Imagine this: You’re walking your leashed dog on a trail and you see a leashed dog approaching. The owner tenses, pulls the dog to their side, and starts a string of random phrases aimed at their dog along the lines of “Leave it. No. Uh huh!” etc.
You’ve seen it before. Their dog has a problem. They know it and you know it (or should know it) because the human body language is clear – a worried handler getting ready for…something.
When a random person starts tightening up their dog’s leash – pay attention. That is a human cue! It means they don’t trust their dog. I know this because 90% of the pet dog world wants their dog to meet other dogs and if they don’t? They bring their dog back? Start talking to their dog? They’re worried.
What do you do next? I asked this question in a small group of “dog people” recently and the response was intriguing. I got stuff like: Bring their own dog back to their side, feed cookies, turn and go the other way, pass with one’s own dog close on the other side – whatever. Not one person said, “I talk to the other person,” Yet talking to the other person is the most logical thing to do.
How about, “Are you worried about your dog? What can I do to help you out? I can go to this part of the trail here and move my dog to my other side, will that work?” Or “I can pick my dog up and turn my back to you” (small dog people), or “I’ll go up on this log here and you can pass” or…whatever really. Except for a speech. A speech about how they shouldn’t be out there? No – that’s not going to improve your situation. Think in terms of changing behavior and being safe – if you’re communicating your rightness, you missed the boat – plus you’re about to end up worse off.
I interact with people every time I’m on a public trail and you know what? It’s amazing! Like magic! It works. They relax and respond with anything from, “I never know what he’ll do” to “Oh, he’s just super friendly” to “Oh, that’s great! okay – I’ll go on this side….” And most of the time, they say thank you (or apologize) when they pass. It’s not hard and so far I’ve had 100% success when I have talked to the other. Success is defined as no lunge or snark – peace for my dog – plus a nice social encounter. Sometimes I have not talked to the other person for whatever reason. My success rate, in those instances, is much lower.
People want to get along but they have this weird aversion to talking to strangers, even when it’s in their best interest. Personally, I have no interest in watching my dogs get lunged at so I talk to people when I see that it has value. What do you need? How can I help? Talking to people also creates strong societal ties – we’re all in this together! It’s just….nice. Makes my walks better. Communication works to solve a lot problems but you have to be willing to talk to people; to be open and friendly and helpful to others. To move away from the belief that no one cares and you’ve been wronged – because…they do care. But you need to reach out and either ask for help (if you need it) or offer help (if they need it).
Try it. Talking to people.
Now I’ve been around dog people long enough to know the response I’m going to get to this blog. In YOUR case it’s different. Why should you have to reach to out to other people? They shouldn’t (fill in the blank)….take reactive dogs out in public who are going to lunge, take super social dogs out in public when your dog doesn’t like to be stared at in public, let dogs off leash in on leash areas, let dogs legally off leash if other dogs are on leash in the same area – the list of reasons why we are being wronged is quite long and often absolutely contradictory even within the same circles.
If you own a reactive dog then you “have a right” to take that dog in public since he’s on-leash and not physically connecting with other dogs – fine. If you own a fearful dog then you “have a right” to take your dog in public without getting lunged at – fine. If you have a big, social dog then you “have a right” to go to an off-leash park without worrying about on leash dogs in the same area – fine. If you have a small dog then you “have a right” to go to off-leash areas and not worry about big dogs chasing your dog – fine. And those conversations usually devolve down to carrying mace or a big stick or just shooting the other dog – because we all “have a right” and we shouldn’t have to inconvenience ourselves.
Finding ways to make it work rarely comes up in these conversations. So if you’re looking for one, a solution, I’m going to recommend trying communication; solve THEIR problem and you may well solve your own. Certainly works well for me.
I don’t stay home. I go out and do stuff. Mostly it’s good. 99.9% of time. Sometimes it’s not – and if a given area is consistently a problem I go somewhere else. If I cannot take a risk at all with a given dog then I don’t go out at all with that given dog. I control my behavior. And when I’m around others? I communicate as soon as I have a reason to do so. Heck, I communicate when I don’t have a reason to do so – “Hello!” “Good morning!” This approach allows me to enjoy the wider world, regardless of their belief about dogs. It also changes their behavior as they recognize possible solutions, so that makes the lives of others better as well – it just doesn’t impact me directly.
Before you think my life is enchanted…I have chosen to take my big dog and my little dog to different places. I made an assessment about the safety of the situation for my two dogs and…I decided to change my behavior for the safety of my small dog. I’m not angry or bitter that I’m not getting my way; that I might encounter off-leash dogs where they should be on-leash or that people have on-leash dogs in the area that is designated (formally or otherwise) for off-leash. That takes energy better spent on other matters. I want to reduce my risk a stress related stroke and improve my overall happiness to boot, so I changed my behavior and take my small dog somewhere else that we won’t have problems. Accept some inconvenience to my situation in exchange for a calm mind.
You control your behavior and choices. One of your options is communication. It’s powerful. Try it!
