After meeting many new dog owners and their dogs over the past 8 years, we’ve noticed a few patterns that we’d like to share.
In particular, we’d like to highlight ways that you can initiate and maintain polite, constructive, and masterful interactions with fellow dog owners and their dogs, even if the situations become difficult.
The first two examples outline clear-cut situations. The second two address unpredictable scenarios.
Let’s take a look.
1. The friendly, “all-good” greeting.
Imagine you come upon a dog owner and dog that you haven’t met before.
If the owner is aware of their dog’s behaviour, they will often say, “sure we can say hi, my dog is very friendly.” We make sure to do the same when we’re meeting new people or dogs for the first time too.
We find it most helpful (and outgoing) to be the first to say hello to the owner, and initiate the statement about the “friendly-ness” of our dog.
Think, “taking-polite-charge” of the new interaction. You’re signalling that you have a friendly dog, which helps to put the other owner at ease about the situation that they’re approaching. You’re taking charge of the interaction politely and constructively. Confidence. Leadership. Mastery.
The dogs approach each other, sniff, do the usual hello with the dog and owners, everyone chats for a minute or two, and then we all continue on our ways.
No problems. These are how constructive interactions are supposed to go. Masterfully.
2. The “let’s not do this” encounter.
In this situation, you’re dealing with owners with unpredictable dogs (perhaps unpredictable to the owners, and possibly to you and your dog as well). This scenario also applies to people who may not have a dog, but who happen to be uncertain or afraid of, or not like, dogs (in other words, be respectful of people who may be afraid of or are uncomfortable around dogs).
This encounter is similar to the first greeting (“all-good” greeting) in that it’s unmistakably clear and honest – except this time the greeting is in the opposite direction. You see another owner and dog approaching, and get clear visual or verbal indication that having the dogs say hello is not a good idea.
Here are some of the signals:
a) The owner steers their dog off in different direction, or skirts around you in a wide berth (no verbal communication with you). They provide a clear indication they don’t want to engage with you and/or your dog.
Nothing left for you to do but carry on with your walk and enjoy!
b) The owner and dog continue moving towards you, but maybe slow down and hesitate. At this point, you may want to start off the conversation – saying hello, that your dog is friendly (if, in fact, it is – never pretend or embellish if it’s not true…more on that shortly), and asking if they or their dog would like to say hi. Confidence. Leadership. Mastery.
At this point, the owner will likely say, “actually, my dog gets a bit nervous around other dogs” (they may say around big dogs, or little dogs, or whatever – but the point is that you need to pick up on the signal that the owner might not think it would be a good idea for your dog to say hi to theirs) or, if they’re perfectly honest, may say that their “dog isn’t friendly” and that they should just carry on their way.
At this point, we’d recommend respectfully and politely acknowledging the owner’s position, and saying a friendly, “OK, thanks for letting me know, have a good walk,” and then continuing on your way. Allow people the space to say no – they’ll appreciate you for doing so. And it lets the owner save face if the dog has difficult behaviours.
We’d also note that a variation on the above scenario occurs when owner might be a bit vague, and say, “sometimes my dog’s not friendly” (sometimes??!! – take that as a warning!), or “I’m not sure how he/she will be today.”
In situations like this, opt for the safe route of staying away and not taking a chance on the greeting – otherwise, you might quickly find yourself in scenario number 3, the “that got weird” scenario, where your dog is suddenly snapped at or bitten (more to come on that, too).
Pay attention to the cues offered up by the owners, and perhaps by the behaviour of the dog itself, that suggest the dog or the owner might not want to say hi.
3. The “friendly-turns-weird” greeting.
Rarely have we encountered the case when an owner says that their dog is friendly, and then the dog in fact behaves in an aggressive or unexpected (negative) way. However, we have experienced this situation a few times, with the result that Juno has gotten snapped at, lightly bitten, and startled.
Fortunately for us, Juno is one of those mild-mannered dogs that has never initiated any kind of snapping – the only occasions she has done that is when she’s been “defending” herself from other dogs snapping at her, or when they are getting overly aggressive/making unwanted physical contact with her.
An option for dealing with this situation is saying something like, the dog “is not feeling like saying hi today – maybe another time. Have a good walk.” Notice the shift of focus to “today not being a good day,” as opposed to commenting on the dog’s behaviour or the owner’s tolerance of it. This approach allows the owner a safe way out of the interaction, by saying, “Yeah, maybe not today. That’s weird. Thanks, and hope you have a good walk too.”
4. The “WTF just happened” situation.
This is our least favourite situation of all. It happens when you meet an owner who knows that their dog is unpredictable/nervous/aggressive, but who tries to downplay the likely response of their dog.
This scenario is by far the worst, in our experience – it is dishonest and dangerous. Simple as that.
This is the unsettling situation that, at first, seems perfectly normal.
You do the polite preamble, the dogs approach, everything seems as if it’s moving in the direction of the “all-good” greeting. All of a sudden, the other dog turns aggressive, and snaps, bites, lunges, or some combination of those, pulling and barking, you name it.
