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- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
As a professional dog trainer, I often find myself out in public observing encounters between people and pets where what seems obvious to me is clearly not obvious to the people involved.
From people and dogs encountering each other on the street, to well-intentioned (but clueless) pet lovers desperate to hug a stranger’s dog, there are right and wrong ways to go about pet-and-people and pet-to-pet interactions.
So, how do we all share public spaces in a way that is safe and considerate to everyone?
This scenario guide will help you navigate public spaces keeping the safety and well-being of all people and pets top of mind.
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Scenario 1: A Stranger Wants to Pet Your Dog
Strangers are mostly well-meaning, but some can be particularly obtuse—my dog and I were once chased down the street and harassed by a man claiming to be “good with dogs!” It can be rough out there, but as your dog’s #1 advocate, it’s your job to protect them from demanding or pushy strangers who could ultimately set them back on their learning journey.
You know your dog best—if nothing in the world makes them happier than meeting a friendly stranger, an interaction is totally fine. Just keep an eye on your pet to make sure their consent is ongoing and move along once they’ve had enough.
However, if your dog has big feelings about strangers or environmental stimuli, or is a juvenile pup still learning about the world, interactions with strangers can be confusing or downright scary. Instead of forcing them to “socialize” with a stranger, allow your dog to observe people and other dogs from afar while offering a treat they love (food, toy, play) to make positive associations with what they are seeing.
Remember, you don’t owe a stranger access to your dog—this is doubly true if your dog is shy or fearful around strangers. If your dog is not consenting during these types of encounters, it can lead to increased frustration based reactivity (barking, lunging, and/or aggression) in the future—I see it every day in my behavior practice.
So, politely move along if your dog is expressing any of the following behaviors when a stranger wants to pet them:
- Lunging at the person at the end of their leash
- Jumping up like they’re on a pogo-stick
- Backing away, making themselves small
- Hiding behind you
- Distracted and uninterested in the stranger
Creating physical distance between the stranger and avoiding eye contact usually gets the point across. A few other good excuses to have in your pocket can be:
- “My dog has a contagious disease, please do not approach.”
- “We are in training and cannot say hello today.”
- “My dog is fearful of strangers and may bite if you get too close.”
- “We’re late to an appointment, not today!”
Alternate scenario: You want to pet a stranger’s dog
We all know the irresistible lure of an adorable dog. But in most cases, these cute puppers and their people will probably be better if everyone just went on their way.
This is especially true if:
- The guardian appears to be actively teaching or training the dog
- They are avoiding people and other dogs
- The dog is immersed in their environment (sniffing, doing dog things) and oblivious to you
This said, we all know sometimes that cute dogs out and about are clearly looking to be adored! If this dog-person team look approachable, ask the guardian if you may say hello.
If the answer’s yes, wait and observe the dog’s body language: if the dog is interested in interacting with you, they’re probably already wiggling around and bumping into you, begging for pets! This is the dog consenting to being touched.
From here, ask where your new best friend likes to be petted and scratch for about three to five seconds. If the dog doesn’t immediately ask for more affection by leaning back in, nudging, or pawing at you, your hello is over. If the dog wants more pets, good luck, you may be stuck in that spot all day!
Scenario 2: You and Your Leashed Dog Are Approached by an Off-Leash Dog
This one is a biggie. For one reason, getting rushed by an off-leash dog in any scenario can be frightening for both humans and other dogs. For another, it can be disruptive to ongoing training with your dog, especially if your dog is working through big feelings or still gaining confidence in public settings.
To a dog, a fast-approaching off-leash dog is like being stuck on public transportation while a stranger comes running right at you head-on, invading your personal space. As with our dogs, you might have nervous anticipation, or depending on your past experiences, an actual panic response.
In dogs these responses can look like:
- Making themselves small
- Attempting to run away
- Barking and lunging to tell the other dog to back off
Depending on how the off-leash dog responds to your dog’s attempts at communication, the interaction can go well—or result in both you and your dog incurring trauma and/or physical injuries.
While it’s impossible to predict these sorts of situations, in general, it’s best to avoid them whenever possible. Here’s what you can do.
- Stay aware of your surroundings. If you spot an off-leash dog, head in the opposite direction or leave the area.
- If the dog’s guardian is present, clearly and loudly ask them to gather and leash their dog.
- Throw a handful of treats toward the oncoming dog or on top of the dog’s head if they’ve made it over to you—this should hopefully distract them long enough for you and your pup to make a run for it in the other direction.