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Love it!!!! I am so proud of myself now…..we were off leash on a trail, up ahead I saw the exact thing you’re describing, I yelled “do you need me to leash my dog?” They said yes and were so grateful! We then passed with no problems. And then I unleashed my dog again. That’s the first time I’ve done that but I know how that side feels and I’m going to be more aware in the future. Thank you for a great article.
Thank you so much for this! I have a reactive dog. He’s a big dog. I have another dog who’s not reactive, she’s a medium dog. But if there’s an incident that pushes my reactive dog into ‘reactiving’ I’m hanging on to two dogs. It could all be so much more helpful for everyone if people reaslised that ALL dogs probably would prefer not to pass on narrow pathways or meet strange dogs on leash. We can thank the reactive dogs in our care for helping us see this is an issue needing to be adressed. I wanted to disseminate a series of universal arm signals for other dog people so I don’t have to shout and so alert my reactive dog there is another dog to worry about. Like an arm in the air, palm forward. Similar to arm signals used for landing air craft on runways. Thumbs up! I’ll go this way. Thanks!!!
What about the dog owners who stay on their phones and ignore their dogs…especially if on a retractable leash. It appears as if the dog is not being controlled in any way when on that kind of leash. I saw a large German Shepherd on one. Good luck.
My only caveat/question is that in order to have a conversation one has to get close enough to be heard. At which point dogs would be pretty close. And perhaps the situation one is trying to avoid would be happening. ??????
This is a super article. I love to talk to people I meet when I’m out with my dog, and have found that your approach works every time! Thanks, Denise.
🙏💝🙏 At peace. Thank you very much.
Awesowme article and reminder! How often do we tell children to “use your words”? Works for adults too!
Although I agree in principle that communicating with people can be very beneficial my attitude when out with my dogs, I have four, all trained for different disciplines, sheep herding, gun dog work, competitive obedience and agility, is that I have to keep the lines of communication open between my and my dogs. This is how I maintain control. If I start to chat to somebody I have first to give an instruction such as “lay down and settle” in order to maintain that control. Some people will then allow their dogs to approach my dogs laying down. Usually, the owner has little control over their dog which can then provoke my dogs into an unwanted response. This has never actually happened because I try to fully assess the situation and my response to passing someone else with a dog or dogs may be to 1. ask them all to lie down 2 throw a ball far into the distance which removes my dog from the immediate vicinity 3 put all my dogs on a lead and walk calmly by. My four dogs are all different in their response to the approach of another dog. One Collie manages all approaches absolutely perfectly and appropriately. I have no worries at all with her. The sheep herding collie will not tolerate invasion of her space although to date this has been managed by threat not action.
My gun dog is highly strung and could not cope with an over boisterous dog. the youngest collie is not entirely predictable. o.k. with some dogs, not so o.k. with some others. Nothing has ever happened because I try to be one step ahead at all times. This does mean however that the approach of a person with a dog is not to me an opportunity to socialise either for me or my dogs. I would appreciate Denise’s opinion on my dealing with the approach of other people and dogs in my own case. I realise that this is not a one solution fits all.
I have no opinion! Each person considers their options and circumstances and goes from there. The only time I have an opinion is when people complain and fail to recognize the entire situation and even then – it’s not my place to address that individually; only as a group as I did in this blog.
Good advice but unfortunately I do think that for some dogs and owners being close enough to carry out a conversation can be too close and where possible putting your own dog on leash and taking a wide berth of the anxious pair is the best option.
Thanks Denise! I’ve said this before on this blog, but you are the voice of reason in the dog training world.
Today my dog and I went for our walk around the block. When we turned the corner, I heard the barking and growling of a dog that has attacked us twice. I turned around and went the opposite direction. My baby was so nervous and so was I. He and I were traumatized by the first attack. I tried to hold onto to him, but he was to scared and strong. I went flying into the street. My dog was running away from the dog and the owners were trying to get their dog and mine. I told them don’t call him. They managed to get their dog. They had no apology or ask a b out me, despite my right arm all bloody. I ended up having to have surgery on my right shoulder. It took nine months before I had the courage to take my dog for a walk. He was terrified of other dogs from this attack .
My husband would walk with us. The second time, I was carrying a can of pet protector. The dog charged us and I started pushing the top. Loud bursts scared the dog, the owners managed to get their dog. I did my best not to show fear, but I was shaking and felt I was going to be sick. It has been a month since I walked that same way.
Today, we turned the corner, I heard the dog. I turned and heading back. I was shaking. I made it home, I felt so sick. I cried. I could’ve put myself and my dog in that terrible situation, but I couldn’t. This
dog is never on leash. My dog is always.leashed and has been through several obedience classes. I had to enroll him again to help with his confidence and mine. My dog had no issues with other dogs until these attacks. I should be able to walk my dog in my neighborhood. We have leash laws I our hoa. My dog and I our helpless victims.
I am truly sorry you are going through that. I hope consider reporting him to the authorities as a dangerous dog.
This is a good suggestion and I’m going to give it a shot. I am fortunate enough to have a lovely trail system I can walk to so I’m on the trails a lot. And as a person who has worked with fearful dogs and reactive dogs I know I’d appreciate being asked this type of question, too.