When I lived in New York City, traffic lights were to be ignored if you were a pedestrian. Crossing depended on spotting an opening and taking it. I was guided by my senses. Auditory, visual, and even smell. They aligned with the cars and pedestrian traffic to help me identify patterns that would play out in my head, much like that character in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”. This is how I was able to make hair-trigger critical decisions.
My knowhow of traffic routines and human conduct, combined with my instincts, served me well during this time. Over 30 years defying the laws of common sense by throwing myself into moving traffic, yet not one negative incident. I’d say that was a pretty good track record. And you know a record like that just serves to reinforce the belief that you’re doing the right thing, when everyone else knows you’re not.
In my mind there was a definite method to my madness. But to an outsider (read tourist), I was a nutjob hellbent on getting myself killed. While others waited patiently for the light to turn (again, mostly tourist) I’d throw myself into moving traffic, weaving through it, and safely making it to the other side and disappearing into the crowd.
Tourist gawked, and I smirked knowing I beat the game. There was no thought behind what I did. It was a natural practice for me and part of my everyday existence.
I applied the same mindset and crossing ritual when I moved up to the country in Saratoga Springs. It didn’t go so well. Local customs didn’t mix with my old habits. I was forced to rethink my propensity towards recklessness and learn a new way of behaving. Now I wait for the light to change. Not very patiently, but I wait.
Science says that the longer we practice a behavior or thought process, the more challenging it will be to modify our actions and bring about change. The behavior and thinking habits begin to take root, and those roots grow strong over time.
Confirmation bias also skews our thinking. That’s the tendency to interpret new evidence as affirmations of our pre-existing beliefs or ideas. As a species, we generally suck at critical thinking.
This explains why I was so insistent on trying my city-style method of street crossing in a much less urban area like Saratoga Springs. It’s also one of the reason why millions of dog owners insist on having their dog greet other dogs while on-leash.
Here are some sound, logical, and factual reasons (I’m not pulling this stuff out of the air) as to why this isn’t a good idea.
1. Most people can’t read body language
Humans primarily convey ideas and feelings through words, dogs don’t. Much of what we need to know about a dog’s current frame of mind is conveyed through their body language and the various signals they give off at any given moment. Yet most of us are unable to decipher such signals simply because we lack the basic understanding of how to go about it. Instead we make up our own looney interpretations of what we believe is going on.
For example, a dog may cower when yelled at, so you assume that he clearly must be feeling guilty about something. You attribute guilt to a certain look on the dogs face. Sound familiar? It should because you hear these ridiculous translations often enough. We’re clueless.
Given our poor assessment of dog behavior how confident do you feel that the idiot walking his GSD in your direction is going to be able to decipher, or even consider, your Chihuahuas emotional state as he convulses with fear by your side? Cynical? Maybe. Realistic? Absolutely.
2. It’s an unnatural way for dogs to meet.
If you and I were to meet each other chances are we would do so head on and face to face. Eye’s locked on to each other and hands extended out in a greeting gesture. That’s a socially acceptable way for two humans to interact. This manner of greeting is bad news for dogs. It can appear highly threatening to a dog and induce stress. Yet it’s almost exactly how we initiate contact when allowing them to meet on leash.
A dog’s natural way of saying “what’s up” is more fluid in motion. Dogs move in and out of each other’s space at a moderate to slow tempo. All the while they’re flashing calming signals and body language indicators at each other that communicate to the other dog their intentions and desire to engage safely and peacefully. Dogs may choose to distance themselves for a few seconds and return to the greeting, continuing to sniff and size each other up. This progresses until each dog has decided that the other is safe. Whether or not they choose to play and further the interaction is entirely up to them. Safety is a primary concern to them at this point.
But it’s not a haphazard attempt at play like many would believe. It’s highly ritualized and there’s a great deal of communication going on before any play occurs. Most of this flys over the head of many humans.
3. No Escape.
Dogs are keenly aware that they’re tethered while on-leash. This means that their movements are restricted. This sense of being restrained is enough to bring about some major issues within some dogs.
Let’s go back to reason 2. The ability to move in and out of each others space provides a strong feeling of comfort and security for dogs. And this is incredibly empowering for them. Greeting an unfamiliar dog can be a stressful experience.
Let’s consider the effects of stress on the “fight or flight” option. Given the choice, most dogs would choose “flight” and move away from a potential conflict. However, a dog greeting another on leash no longer has that leverage. Because he is restrained by the leash he is now forced to deal with his stress. Because this is in essence a forced meeting the advantage of creating a safe distance for himself has been taken off the table. Once stress levels increase to an uncontrollable level the dog feels compelled to react and goes into fight or defensive mode. This is how and when things get ugly. And it can happen amazingly fast.
