When two dogs meet it’s always good to have a strategy. If dogs know each other, or are socially very strong, you could have them off leash and let nature do its thing. Most likely they will curve around a little to observe each other to make sure both are comfortable meeting. Having said that, there are many dogs out there that could use a little more support. They might for example not be comfortable with dogs running up to them, OR they might be the ones that run up to other dogs themselves. There are also situations where dogs are socially equipped but have a large difference in size. It doesn’t take much for a large dog to make a misjudgment that completely freaks out a smaller dog. The smaller dog can develop a strategy for keeping larger dogs at bay; running up to them whilst barking is not an uncommon sight. On the other hand, a large dog in the same situation can develop “bullying” behavior – having learned that it’s great fun to scare a smaller dog and to then chase it. Hence there are times when we should help our dogs to make the right choices.
Let’s look at our own species for a moment. We people are often not comfortable inviting unknown people into our personal space and sharing details about our lives straight away either. This already becomes apparent when looking at our famous “handshake” that we use when meeting new people. Let’s be honest – that feels pretty awkward! Our social rules determine that this is the way we should introduce ourselves, hence we walk straight up to a new person and shake their hand. Afterwards, we usually back away a little again to a distance that feels more comfortable, and more often than not, we realize that we haven’t even heard the other person’s name! Well we must have heard it, but we didn’t register it. This shows how uncomfortable we are too with such a direct approach.
Why we chose to do this to ourselves is beyond me, but we tend to have the same idea when our dogs meet. We think they should be able to walk straight up to another dog, and let them do their “handshake”, which in their case is a good bottom/snout sniff. If a dog is subjected to such a direct approach for a while, dogs can lose their ability to communicate more naturally (curving towards each other whilst communicating with body language). If we want to change this, and allow dogs to find back their natural communication, we should create a situation where we set them up for success. A social walk is a great way to allow dogs the time and space to get to know each other.
To set up a successful social walk make sure to:
Find an area that is low in triggers for both dogs but carry a lot of scents. A forest like environment is usually a very smart choice.
Have both dogs on a harness (with attachment on the back) and a long lead of approximately 5 meters so they aren’t restricted in their communication.
Start walking both dogs at such a distance from each other that they are completely at ease
exploring their surroundings and not paying too much attention to each other. Walk in the same direction, either parallel from each other, behind one another or a combination of these two. When you feel that both are happy exploring you can slowly decrease the distance from each other. At some point they will be within reach of each other and the meeting will likely take place. Once they start sniffing each other make sure they have a loose leash that doesn’t influence their movement. Give them a few moments to get information from each other, but when you feel that this is “done” DO continue your walk. There is usually a second of “nothing” in between the meeting ritual and the next step (play bough for example) in which you can encourage the dogs to move forward. Move your body in forward position again and click your tongue or pat your pants to cue your dogs that the journey continues. Having something to do makes the process of introduction a lot easier – again that is the same for people, after our hand shake it’s easier to walk to the coffee machine together then to deal with an awkward silence because you’re both standing still thinking what to say next….
This sounds easy as its quite black and white. Depending on the dogs in question, the environment and the owners it can take some social walks where you must remain at a distance. Just remember: for dogs to build a connection there doesn’t have to be any physical contact. They can communicate and learn to appreciate each other’s company just fine from a distance.
Last tip: try to make these outings fun for both dogs. Do some treat searches with them, let them explore and sniff to their heart’s content. Build positive associations by doing fun though relaxed activities in the presence of the other dog. Perhaps these two dogs will never become the best of friends, neither are we with all other people in the world, but surely they can learn to appreciate each other’s company as long as both dogs feel safe and respected.