I crossed paths with my neighbor this morning while we were both walking our dogs. We spoke briefly, the dogs sniffed, and then my dog went around her dog and their leashes crossed. My neighbor’s dog got aggressive – she snarled, snapped, and mouthed at my dog. No one was hurt. I’m assuming that my neighbor’s dog felt threatened when my dog came into his space and their leashes intermingled. Is this the case?
So often I hear from students, friends, and family that their usually friendly and social dog has recently “gotten aggressive” or been “attacked” when meeting another dog on leash. These events, albeit brief, can be frightening or even traumatic to those involved – especially for the humans who often anticipate the possibility of it occurring again. These squabbles very rarely involve true [offensive] aggression, but rather a defensive response to feeling trapped or claustrophobic.
A SIDE NOTE ON AGGRESSION:
Aggression is a complex spectrum of behaviors that, for the most part, can be placed in two basic categories: Offensive Aggression is where the dog fully intends to do harm (usually based on the protection of environmental control, resources and/or territory) and Defensive Aggression is rooted in self preservation, where the dog feels it must defend itself and generally wants to avoid further conflict.
Leashes can undoubtedly produce defensive behaviors. When an animal (including humans) is feeling insecure or frightened, we have two ways to react – fight, or flight (runaway). Most animals want to avoid a fight whenever possible as injuries threaten survival – or in the very least are unpleasant and worth avoiding.
When we put dogs on leashes, we remove their option of flight – and they know it. Some dogs, who are naturally more relaxed and confident with themselves, may not have much of a problem. However, many dogs walk around on a leash with some level of anxiety (even if it is imperceptible). When meeting another dog, especially on a tight leash or if the leashes tangle, a panicked, defensive squabble can ensue. Usually these squabbles are very noisy and chaotic but serious injuries are uncommon.
“What can I do when my dog meets another dog on leash?”
Generally, I avoid allowing dogs to meet on-leash. Even with two dogs that are familiar with each other, the leash introduces a variable of defensiveness. It’s just not worth regularly putting your dog in a position where he feels the need to be defensive. It doesnt take much rehearsal for defensive behavior to become a preemptive ritual.
I prefer to keep moving while exchanging brief pleasantries in passing OR stand 8-10ft apart while we chat, asking the dogs to sit quietly at our sides. I also encourage all dog owners to take the time (under professional instruction) to teach their dog to be reliable under voice control OFF-leash. For many dogs, once they feel they have their “flight” (runaway) option available, they are much more comfortable meeting new dogs.
“But what do I do when someone lets their dog come up to mine without permission?”
If you live in a dogtopia, like Boulder, Colorado (my home), On-Leash Greetings are often unavoidable. When two dogs meet on-leash, the handlers should work hard to keep the leashes high off the ground, loose and separate. This may mean a relaxed and calculated “dance” around the dogs as they move about to sniff each other.
If ANY stiffness or stillness is observed (this may be immediate), the handlers should promptly drop the leashes and slowly back away from the dogs to allow them to diffuse the situation on the their own terms while feeling they have the space to move away from each other if needed. If the stiffness/stillness lingers, try cheerfully calling them away from each other and move on with your walk. If a squabble develops, your first action should be to remain calm – do not yell, scream or try to intervene. Most defensive squabbles will resolve themselves quickly if the humans stay out of them.
Don’t forget to do your part and demonstrate good etiquette. Never allow your dog to drag you to another dog, especially if the other dog is unfamiliar. You never know where that dog and owner might be coming from (perhaps that dog is recovering from surgery or has a history of aggression). If you encounter another dog walker, lead by example and give them space. You can simply cross the street and keep moving or pull off to the side and ask your dog to wait patiently.
Be prepared to be assertive if those approaching you are not practicing good etiquette – it is always OK to ask someone not to approach. If your dog does end up meeting another on leash, remember to keep the leashes loose (and perhaps drop them if necessary), holding them high off the ground, allowing the dogs to feel they have the space to move away from each other if needed. Following these basics guidelines of On-Leash Greetings will enhance the confidence of you and your pup to tackle most any public interaction.