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“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” … The guide to dog walking etiquette

We’ve probably all been there, you’re doing your best to focus on your dog and suddenly another dog is barrelling over to you and getting in your dog’s space, while the other owner shouts ‘Don’t worry, he’s friendly!’ or ‘He just wants to say hello!’.

Maybe you’re one of those owners who has been known to shout ‘don’t worry he’s friendly’, or perhaps you feel a little offended if someone won’t let their dog greet yours.

If you’ve never lived with a dog who struggles around other dogs, either through fear, frustration or excitement, you may not understand why some people walk their dogs in public places yet expect you to keep yours away and under control.

There can be an attitude of ‘if your dog doesn’t like other dogs, don’t bring him somewhere you’ll see them’. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that we should just let dogs be dogs and they’ll sort it out between themselves, or that trying to work on control around other dogs is somehow unkind to your dog and goes against their natural need to interact freely and meet all other dogs.

Unfortunately, it’s not unusual to meet fellow dog owners who feel strongly along these lines. They almost certainly haven’t had first-hand experience of trying to work through behaviour challenges around other dogs, or they simply aren’t interested in understanding why dogs behave in certain ways.

Why Should We Keep Control?

There are many reasons why you shouldn’t just allow your dog to approach unknown dogs on walks, especially those on-lead or when someone has made a clear effort to step off the path, change direction or generally get some space and distance from you and your dog.

No matter how friendly and harmless your dog is, or how tolerant he is to being told off, it can have hugely detrimental effects on another dog if yours approaches uninvited. Just because your dog may not care if another dog barks or snaps at him, it doesn’t make it okay for the other dog to have to display those warning signals.

For dogs who are fearful of other dogs, it can set back their training and increase their fear if they have other dogs coming into their space, even a friendly dog will scare them!

For dogs who get very excited or frustrated by other dogs, their owner may be trying to teach new skills and work through calmer, more controlled behaviours. Having another dog come rushing over or hanging around their space, is likely to disrupt any training progress and undo all the hard-work.

At the root of it all, your dog approaching uninvited will cause considerable stress to the other dog and their owner. If you also can’t call your dog away and you have to go and retrieve them, the stress you and your dog caused will have just rocketed even further. Being hassled by an unknown dog can do lasting damage, while your dog might not suffer, the other dog certainly will have.

You may feel like this isn’t your problem, surely it’s up to that dogs owner to manage these situations themselves and deal with it. The thing is, they probably are working incredibly hard, they’re on a difficult journey of training and if more dogs were kept under control, they’d have made huge amounts more progress.

Having a little respect and appreciation for this will go a long way to helping their training and not causing more setbacks.

If you need any other reason, think of your own dog’s safely and wellbeing, by approaching dogs who are on-lead, they risk being bitten or having a negative interaction. You may think your dog isn’t affected by it, but it won’t take many bad experiences before your dog begins to feel worried or confused around other dogs, so don’t let them get into trouble, keep them under control and keep them safe.

What Should You Do?

As a general rule, if you see a dog on a lead, call yours back and either put them on a lead too or keep them under close control. The other owner may call out to say theirs is friendly, in which case you can decide whether or not to allow yours to approach.

Longlines can be a little harder to distinguish, dogs can be on longlines for many reasons so knowing whether or not to let your dog approach is less clear. The best thing to do is simply ask the other owner if they want you to keep your dog away … swap that “don’t worry he’s friendly” to “would you like me to keep my dog away?”.

If another dog owner changes direction, walks off the path or makes any clear attempt to move away from you and your dog, don’t take it personally!

They probably just need to make a quick decision to keep some distance and they’re busy focusing on their dog, so take it as a clear sign to keep your dog close to you and stop them approaching.

A little respect makes a lot of difference. If in doubt, always keep your dog close to you when approaching another dog and check with the owner before releasing your dog over to greet.