4. Some dogs are over-excited greeters
You don’t want to introduce an over-excited greeter to another dog on-leash. These are the kind that get into the other dog’s personal space without adhering to any signals that may indicate that the other dog isn’t ready for that level of closeness. The kind of dog that immediately wants to begin play without allowing the other dog ample time to size him up.
Imagine an overexcited greater wanting to desperately shake your hand and invading your personal space while doing so. You get all sorts of creepy vibes just thinking of it, don’t you? Well, it’s not much different with dogs. A hard up greeter repulses everyone, including dogs. If your dog is on-leash and already feeling apprehensive and possibly on edge when an overexcited greeter comes on the scene, it could just be the thing to push him over that edge.
5. Some dogs have social anxieties.
One of the saddest things about on-leash greetings is that often a dog may not be too keen on meeting another dog but his humans are pushing him to do so. Some dogs give off extremely clear signals telling us that they need space and that they don’t wish to meet an unfamiliar dog.
Dogs meeting others dogs should ideally do so on their terms and with properly matched dogs. And socially anxious or nervous dogs should have owners advocating for them by ensuring that all introductions are gradual and as comfortable and easy as possible.
6. Some dogs have play deficiencies.
It’s true that there are certain dogs that simply do not know how to properly engage and play with other dogs. Perhaps due to inadequate/poor socialization or the pup may have been separated from his siblings much too early to learn proper play. Either way you have a dog that plays too rough, is too assertive, or just doesn’t play fair with others. These are the bullies of the canine world.
Dogs like this are allowed to practice their bad habits, sometimes on a daily basis. They have owners who are uninformed, or just don’t care. These dogs also frequent dog park visitors. They should not ever be allowed to play with others unsupervised, let alone greet another dog while on-leash.
7. On-Leash meetings are rarely on dog’s terms.
This about imposing our desires and wishes on our dogs. Some owners are not comfortable with the idea that they have a dog with social issues. They want the Disney version. A friendly, adorable, affable, highly social pet that will love everyone and be loved by everyone. When this doesn’t happen some go into denial and refuse to see their dog for what they really are, either willingly or unknowingly.
Because of this, they turn a blind eye to their dogs unique set of problems. What this means is that they place the dog in environments and situations which create high levels of stress for their dog. In the end, no one is advocating for the dog due to unrealistic expectations.
Don’t get too despondent about all this. If you’re one of those people who enjoyed introducing your dog to another while on-leash but now know better realize that there are still alternatives to consider.
Taking dogs out on a walk
Dogs respond well to movement, it can be magically therapeutic in its calming outcome. Because of this it’s a fantastic idea to engage them on a good 30 minute, or longer, walk. Dogs walking alongside another have little time, motivation, or willingness to focus on the other dog walking next to them. The rhythmic movement of walking and the ongoing motion helps the dog achieve a calmer frame of mind and be more accepting of the other dog.
We often hear that we should “walk our worries away”. It’s good advice and one based on sound concepts. Movement has the ability to displace our energies and dissipate them into the atmosphere. Try it for yourself, but definitely try it with your dogs.
Introducing in Wide Open Spaces
Placing two equally matched dogs in a wide, secure, supervised open space can often help them meet in the most natural way possible. Because they are unrestrained the greeting happens on their terms. Stress and any social anxiousness is often either reduced or eliminated.
So there you have it: seven reasons as to why dogs shouldn’t meet on-leash and two good alternatives.
But you may be asking yourself why does it continue to happen so frequently. In other words, why do so many people do it? If it was truly such a bad idea then clearly people would have wised up to it by now. Not really. Just as I willingly threw myself into moving New York City traffic without a second thought, some people don’t pay attention to their actions.
We program and condition ourselves to continue behavior that has been practiced for a long time, regardless of how ridiculous and potentially dangerous it may be. Social pressure can also prove to be incredibly powerful. We want to follow along with what others are doing. Generally, when we are approached by another dog owner dragging along their hairy bundle of nerves we are likely to go along with their plan to introduce the dogs instead of declining the offer.
Let’s remember the most relevant thing here. We should be advocating for our dogs and doing what is in their best interest. Even if that means we take some precautions that others deem extreme.
All it takes is one nasty on-leash interaction between your dog and another. Once that happens the events and emotional state created within your dog will leave an imprint that may remain for the rest of his or her life.
What do you think?