Leashes On! To Greet or Not to Greet?


Is it ok to let your dog greet another dog while on leash? You see it happening everywhere. Everyone does it, from neighbors to complete strangers in the park. It looks easy and fun, and it is considered a very social thing to do, for both people and dogs. With leash laws and dogs that aren’t trained to reliably come when called, how else can you let them socialize with members of their own kind?

The truth is, allowing dogs to greet on leash can be tricky and even risky. Leashes can increase tension between dogs when they greet because they are so close to each other and have a limited escape. This inability to flee can make dogs uncomfortable and cause them to react inappropriately. Combine that with dogs that may not be friendly and the average human’s inability to correctly interpret the nuances of dog body language, and things can go bad very quickly.

The issue of leash greetings is often debated among dog trainers. Should people be encouraged to avoid leash greetings or be taught to do it properly? Many trainers go the ‘no-greeting-on-leash’ route and in the past, I did too. I instructed my students accordingly and warned them in class about the problems that can occur.

Understandably, I would see these same people eventually relent at outdoor events where they were surrounded by routine leash greetings by nearly everyone. For the most part, those greetings were done without reservation, and sometimes without problems. However, there were an equal number of situations that did not go well. Often disregarding that advice, got the people and their dogs into bad situations that they regretted and could have avoided.

Not long ago, a former client contacted me via email to tell me about an on-leash greeting he allowed that went horribly wrong. While walking his older female dog, he encountered another man walking his dog. Now, this client is a very friendly person, as is his current dog. His previous dog had been quite reactive to other dogs and would fight. But now, assuming that since his current dog was friendly everything would be fine, he approached. Within seconds the other dog had attacked the old female dog and caused several severe wounds to her face. After hospitalization and much care, she survived. The client found out later that the dog had been adopted by this man only two hours prior to the incident.

So, what is the right thing to do? Avoiding on-leash greetings entirely is pretty much impossible. Pressure from other people or unanticipated greetings can challenge the best of intentions. It is best to train for the event so you will be prepared. Leash greetings are something that should be worked toward and practiced, like any behavior. To put it simply, if you can’t do it right then don’t do it.

There are some rules to follow before you allow your dog to greet another:

  • The dog you are about to let your dog greet should be known to you. Take a lesson from the client in the previous story, never allow your dog to greet an unknown dog. It is ok to refuse a greeting.

  • Neither dog should be allowed to greet if either of them is pulling. From a training perspective, successfully pulling to get something that they want will reinforce pulling. Definitely not something you want! Additionally, the pulling gets the dog too excited for the greeting to be done calmly or correctly. This frenetic greeting can easily escalate to aggression if either dog is frustrated or easily offended.

  • During the greeting, the leashes must be loose. Most people keep the leashes tight because it makes them feel as though they have control. However, the tight leash makes the dog feel forced and out of control. Loose leashes allow the dogs to move about freely and get away if necessary. Additionally, a slight tug on a tight leash can cause an eruption and fight. It is important though, to ensure that the leashes don’t get tangled.

  • Make sure that you have enough room for the dogs to greet properly. Dogs often circle around each other when they sniff and they need room to do that. Tight spaces make dogs uncomfortable, so no greetings in hallways or other tight spots.

  • Both dogs should be under control and relaxed. It can help to get your dog to focus on you. Focus is an excellent tool to have and it is super important for greetings. It will take some practice, but if you have your dog’s attention and focus, everything else you do will be easy!

  • Your dog should have a good response to his or her name. When you say your dog’s name, does he immediately turn and look at you? No matter what else may be going on? A fast response to their name can help you diffuse a situation that may not be going well. Good name recognition can also help dogs that don’t like other dogs in their faces. You can allow a quick sniff and then call your dog away.

  • Always ask permission before greeting and be understanding, leash greetings are not for every dog. Not every dog will like another dog getting up close and personal. Like people, dogs can have space issues, some prefer not to have anyone near their face and some don’t like to get sniffed. Additionally, different dogs greet differently. Sometimes this can be categorized by breed, but not always. Some dogs prefer a very ritualistic and reserved greeting, while others will bound up and bounce all around. I think of this as similar to cultural differences for humans. A very hearty handshake and shoulder slap vs. a polite bow is very different and using the wrong greeting can offend the other person.

  • Give your dog permission to greet the other dog. Do this like you would give your dog permission to eat a treat. They should look for permission to greet.

  • If you encounter a dog unexpectedly, relax, loosen the leash and speak calmly to both dogs.

Loose leash greetings can be successful, but they require training and preparation. You can practice approaching another dog in a controlled setting, BEFORE actually allowing any greeting. This is best accomplished by enlisting the aid of another dog and handler who are either proficient at, or working on, the same skill and are also motivated to have successful on-leash greetings.

Start with the dogs at a distance from each other where they can each easily pay attention to their handlers. Begin your approach while keeping your dog’s attention. As you get close, and before they start to pull, quickly call your dog and retreat. You should be reinforcing attention and their response to their name. Gradually, with each successful approach, decrease the distance between the two dogs (and the point at which you call their names).

When you can get a little more than arm’s length away from the other dog/handler team and both dogs are more interested in the handlers than the other dog, ask for a sit. You can then reward the sit. In this way you are teaching approach a dog and handler and sit. When you can easily walk up to the other team and get a sit, you can then allow the greeting!

This can actually a fun game and is a great way to teach your dog to attend to you despite distractions. Even easy-going, laid-back dogs can benefit from increased attention and the rules for on-leash greetings. Young, enthusiastic dogs can be a real challenge so it is ok to put off greetings until they have had a some practice with impulse control and set-up approaches. Have fun!