This is a follow-up to our 2015 blog post Understanding Dog Reactivity
Part Two: Tips for Introducing Dogs Safely
(i.e. a friend or neighbour’s dog)
Rule #1: Start on Neutral Territory
If you’re not sure how the dogs will respond to each other, then the most important thing is to start somewhere neutral, not in someone’s back yard where a dog may become territorial. A quiet street where you won’t encounter many other people or dogs is ideal, one where there is lots of room for the dogs to move apart if they want to.
We recommend starting with the dogs on leashes for safety
Keep the leashes on, but as loose as possible: don’t tighten up on the leash or put tension on the leash unless you need to gently guide your dog away from the interaction. Allow the dogs to move away whenever they want to, allow them to exhibit curved non-confrontational body language (going sideways to each other, sniffing rear ends) or to move away and sniff other things. These are effective ways for the dogs to slowly warm up to each other.
Curves are IN
In polite dog culture dogs do not meet face-to-face (head on), instead they approach each other circuitously to show that their intents are friendly, then often they circle-sniff with each dog’s nose meeting the other’s rear end. Dogs can get so much useful and important information from a sniff and from observing the other dog’s posture. When dogs are approaching face-to-face their postures are often stiff, heads held high, coming in a straight line with no opportunity for appropriate body language and doggy etiquette. As they are getting closer the tension is already building before they’ve even come in contact.
Walking along a sidewalk most people are walking in a straight line with not much room. It is wise to give the dogs a wide berth so they can pass each other in a curved pattern rather than a straight line. Always ask the other person if the dogs can meet, please do not allow your dog into another’s face, and if the other person’s dog is on leash and you’re not in an off-leash park, the polite thing to do is leash up.
Go for a Walk Together to Take the Pressure Off
If you are introducing the dogs intentionally, the best thing to do is have them walking in the same direction, parallel to each other, facing the same way as opposed to face-to-face and moving toward each other. If their bodies are tense then have them walk parallel further apart (i.e. on separate sidewalks or across a field) and then slowly move closer together, remaining parallel, only as they exhibit signs they are ready. You’re looking for relaxing their body tension, sniffing in each others’ direction, soft eyes (not staring), tails relaxed and loose around mid-height (not high up in the air like a flag and not tucked in as though they are scared).
Take THEIR (not your) Time
It’s always best to err on the side of caution, especially if you want these dogs to be friends long-term. It’s better to take a longer time for them to be fully introduced than to rush things and allow them to have a negative experience. It’s a lot harder to undo bad first impressions than it is to delay those play dates.
Once they are walking side-by-side seeming relaxed and happy, then let them meet as they wish in a more open space.
If (and only if) the dogs are meeting with relaxed bodies, loose wagging tails, wiggly body language, looking like they want to play - now is the time to let them play off leash. We recommend doing so in a space fenced in for safety, but one that is large enough that each dog can move to take space when they want or need to. We recommend at least one adult for each dog, just in case trouble does come up.
Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow
Keep the first play date short and sweet (and ideally the first few, especially if there is significant time between them - dogs have a great memory for scents, but still have short memories in general). Don’t wait for the dogs to get tired and cranky and therefore increase the risk of a scuffle. End the play date while they’re still playful and happy and having fun. This way their least memory of each other is a very positive one, and they will look forward to seeing each other again. You’re building a long-term friendship here, so be patient and cautious :) Keep a careful eye on their body language and intervene proactively whenever there might be trouble brewing. Even if they play for 5 minutes, then take a short 1-2 minute break separately for water and to shake off, then return - that is a great way to ensure things remain friendly. Finally, enjoy watching your dog(s) have fun! Healthy dog play is one of the great joys of dog ownership and a well-socialized dog gets to have more of these fun play dates.
About The Author
Jillian is a fear-free certified and CPDT-KA certified animal behaviour specialist and has been working in the animal care and behaviour field since 2009.