And you end up dealing with your dog that’s been nipped, bitten, frightened, or has pulled off and away (a potential problem if you have a large, strong, active dog – a possible injury risk to you or other people), or worse yet, started barking/biting back (even if it is doing so in self-defence).
In this situation, unfortunately (and often, we feel), dishonestly, the owner says something to the effect of, “I don’t know what’s gotten into him, he’s not usually like that.”
We call BS. Yeah, you probably DID have an idea that that might have happened, and just didn’t want to say so. And you risked injury to our dog, or us, in the process.
In human terms, this behaviour is the equivalent of you and a friend meeting two other people in a park. You say to the first new person, “hi, I’m so-and-so, and is my friend.” The first person you just met says, “and I’m so-and-so, and this is my friend,” whereupon that person’s friend suddenly lunges out and punches your friend in the face. Yeah, WTF. The situation doesn’t make sense, and that behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated in the human world.
Like we mentioned, we’ve rarely, if ever, encountered a situation where a dog “all of a sudden” behaves that way without an owner having any foreknowledge of that possibility. Think of the situation above – would the first new person really say, “geez, I had no idea my friend would behave that way.” We doubt it. They knew better.
Why people pretend their dog is well-behaved
So, let’s look at possible causes of why people would do that: i.e., signal that their dog is all set for an “all-good” greeting, when in fact, the opposite is likely true.
1. Embarrassment. The first possibility is embarrassment – the owner simply does not know how to say no to a new greeting, and goes along with the greeting despite the risk of inappropriate or dangerous behaviour from their dog.
2. Denial. Perhaps the owner is in a form of denial, hoping that their dog will one day behave appropriately, even though the dog has a history of not behaving constructively.
3. Comfort. Perhaps counterintuitively, the owners might be comfortable in finding a way to suggest the problem is actually with YOUR dog. This response is always a bit of a surprise, as is the case when you come face-to-face with textbook defence mechanisms, such as projection, in humans. All of a sudden, your dog is the problem because it is too big, too small, too aggressive, too whatever, which is what they claim set off the owner’s dog to behave aggressively.
4. Hope. The owners may be hoping that exposing their not-so-well behaved dog to a more well-behaved dog will have a positive effect on their dog, perhaps “teaching” their dog more socially-acceptable behaviours through the greeting.
In these situations, we find it’s best to acknowledge the situation for what it is – you’ve met an owner who, along with their dog, is, or may be, unpredictable.
Best not to waste too much time trying to change the situation. Better to move along and be on your way.
But how do you do that while maintaining your cool after an unexpectedly stressful situation, while getting your dog settled and back on track?
Mastering the difficult interaction
This is where your mastery comes in.
There are a few things you can say to settle a situation that could quickly escalate and enflame other participants.
Even though you recognize full well that the other owner and/or dog might not be well-versed in constructive behaviours, you can create a calmer situation by referring to an innocuous part of the situation, rather than to the owner or the dog. Think deflection.
This approach is critical for helping the owner to not feel that they, or their dog, are being accused (justified as that may be).
You are, in effect, de-escalating a situation, and letting the owner save face in the event that they are actually embarrassed about their dog’s behaviour and don’t know what to do.
Similar to the third situation above, you could say something like, “maybe today’s not a good day, maybe another time. Have a good walk.” Again, notice the shift of focus to “today not being a good day,” as opposed to commenting on the dog’s behaviour or the owner’s tolerance of it. You’ve presented the owner with a safe way out of the situation, by saying, “yeah, maybe not. Thanks, and hope you have a good walk too.”
It also allows you to take the non-accusatory, high-road leadership position. Mastery.
It’s a beautiful thing, and you can move on knowing you’ve left a problem situation behind, having conducted yourself with dignity and respect for the other parties.
In our experience, owners with aggressive dogs aren’t necessarily the most reasonable people when challenged about their dog’s behaviour, and it’s likely not going to help to point out the inappropriate behaviour, as owners may respond defensively, taking your challenge as a provocation instead of constructive criticism or a recommendation for improvement.
If the other owner is reasonable, they probably wouldn’t think it’s a good idea for their aggressive dog to meet another dog in the first place, pretending that everything will be fine in the process.
You can’t often change other peoples’ behaviour. But you always have full control over your own.
A final few things you can do if you’ve encountered unpredictable owners and dogs:
- take note of the dog/owner, the name of their dog, their walk times, or routes where you encounter them if you see them more than once
- adjust your route and schedule accordingly, and move to the other side of the street or trail if you see them coming your way
Similarly, take note of the routines of the owners and dogs that behave constructively. Say hello and get to know them (we’ve met some great friends through the process of walking our dog!).
Set some meetup or walk times in your neighbourhood or local parks when you and your dog can hang out with other well-tempered humans and canines.
You can’t usually change other people or their behaviour, but you have full control over your behaviour and what you do to maintain a safe, pleasant walk experience for you and your dog.
Confidence. Forethought. Leadership. Mastery.
Get at it. It’s in you.
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