How to Meet Other Dogs on Your Runs - Dog’s Body Language
Dogs communicate through their body language. This means that they start communicating as soon as they see each other. Think about your average run with your dog. You’re running on the trail or sidewalk, and you see a dog and their owner approaching from far away. Your dog fixates on the other dog in an instant, and then that dog returns the gaze. This is where the conversation starts – not when they are leash- length away from each other.
By the time you run close to the dog and their owner, the dogs have already communicated using body, facial, ears and tail movement. Your dog has made their friend or foe judgment before you’re even aware of it. Every single dog you meet on your run will have a brief ‘discussion’ with your dog. Your dog communicates to you as well. They may be telling you about an aggressive dog approaching. Are you able to understand their messages?
Learn your dog’s body language to be prepared for what’s coming. Here are three common scenarios of dog-to-dog interdiction you may encounter during the run.
1. A friendly encounter
Your dog may put their nose to the ground or turn their head away for a moment, to communicate “I won’t make trouble”. The other dog may do the same, to say, “Don’t worry, I mean you no harm”. Both dogs will avoid direct eye contact. Their bodies are relaxed. When the dogs get closer, you may notice facial expressions suggesting calmness: a softening of the eyes, or pulling back of the ears. The dogs will make a polite curve around each other and your dog may attempt to approach the other dog to sniff, if you permit it.
Dogs usually do not go straight toward each other. Instead, they will often curve when they meet another dog coming towards them on the path.
What you should do
Let your dog communicate; do not jerk your dog with the leash for lowering their muzzle or switching to the other side of you.
Leave them some space to make the curve.
If you can, permit them to briefly sniff the other dog. It will greatly reduce the stress of meeting other dogs on the run.
2. A calm avoidance
Your dog may have attempted to communicate their good intentions by lowering their head and looking away. However either dog may have failed to convince the other fully. There can be many reasons for that: perhaps you approached too quickly, their natural movement was restricted due to short leashes, or there was some other reason for misunderstanding.
Despite your dog’s attempts to reassure the other dog, the other dog may still feel uncomfortable or threatened: they may turn their head away and lick their nose, or turn their back as if they haven’t even noticed you or your dog.
In this instance, your dog may try to keep maximum distance from the other dog, possibly lowering their body or walking slowly past to show that they are not a threat, before continuing to run.
What you should do
Leave as much space as possible between the dogs. Cross the street if necessary.
Do not blame your dog for slowing down. They are only trying to be safe and polite.
Talk to your dog in a calming voice to let them know you are aware of the situation.
Praise your dog to mark the end of the stressful situation.
3. An aggressive quarrel
Your dog may get a long stare from another dog who is standing still with their body tense and positioned toward you. Their head and tail are likely to be high, and ears to the front. These are threatening signals. This dog is clearly stating, “I’m the boss here”. Your dog may turn their head to try to divert the gaze of the other dog, perhaps slowing down or stopping entirely, to avoid the conflict.
Did your dog look at you and lick their nose? Did they move closer to you? If so, they are asking for your protection, while signaling to the other dog that they are not in charge.
Did your dog mirror the pose of the other dog? Are they staring back? Are they very stiff? If so, they are not accepting the dominant claim of the other dog and are preparing to fight.
What you should do*
Never run straight towards the other dog. Keep your body and your dog facing away from the approaching dog.
If possible, cross the street or change your path altogether, to avoid stressful confrontation. Your dog will thank you for that.
If it is safe to proceed, allow as much space as is possible and reasonable between the dogs. Reassure your dog in a calming voice.
If you have to stop to allow the other party to proceed, make your dog sit down to allow them to approach and pass safely. Sitting or lying down communicates calmness and good intentions. Keep your dog engaged with you, or let them look away from the oncoming party. Discourage them from staring directly at the other dog.
Remain calm if any barking or snapping occurs.
Did your dog shake their head or entire body after the encounter? Or stop to roll on the ground? They are trying to release the stress.
Some common reasons for aggression
Dogs generally are conflict-avoiding creatures. Sometimes, however, there can be circumstances that make a typically calm dog react aggressively. Some common ones include:
Guarding the territory or the property (car, bag, treat, toy, etc.). A dog that is guarding something would interpret another dog running towards it as a threat.
Protecting the owner or other member of ‘the pack’.
Dog that is fearful of other dogs may feel intimidated by a dog running towards them.
Sick, weak dogs may alert your dog to stay away, in this case, barking may simply mean ‘Do not approach’.
Sometimes it really is the situation that makes good dogs bad. For example:
If you run in the evening and your dog communicates most via facial expressions, they may feel uncertain about other dogs because their faces and expressions cannot clearly be seen.
If you are approaching another dog too quickly, your dog may not have enough time to react or negotiate. Running on wide sidewalks and trails and in open areas is your best bet to avoiding unpleasant and potentially dangerous situations.
Practice your skills in observing other dogs, and your own, on your runs and walks. Learn the signals that your dog uses frequently – your dog is your best guide to a canine’s world.
Does your dog frequently get into trouble with other dogs? Do you think they might not ‘speak dog’?
Sometimes dogs that grow up just with humans and haven’t been socialized with other dogs lose their ability to communicate or ‘speak dog’. This can be the cause of problems. These dogs typically see other dogs as a threat. They might get stressed, quarrel, and sometimes fight. But don’t lose hope: There are dog trainers out there who have documented the process of recovery for dogs with such problems.
*Please consult a professional for advice if your dog has a high stress level and/or is known to lunge at people or dogs, and behave aggressively in many situations. Do not try to forcefully control your dog by threatening or jerking on the lead to make them heel or stop barking. Eventually your dog will learn that other dogs mean humiliation and pain in their back or neck and the aggression will escalate even faster.