“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” Perhaps you’ve heard that sentence before, or maybe you’ve even uttered those words yourself. They are usually called out by an owner whose dog is off-leash and approaching another dog or dog-person pair.
If you have ever said these words I will now let you in on a little (albeit tough love style) secret: It does not matter if you think your dog is friendly. It doesn’t even matter if he actually is friendly. What matters is that, at best, it is poor doggie etiquette to fail to gain immediate control over your dog (i.e. have him at your side, leashed) as soon as others come into view. At worst, you are making life more difficult for the other person. Many people are afraid of dogs, and, honestly, you are putting them in an awful position by allowing your dog to galavant around them, run towards them, or approach them in any way. If you encounter someone who is with a dog, you should know that, even if your dog is the sweetest dog on earth, and has never fought with another dog, and who in fact has had magical calming effects on every dog he has ever met, you are putting that person’s dog in a very difficult position. Many dogs have a very hard time with other dogs coming up to them, and it is unfair for you to make that dog feel that way, or to potentially sabotage the training the person has invested in getting their dog to be more comfortable with other dogs.
When you call out, “Don’t worry, he’s friendly,” you may be trying to reassure the other person. Your intentions are good, but the effect is the opposite. By calling out reassurances instead of calling and leashing your dog, whether you mean to or not, you are letting the other person know you a) don’t have control over your dog, which is usually a bit nerve-wracking for them; b) you are putting your convenience above how they feel or how their dog feels, which is not a nice thing to do to your fellow human beings or their pooches; and c) somewhat paradoxically, they may automatically find your dog annoying, which will earn him a bad reputation, despite your belief that he is friendly and a nice dog.
The hard truth is that it doesn’t matter whether or not your dog is friendly. It is simply rude (and likely illegal given leash laws) to fail to gain immediate control over your pooch when you see other passersby. You may be scaring someone and you may be upsetting their dog. Fortunately, there is an easy solution to this problem. If you allow your dog to run off-leash, teach him to come instantly to you, even in the face of distractions. That will immediately put others at ease, show off what great training and control you have, and give the impression that you and your dog are both good community members. There are many effective strategies for improving your dog’s leash manners, too, so that you won’t hesitate to walk him on leash when needed.
With so many people enjoying their dogs on hiking trails, in town, at dog parks, and on suburban walking paths, it is time we all polished up our doggie etiquette. If you don’t know how to train your dog to pass other dogs politely, or how to get him to stay with you when other people pass, do not despair. There is a wonderful new book that will teach you what to do, step-by -step. It is called Out and About with Your Dog: Dog to Dog Interactions On the Street, On the Trails and at the Dog Park by Sue Sternberg. It will teach you how to pass others on a trail, how to recognize doggie communication and play styles, how to recognize dog park habits that we humans have that are helpful (and some that are not), and, I am not making this up, how to teach your dog to ignore other dogs (and how to know whether that is what your dog needs). You’ll also find a cool quiz so you can assess your dog’s behavior, and beautiful color photos throughout.
Here are other ideas for getting your dog ready to hike off leash. Soon when we dog owners pass each other, we will be calling out to each other, “What a wonderful dog you have there!”