It goes without saying, in order to apply these rules, you need to follow a few yourself:

  • Keep your dog within a manageable distance. If your dog is so far away from you that you can’t actually see whether other dogs are on leads then you need to work on keeping them closer

  • Teach your dog reliable control. In order to keep your dog close by, you need to teach skills like a reliable recall, a stay/wait behaviour or walking eye contact. Not being able to recall your dog is not an excuse for allowing them to approach other dogs on leads

  • If your dog can’t be trusted to come back or you know they approach dogs from a long distance, put management in place (e.g. a longline) and work on teaching a recall cue and focused behaviours to keep them under control

Not having control over your dog is your problem, it’s not the fault of the owner with their dog on a lead so don’t go blaming them for walking in a dog walking area, take responsibility and control your dog.

There really are no excuses, but most of us will have heard them all anyway …

‘He normally listens to me, I don’t know why he’s not!’ – we all make mistakes and sometimes our dogs do catch us out, that’s okay but do your best to get your dog back quickly and calmly, and even if you feel frustrated and embarrassed, make an effort to apologise to the other owner because they will really appreciate it.

‘He’s young and he doesn’t know better yet’ – you need to TEACH him better, keep your dog on a longline if you can’t trust him to come back, don’t allow him to hassle other dogs just because he’s young and still learning.

‘My puppy needs to socialise’ – socialisation is not just about meeting every dog, it’s also about learning to ignore some dogs and be able to stay focused and calm around dogs. When you see dogs on lead or under close control, use it as an opportunity to work on your puppy calmly ignoring them too. Keep them on a lead or longline to prevent them making mistakes and approaching the dog.

‘Don’t worry, he needs a good telling off’ – this is wrong for so many reasons, not only does it risk your dog having a negative experience which impacts him for life, it also means the other dog is pushed to the point of having to tell yours off.

This is stressful and damaging, no dog really wants to display such strong signals, but when they are pushed to this point, it will leave a lasting impact ‘You shouldn’t walk here if your dog doesn’t like dogs’ – public places are for everyone, you can’t stipulate that only certain dogs and people walk there, so respect that it’s a shared space and if everyone controlled their dogs better, then there would be no problems!

‘Just let your dog off, they’ll sort it out, he just wants to play’ – rather than trying to push your personal opinions onto other dog owners, accept that not everyone will have the same views and skip the lectures. Focus on controlling your own dog and leave the others to do what they want to do, as long as they’re keeping their dog under control, it’s really none of your business!

The Owner-Owner Conflict

While it all begins with our dogs, these interactions can quickly become heated between people too. We all feel strongly when it comes to our dogs, whether you’re trying to protect your dog or defend your dog’s behaviour, the emotions can take over at times.

While you may want to educate and explain why you would like someone to keep their dog away, we have to be conscious of whether this is always the best thing to do.

If you end up in a heated discussion, your dog is likely to feel all the tension and it can create a stronger fear response or more conflicted behaviour when other dogs approach in future.

These trigger points can become closely linked, to the point where some dogs can begin to feel anxious and apprehensive when people approach to catch their dog or even when someone nearby is calling their dog back.

Ultimately, if you are trying to work through behaviours with your dog, you need to prioritise them. Educating other dog owners is not your priority in that moment, nor is standing there being educated by someone else. The best advice is to walk away, focus on your dog and don’t engage in conversation. Making snarky comments, shouting, or being confrontational is only going to have a negative impact on your dog and leave you feeling more apprehensive about future run-ins with out-of-control dogs.

While a few dog owners may take in your efforts to educate, many simply won’t. It might take them having a reactive dog or troublesome dog themselves before they can truly see it from the other side. Alternatively, having these discussions in a different environment (i.e. without dogs involved), is likely to be more productive because you need time and patience to explain to someone else why exactly it’s so detrimental for them to allow their dog to approach others who are clearly trying to avoid them.

The bottom line is, we are all responsible for our own dogs, whether you have a super-social dog or an anti-social one, make sure you keep control and teach your dog reliable behaviours before allowing them off-lead. Keep management in place, like a longline or short lead, until you can fully trust your dog to listen to you. Training is rarely a straightforward journey, always be willing to return to closer management and increased reinforcement if your dog’s behaviour regresses!

Lastly, be kind and considerate to other dog owners and remember to always put your dog first, educating others during your daily walks should not be your priority, especially if it means your dog suffers because of heated confrontations.

Written by Naomi White

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