On Leash Interaction: It’s Not Socialization

It’s common practice to allow dogs to interact with other dogs while out leash walking.  These owners believe that this is a great way to socialize their dogs.  On leash interactions do not qualify as socialization and should be used only for safety assessment purposes.

There are only downsides to this practice.  Here’s why.

Greetings on Leash Inhibit the Natural Ritual

Every owner has observed dogs approaching one another, sniffing both ends.  Within seconds, tons of information is exchanged.  It happens so fast and subtly that the humans holding the leash remain largely unaware, just because we’re humans.

If one or both dogs feel ANY discomfort in the greeting situation, the first fear response option – flight – is removed.  They are tethered by the leash.  Over- zealous dogs have the opportunity to practice bullying behavior with a captive victim.  If one or both dogs are undecided and want to check each other further, they are hindered by the leash.   Same goes if they decide to play.  In any case, the leash is a barrier that fosters frustration.  Frustration escalates arousal level, which is a major behavior barometer.

Reactivity is a Likely Outcome

When leash greetings are part of the walking ritual, the dog anticipates “saying hello” to other walkers.  He is set up to be a “scanner”.    Instead of sharing the walk with his human, a “scanner” tends to be unfocused and inattentive to his handler.  He actively looks for other dogs to interact.  This mindset strengthens, because scanning is randomly rewarded with an interaction.  (Random rewards increase any behavior.)  When the dog is denied access to the desired interaction, he likely becomes frustrated.  The result of his frustration is a reactive behavior display:  pulling, jumping, vocalizing, and/or lunging.

What a way to remove the pleasure from dog walking!  Unfortunately, reactive behaviors can transfer to other contexts, such as the yard and inside the house.  The display happens when other dogs pass by.

Alternatives for Appropriate Socialization

The best way to socialize your dog with other dogs is off leash in a safe, contained, and supervised environment.  It’s easy to find puppy kindergarten classes to help your puppy learn interdog social skills and find the fun in doggie play.  Look for friends, neighbors, and family members with dogs who enjoy play and have a history of safe interactions.  Make a 15-minute playdate.

Ask around for recommendations of dog daycare programs.  Tour the facility before dropping off your dog and observe how well the dogs are supervised.  If the camp supervisor appears overwhelmed with too many dogs, look elsewhere.  Ask about bite and injury incidents.  Dog parks are a mixed bag.  Think it through carefully and do your homework!  (See Blog article – Sizing Up the Dog Park.)

Walk On By

On leash greetings are in opposition to teaching your dog polite walking skills.  The goal for passing by dogs is showing only a mild interest.  There is a reason that the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test includes this skill. (See Blog article – Canine Good Citizen Evaluation.)

Approaching someone with a dog doesn’t have to be an awkward encounter.  Say, “hi”, while maintaining a brisk pace and making minimal eye contact.  Verbally encourage your dog to walk on by.  (“Let’s go.  Watch me.  Good dog!”)

Sometimes it is clear that an oncoming dog wants to greet, and the handler either allows it or has poor control of the walk.  Maintain a brisk pace, swing a wide berth to make more distance, and tell the other handler, “Sorry, we’re training”.

Copyright © Kimberly B. Mandel   CPDT-KA, 2015 all rights reserved

Kimberly Mandel Canine Behavior and Training LLC