- If you’re unable to get away and the oncoming dog cannot be deterred, you may need to use a less friendly tactic, like popping open an umbrella toward them, or, for a real emergency, using an animal deterrent spray, such as this citronella-based product. Spray may be used in the event of a dog fight as well.
- Once you’re out of the situation, focus on decompression. Scatter some treats in the grass for your dog to sniff out while you take a few deep breaths. When you’re ready, shake it off figuratively, and hopefully your dog will shake it off literally.
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Alternate scenario: You let your dog off leash everywhere
I get it. Nothing compares to seeing your dog run free and have some freedom in nature, especially if they’re cooped up all day and eager to get outside and “dog.”
Unfortunately, off-leash dogs significantly impact other people, dogs, and even the local wildlife. This is true whether your dog is “friendly”—other dogs (and humans) may not be—and whether your dog actually minds you. The fact is, public spaces belong to us all, and leash laws exist for a reason—to keep everyone safe.
For folks who’ve always had happy-go-lucky dogs with no issues navigating these scenarios—I don’t expect you to know this. I didn’t myself until I had my own dog with very big feelings about other dogs and people. But now that I know about dogs and people with trauma, how off-leash dogs can restrict access to public places for some people, and how hard trainers and parents work to help their pets safely navigate public settings, it’s a kindness to be courteous to others.
Here are some things you can do instead:
- Check out Sniffspot—you can rent large off-leash spaces for your dog (and their friends)—your life is about to change for the better. Read more about the airbnb of dogs parks!
- Try a long-line decompression walk! These are a wonderful alternative to off leash but still give your dog plenty of opportunities to move around and do dog things. Read more about them here.
Scenario 3: An Unexpected Dog to Dog On Leash Greeting
In a meet cute world, leash greetings are the stuff of “101 Dalmatians“. In the real world, excited, fearful, or timid dogs on short leads can get tangled quickly, and if we linger too long when our dogs can’t escape, trip hazards and quickly tightening leashes can add to the tension.
Every time your dog meets other dogs on leash, a precedent is being set. If your dog is curious or friendly and likes meeting other dogs, the next time they are unable to get to another dog while on leash, they may become frustrated, resulting in barking and lunging. If your dog is shy, uninterested, or has known reactions—staring, freezing, barking, lunging—allowing a greeting will add to their frustration, too.
In the training world, I like to think of leashed walks as a time to exercise and bond with your dog—not a time to meet and greet other dogs. If we adopt this as a general guideline, we will see our dogs thrive with healthy boundaries and suffer a lot less from leash frustration and reactivity.
However, there are always times when on leash greetings are hard to avoid (turning a corner, for example) and other times when it’s clear that both dogs would be happier if they at least got to say a quick hello.
Here’s what you can do during both scenarios:
If both dogs are relaxed with loose body language and interested in each other and they must greet:
- Keep your dog’s leash as loose as possible.
- Communicate with the other guardian and confirm the quick meet.
- Observe the dogs sniff nose to butt then nose to nose and end the greeting. It should last no more than three to five seconds.
- Say, “ok, let’s go!” and move along.
If either dog is reactive or showing hard body (barking, raised hackles, lunging) language:
- As calmly and quickly as possible, walk up the leash and move away. You may have to apply some pressure, but do not yank or grab your dog’s collar (this could result in a bite). If your dog is wearing an H-shaped harness with a leash attached to the top, it should be minimally aversive.
- Use a comforting, upbeat tone of voice, grab your high value food (hot dog, cheese, whatever treat your dog loves most), and put it in your hand. Make a fist, then stick your fist in front of your dog’s nose.
- Make a u-turn, say “let’s go this way,” run to the other side of the street or behind a barrier, or otherwise create distance from the scene.
- Scatter the treat onto the ground so your dog can sniff and decompress.
If none of this applies to you and your dog:
- Make it a general rule to cross the street, make space, and be respectful of your fellow dog parent who may be actively training or dealing with a unique situation with their dog.
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The Wrap Up
All dogs need walking and exercise, and this daily ritual can be both a great bonding experience and wonderful physical activity for both people and pets.
It’s important to learn how to share the street and other public spaces safely and respectfully so that it becomes second nature.
If your dog is struggling with big feelings about the world or having difficulty encountering other dogs, a certified trainer or behavior consultant can work with you on how to prepare for all these scenarios, and more.