being so many reactive dogs with disappointed & stressed out owners out there now along with the demand for Reactive Rover classes.

  11. The article provides many good guidelines.

    I agree limited and controlled on leash dog greeting should be used in puppy training. As well as training for them in a controlled situation with lots of repetitions and practice sessions. Surprisingly, it is extremely difficult to find other compatible dogs with owners willing to work on training on a regular basis. Seemingly the only option is to find a trainer willing to use their own dog and pay for expensive private lessons just to train a puppy controlled dog-dog greeting?!?!!🙁

    I find it surprising that this is not accentuated in young puppy classes. Perhaps this is the reason for there being so many reactive dogs with disappointed & stressed out owners out there now along with the demand for Reactive Rover classes.

  12. The article provides many good guidelines. Surprisingly, it is extremely difficult to find other compatible dogs with owners willing to work on training on a regular basis. Seemingly the only option is to find a trainer willing to use their own dog and pay for expensive private lessons just to train a puppy controlled dog-dog greeting?!?!!🙁

    Why are these guidelines not accentuated in young puppy classes. Perhaps this is the reason for there being so many reactive dogs with disappointed & stressed out owners out there now along with the demand for Reactive Rover classes.

  13. It is extremely difficult to find other compatible dogs with owners willing to work on training on a regular basis. Seemingly the only option is to find a trainer willing to use their own dog and pay for expensive private lessons just to train a puppy controlled dog-dog greeting?!?!!🙁

    Why are these guidelines not accentuated in young puppy classes. Perhaps this is the reason for there being so many reactive dogs with disappointed & stressed out owners out there now along with the demand for Reactive Rover classes.

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