Shouting at another dog owner is never my proudest moment as a human, but when people refuse to listen to the multiple times I politely ask them to get their dogs to leave my reactive pup alone, it ends up being the only option left. Learning how to advocate for my border collie Fenwick has been an essential part of my dog ownership journey, but almost two years after I first took her home, I’m still struggling with her training thanks to the irresponsibility of other dog owners.
Fenwick is an absolute sweetheart, but due to a severe chicken allergy that went undiagnosed until she was eight months old, she missed out on a lot of key socialization. Since going onto one of the best dog foods for allergies, she’s no longer regularly ill like she was as a puppy. However, the ‘damage’ was done and she can really struggle to be around other dogs, often fixating on them and trying to herd them.
I’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to get Fenwick to the stage where she can exist as a “normal dog”. An essential part of my training is taking Fenwick to places where she can watch other dogs and learn that they’re not a big deal and that she doesn’t have to react to them. However, there’s one major flaw in this plan – other dog owners.
I’ve put ‘dog-in-training’ vests on Fenwick, I’ve very pointedly walked in the opposite direction when I’ve seen another dog, I’ve shouted “she’s not friendly” repeatedly, I drive out of my way to quiet locations (usually ones that require dogs to be on leash) and I take her for walks at unsociable times. None of my techniques are foolproof though, because she’s regularly assaulted by other off-lead “friendly” dogs that have absolutely zero recall whatsoever. Every time this happens, Fenwick’s training is set back.
You can consider this article my own public plea to dog owners across the world to teach their dogs a proper recall before they let them off the leash. There are a plethora of reasons why “it’s okay, my dog’s friendly” is the silliest excuse of all, but I’ve listed six of the most important below.
1. The other dog could have a medical issue
Whether they’re nursing an injury, they’re a senior dog with painful joints or they’re a bitch coming into heat, there are a huge amount of health-related issues that would mean they’re best left alone. And it’s worth remembering that when a dog is in pain or discomfort, they’re much more likely to have an aggressive reaction. Plus, if the other dog has something contagious such as kennel cough, they could unwittingly pass that along to your own pup.
2. The other dog could be in training
From fundamental puppy basics to advanced obedience training, there’s pretty much nothing that won’t be totally derailed by a strange dog blasting into the pup’s space. I’ve had amazing walks with Fenwick where she’s displayed lovely loose-lead walking, wonderful engagement with me, and some fantastic disengagement with other polite dogs walking past – and then it’s all been ruined by an over-excited dog running up to her when she’s caught off guard.
Let’s also not forget that some dogs have important jobs such as guide dogs, service dogs, or therapy dogs. It’s vital that they’re not distracted from their work, as you’re jeopardizing all of the time and money that’s been put into them and potentially the safety of their owners.
3. The other dog could be reactive or anxious
From a distance, you’ll never be able to know a strange dog’s history. They might look like the cutest, fluffiest pup in the world, but once you get close they might turn out to have fear-based aggression. This is why letting your dog run up to random dogs means you’re putting your own pooch at risk. Reactive dogs need exercise too and even the most conscientious owners aren’t going to be able to stop them from getting into a scuffle if you’ve let your dog wander up to them.
Lara Sorisi, an APDT-certified dog trainer says, “On average, 10% of the dogs in the UK are dog-friendly, 10% are dog-reactive and the remaining 80% are dog-specific. This means that while they might like one dog, they won’t necessarily like the next one. When the stats are weighted in this way, it’s really important to be mindful. After all, humans don’t like every person that we meet, so why would our dogs be different?”
“There are so many factors to take into consideration. Older dogs usually don’t like puppies or adolescent dogs. Some breeds won’t tend to like each other – for example, a boxer and a collie would have two very different types of play. Even things such as height, energy levels, the environment the dogs are in, and any injuries one might be nursing need to be taken into account. And, in fact, sometimes dogs can just be having a bad day!
“When you’ve got all of these different factors to take into account, and you don’t know the history of the other dog, it can actually be quite terrifying to see an unknown dog running up to yours. Once you start to gain a good understanding of dog body language, you can see very quickly how many dogs aren’t happy with other dogs running up to their face. My usual metaphor is that it’s the equivalent of letting a child hug and kiss strangers in the street!”
Lara Sorisi is a science-based and force-free dog trainer with a wealth of experience. She is accredited by the APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), which is one of the most rigorous dog training qualifications available. Lara holds a bronze-level qualification with UK Sniffer Dogs, which means that she is an accredited UK Sniffer Dogs instructor. Lara has trained her own dogs to be trial winners and dedicates her time to helping other dog owners.
4. Your dog could actually cause reactivity
Did you know that all it can take to cause reactivity in a dog is having dogs constantly run up to it, even if they previously showed no signs of reactivity? This is because the dog can learn that either the most exciting thing isn’t its owner at all but the other dogs walking past, or that it should expect to be put in scary situations on walks. No matter whether the feeling behind it is ‘positive’ or ‘negative’, that dog now has certain feelings about other dogs that their owner will have to deal with. You might scoff at this idea, but you could potentially be helping to ruin the well-balanced temperament of someone’s dog by letting your pup run up to them.
5. Your dog isn’t actually ‘friendly’
If a dog is well-trained, it will either recall to its owner the first time they’re called, or they are able to walk past a dog without going up to them. I’ve seen many fantastic dog owners who will make sure that their dog doesn’t bother mine – and I truly appreciate each and every one of them. However, they seem to be vastly outnumbered by the ones that are happy to cheerfully call out that dreaded phrase “it’s okay, they’re friendly” while I’m desperately trying to get away from the over-excited dog that’s terrorizing Fenwick.
It’s very clear to me that these dogs aren’t friendly. Lara says, “In my experience, when a dog has been bitten or been involved in a negative interaction, the offending dog’s owner has normally said ‘he’s never done that before, he’s really friendly’. In my personal opinion, I discourage clients’ dogs and my own dogs from meeting strangers’ dogs out on walks due to the vast amount of negative factors and scenarios that could happen.”
6. It’s just bad manners
Did you know that the UK’s government official Countryside Code states that all dogs must be “under control and in sight”? This means that every time you let your dog run up to someone else and you can’t recall them, you’re going against official government guidance.
Lara says, “Sadly, other dogs running up to their own pups is the biggest bug-bear of the majority of my clients. They spend all this time and money training and put in all this hard work, then they go out on walks where other dog owners will just allow their dogs to run up to theirs.”
She goes on to say, “I normally recommend walking at less busy times and finding somewhere that’s a big open space so that you have plenty of time to prepare if you see a dog approaching. This will mean that you can put on a leash and go in the opposite direction. I also recommend hiring out a dog walking field, as this is a dead-certain way of being able to exercise your dog without being interrupted.”
Looking for ways to keep your dog entertained? See what happened when our writer, Louise, tried a 45-minute ‘sniffari’ and it tired out her border collie more than a two-hour hike.
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Louise Carey is a freelance writer and the Editor of sister website Top Ten Reviews. She has been working in publishing for seven years, contributing to publications including The Independent, TechRadar, Digital Camera World and more. As the proud pet parent of a reactive border collie with a food allergy, it’s been necessary for Louise to explore a variety of fun and exciting ways to enrich an energetic dog that can’t always go on walks. She’s passionate about sharing the information she’s learned to help other pet owners as well.