Most dogs have pretty decent social etiquette in off-leash scenarios. I've even seen dogs that seem vicious when going for a walk, flourish in a doggie playroom or a dog park.
Most people don't realize that on-leash and off-leash social skills are very different for dogs. By not understanding this, we tend to miss a key aspect of our dogs - they are more comfortable when they can control their own space. What's more, we humans make tons of mistakes when we are using leashes. We inadvertently make our dogs insecure, creating tension betweens dogs in close quarters.
When I teach classes, this is something I spend a great deal of time on, because this skill is so important to you and your dog's happiness. Unfortunately, it is something that is hard to practice in the real world in an uncontrolled environment.
Here are a few tips to mastering on-leash etiquette and making your dog the most social dog in the group.
- Master these three zones in this order – PUBLIC SPACE > SOCIAL SPACE > INTIMATE SPACE. Public space is just having your dog outside in the world where he can see other people and dogs from about 15 feet or more away. Social Space is conversational range, which is approximately a 5 foot bubble between you and another dog and person. Intimate space is when you allow your dog to actually sniff and interact with another dog. My rule of thumb is that if you can’t control your dog in public space, you certainly won’t be able to in social space and so on. Take it one step at a time and master whatever zone your dog fits into today.
- Communicate with the other dog’s owner. Never let your dog run up on another dog without both parties agreeing to the interaction. If you are working on training your dog, be very clear about what steps you are going to do so you can bring the other person in on the training process. This is vital!
- There should be no tension on your leash during meetings and socializing. Leash tension makes your dog tense and significantly increases the odds that a fight or a bite will occur. If your dog has had issues in the past, then this part is challenging because you will try to control the situation more – ironically, the more you try to control the situation, the more the situation gets out of control.
- Teach your dog the “say hi” command. Other dogs can be a great reward for your own dog, so when you put socializing on command, it becomes a reward at your disposal. IE, the dog sits at your side calmly and peacefully while you communicate with your friend who is also walking their dog, and you give the “say hi” command when and if you feel like it as a reward for being so good leading up to that. Don’t have your dog “say hi” every time.
- You must learn how to read dog body language. You should be looking for signs that the situation is going south before it is too late. Look for tense, flexed muscles, prolonged face to face contact with closed mouths, body weight shifts to the front two legs. Ideally we want all dogs to be loose and care free, those are just some of the signs that show you your dog is anything but.
- Praise your dog for positive socializing; correct your dog for missteps. I want your dog to know exactly what behaviors you like and exactly what behaviors you don’t like. The more praise you give, the more your dog understands what is expected and the clarity will give them confidence – also, saying nice things keeps you relaxed which is important if you are working with a difficult dog.
- Gauge the other dog. Is their handler under control? Is their dog barking? Is their dog staring your dog down? Is the dog panting (yes is a good thing!)? Unless your dog is bulletproof, don’t put it into social interactions with dogs that have no manners. This WILL set your training back.
- Know when to back away! When you decide it is going south, or if you feel the situation has gone well and you want to end on a high note (always a good idea) say “let’s go” and then turn around and decisively remove your dog. Decisiveness is key!