Picture this: You’re walking your dog and suddenly, another dog is rushing towards you—something your dog is not prepared for. Dogs don’t always need to greet other dogs when out on walks, and encouraging on-leash greetings aren’t natural for dogs and could lead to or exacerbate reactivity. Even if your dog is friendly with other dogs, that doesn’t mean you always want them to be greeted by a strange dog—or that the other dog wants to be greeted. Teaching your dog proactive skills to avoid approaching other dogs can help decrease their anxiety or reactivity at the sight of other dogs as well as avoid unwanted interactions.
The first line of defense to prevent your dog from having to interact with an approaching dog is to advocate for your dog. When you see a dog begin to approach your dog proactively call out to the other owner and say you don’t want to meet. Have your dog leashed, practice getting your dog’s attention with a “watch” cue, shortening up your leash, and when possible cross the street or create distance to give the other owner time to collect their dog without allowing that dog to approach.
Learning how to emergency turn is a vital skill for all dogs and can be especially helpful for reactive dogs. This skill can be used to avoid an approaching dog or any other time you need to quickly move your dog out of any situation. The goal of this cue is to teach your dog to focus on you as you make a 180-degree turn to quickly begin moving in the opposite direction together, similar to the “About Turn” and “About U-Turn” skills utilized in AKC Rally Obedience. In this scenario we want your dogs close to us and when we cue them to do so to quickly turn 180-degrees to move in the opposite direction from the oncoming dog. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Have your dog at your side (left or right side is fine, and for this real-world application, it’s a good idea to teach it with your dog on both sides).
Step 2: Get a treat on your dog’s nose so they are following it, take a couple of steps forward, and then as you turn, use the treat to lure your dog to turn with you. Keep your leash loose so that it isn’t used to pull or guide, and, instead, the dog follows the treat to stay in position. When your dog makes the turn, praise them, and give your dog the treat.
Step 3: After a few repetitions you can introduce a verbal cue of your choice like “about” or “retreat” as you are turning. Be sure to keep your tone happy and excited, so your dog learns this direction change is positive.
Step 4: When your dog is better understands when the cue is coming, you can begin to phase out having a treat lure. Instead, offer a treat and reward after the turn.
Step 5: As you practice these emergency turns, keep your dog’s attention by changing directions as you walk. If your dog is highly motivated by where you are walking, you can also give them a treat and then verbally release your dog to sniff and explore when it’s safe to do so.
Getting your dog out of the way of someone else’s dog by crossing the street or with an emergency turn is always preferable, but in some instances, there might not be an easy way to escape. In this situation, it can be useful to have your dog get and stay behind you for safety. This can help dogs to develop trust in you as their owner to “solve” the problem of an uncomfortable encounter. Here’s how to go about doing so.
Step 1: If your dog already knows how to target your hand with their nose, you can use that cue. Otherwise, you can use a treat to get your dog’s attention and lure them behind you.
Step 2: Once you have your dog behind you treat and praise your dog in that position.
Step 3: After several repetitions, start to introduce a verbal cue like “behind” as you coax your dog behind you. Some owners like to then cue their dog to sit once they are positioned behind them but that is up to you.
Step 4: If your dog has a solid “stay” cue, you can use it while your dog is behind you. You can also teach your dog to stay behind you longer by continuing to praise and treat your dog in the position. This will help your dog make the association that this is where you want them to be.
Once your dog is positioned safely behind, you can try to address the incoming dog. You can use a loud voice to say “no” and encourage the approaching dog to leave.
If you have a dog who is easily distracted, reactive, or nervous about the sight or presence of other dogs, one way to help create space and reduce your dog’s interest in that approaching dog is to scatter treats. This isn’t just about distracting your dog. Sniffing and foraging can be a stress reliever for dogs which can lead them to be less worried at the sight of another dog. This cue has the added benefit of clearly making you and your dog “look busy,” which can encourage other owners to steer clear with their dogs instead of trying to greet them.
Step 1: For this cue, you’ll encourage your dog to come off to the side, and then toss a small handful of treats.
Step 2: In an excited, upbeat voice introduce the verbal cue of your choice like “search,” “jackpot,” or “party.”
Step 3: After a couple of repetitions, you can start to use your verbal cue as you are getting ready to toss the treats to redirect your dog. Now, instead of fixating on the passing dog, your dog will be busy foraging for the treats you have scattered.
Note that this is not a cue you want to utilize if you are being approached by an off-leash dog as the other dog may go for the scattered food, which could increase the likelihood of conflict between the two.
Another cue to teach your dog to avoid interactions with any approaching dog is to get to higher ground. While it’s not always possible, this cue can be useful for small dogs but can work for dogs of any size. For this activity, you’re going to lure your dog to get up onto an object near you like a large rock, a park bench, a fallen log, or a retaining wall. This allows you to work with the environment to provide your dog with space to get away.
Step 1: If your dog already knows how to jump up onto something, you can encourage your dog to do so.
Step 2: But if your dog doesn’t know this cue yet, you can use treats or toys and praise to lure and encourage your dog to get up onto high, stable objects throughout your walks.
Step 3: After a few repetitions you can begin to introduce a verbal cue of your choice to ask your dog to get onto an object. This is a skill that is naturally rewarding and most dogs pick up on it very quickly.
Adding distance from an approaching dog by getting your dog off the ground can especially help smaller dogs feel less stressed by an unfamiliar dog passing by. This trick is also a great way to discourage your dog from staring or becoming fixated on the approaching dog. This activity can also work well to signal to other dog owners that you don’t want your dog to engage with theirs.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The key to mastering these skills in a tricky situation where any dog is approaching is to build a strong reinforcement history for this behavior. You want to have practiced these skills so many times that when you need to use them, your dog will be focused on engaging with you, not on the approaching dog.
Start by teaching all these behaviors in a quiet and low distraction environment like inside your home, and then slowly build up to working on them in the hallway of your apartment building or on the street in front of your house. Next, practice the skills in a busier area like a park where you can see other dogs, but you still have distance from them. Slowly build up your dog’s confidence to perform the behavior with higher distractions so the next time a dog approaches while you’re out walking you and your dog will be ready.