Oh, no! Here comes a dog!
Many dog owners struggle with meeting other dogs (and owners) while out and about. Especially if you are uncertain of how your dog will react. You hold your breath, tighten up your leash, prepare for the worse, and... often times, you get the exact reaction you were hoping to avoid! Leash reactivity is a very common challenge we face, and over time it becomes a deterrent to getting our dogs the exercise they need.
Here's the problem - we are frequently contributing to our dog's stress, and tremendously increasing the likelihood of a bad interaction!
Let's break it down:
We see the oncoming dog from a block away. The whole time he is approaching, we are preparing ourselves for the chaos to come, but hesitate to say anything to our dog so we don't "tip him off". Then it happens - our dog sees the oncoming dog, and begins the series of events that lead to an unfortunate interaction.
Don't wait until your dog is reacting to begin interacting with him. Start working with your dog while he is still under threshold, and he will be much more responsive for a longer time period. Extra-yummy treats for eye contact, and changing speeds (fast-slow-fast-slow) can help your dog stay focused on you and the super fun game you are playing. If you know where your dog's threshold is, you can avoid pushing him past it by simply walking across the street to keep some distance between him and the oncoming dog.
Our instinct is to shorten our leash, which begins to pull on our dog. In our minds, we think we will be able to "steer" our dogs using the leash, but in reality, they end up flopping around like a fish on the end of the line. When we restrict our dogs so severely that they cannot move naturally, it puts them in a very compromised position. Remember that dogs communicate physically with each other! As we tighten up our leash, not only are we essentially "cornering" our dog, but we impact his ability to communicate effectively with the oncoming dog as well. This dramatically changes the way the other dog perceives our dog, which also increases the likelihood of an altercation!
Loosen up a bit! I'm not saying give your dog all six feet of leash, but allow some slack. If your dog pulls towards the other dog, rather than pulling back with steady pressure, short pulls and releases are better than static pressure. If your dog's food drive isn't squashed, use treats to help keep your dog willingly by your side, and divert his attention from the oncoming dog.
Stress and anxiety.
I don't have to tell you that your dog is sensitive to your state of mind. How many of you have dogs that cling to you when you are sad? Or stay out of the way when you are angry? Or initiate play when you are happy? The fact is that our dogs react to us, and the better the relationship we have with our dog, the more they pay attention to our emotional state. When we worry about the oncoming dog, our dog senses our worry. Then he thinks, "Well, if Mom/Dad is worried, there must be something wrong!"
Relax. Be confident and think positive. If we are confident, and go into the situation expecting a good outcome (or, at least a less dramatic outcome), our dog will cue off our confidence that this situation is OK!
Cutting off communication.
As we approach, and become stressed, and tighten our leash, we often clam up. We hold our breath, and stop offering interaction with our dog. This is a HUGE cue to your dog that something is wrong!
Talk to your dog! Tell him that this is a lovely day for a walk, and a great chance to meet new friends. Think positive, confident conversation. Also touch your dog! When he first cues in on the oncoming "friend", he will tend to have tunnel-vision. Simply touching and petting him can help redirect his attention back to you.
Avoid head-on interaction.
A direct, head-on approach can be very stressful for your dog (and for you, for that matter)!
If you think about how dog greet each other off-leash, there is typically a round-about approach, and some circling and sniffing. In a way, we can mimic this by arcing out and around the other dog. For instance, you can walk from the sidewalk out to the street, and then back to the sidewalk when you are past the other dog.
Yay! Your dog didn't turn into a lunatic, and you have the opportunity to actually greet the oncoming dog and owner. But then sniffing turns to tension, and tension turns into an altercation.
Keep it moving! It's fine to say hello, but have your conversation as you are approaching, and don't stop moving. As you get close, tell your dog "Let's go!", and just move along. The longer you stay still, the more likely a dog who is tolerating the interaction will become frustrated, and end up acting out. Pretend you are speed walking if you feel like you need an excuse to not stand around and chit-chat.
When it goes wrong.
Notice I said "when", not "if". The reality is that at some point, you will encounter a dog and a less-than-ideal interaction will occur. Just like people, dogs have bad days, and sometimes just want to be left alone. When this happens, turn and go immediately. It doesn't do any good to get upset or worry about whose "fault" it was. Altercations happen. Let it go. Get some distance between you and the other dog, and then check in with your pooch. Rub him down, tell him he's fine, give him some treats, and be on your way.
As with any skill, practice makes perfect. The more you can practice walking past other dogs, the better your dog will become (and the more confident you will be)!