It’s unlike me to complain publicly about dogs running up to on lead dogs as I feel the issue is more than adequately addressed by frustrated owners nationwide. However, I am going to take a moment to share some recent experiences and my thoughts about dogs running over from great distances to ANY dog, on or off lead. 🏃♀️
Context: My street dog Kanita is sensitive to dogs running over or making a distinct beeline for us when totally unprompted by socially soliciting behaviours. Kanita’s strategy now, if given the opportunity, is to generally meet fast approaching dogs at speed. She stops abruptly and postures at them with tense body language. How the dog responds to this helps her establish- “are you a threat or not?”
Obviously, I work hard to prevent this from happening and over the past year or so we very rarely get caught out. She recalls back to me to be put on lead (or return when on her long line) and is assisted in avoiding the dog or later approaching them at an appropriate speed.
How did it all start? I distinctly remember it starting with the increased popularity of cockapoos approximately 5-6 years ago. These types (usually when young) can rush in at speed from big distances (especially if crossed with a working cocker) before coming to a stop/retreating at speed/ running circles around dogs or offering appeasement behaviour. When the problem started, my off lead street dog would stand rigid watching the dog approaching from 50 metres away. She woundn’t always recall back, because who in their right mind would turn their back on a potential threat, right? Initially she’d let them come all the way up to her and then sometimes get irritated at any over exhuberant greetings. Naturally I would try to calmly diffuse any tension.
Over time this changed and she opted to meet them with equal speed. Upon the dog running away/flapping around/ running circles she would swiftly switch into predatory chase patterns and soon discovered that these dogs are quite entertaining to chase with their fluffy tails. She soon started to actively charge at these dogs so she could chase them.
This context specific behaviour pattern swiftly generalised to ALL poodle crosses and soon after young labradors (especially working line) and spaniels (especially working cocker spaniels), although spaniels were less of an issue than the others. All being types/breeds of dogs who often have big boundaries and do things at high speed. Sometimes including how they approach other dogs. Now, obviously, not ALL Labradors, Spaniels nor poodle crosses fit this criteria. Some pootle along doing their do and minding their own business, thank you very much! BUT, Kanita soon opted to charge at many of these dogs BEFORE they had the chance to charge at her- even if the thought hadn’t crossed their mind. This was obviously not ideal and I soon started to put management and training into practise when the problem became apparent. Thankfully now Kanita has improved considerably and generally tolerates these breeds/types well, but she can be easily set back.
Rushing in from a distance can be perceived as threatening behaviour by dogs. I’ve noticed this is quite common in many street dogs, and it makes survival/evolutionary sense, really. If a free ranging dog invests energy to approach another at speed it is likely to be a challenge over resources (food, sleeping space, potential mates). Think about it from our perspective……you’re minding your business walking in an open space and suddenly an individual starts crossing the meadow directly at you with real intent, staring directly at you and not breaking focus. This approach is without you giving any social signal to invite this behaviour. Would you want to turn your back on this individual as they got closer? Unlikely, as you can’t see what they’re doing and may become more vulnerable.
Ironically, this has happened to me numerous times recently as I have sadly been the victim of antagonising, harassing behaviour by a person towards me on my walks. I can distinctly remember that first approach and thinking “oh, this doesn’t feel good”. I can with certainty vouch that you suffer an extreme acute stress response as the distance begins to be closed which builds and builds as they get closer. With repetition of such aversive events, anxiety starts to build in that specific environment, even in absence of the trigger. I can sometimes feel quite anxious walking on my own in that environment in anticipation of the person. In the extreme fog the other day I found myself being far more vigilent than usual. However, it’s still my favourite place to walk as it’s where Kanita can go off lead and meet all her boyfriends so I’m hoping over time my negative emotional response will dissipate.
Broader associations are soon made. I now have a strong Pavlovian (involuntary, physiological) response to similar clothing to which the individual was wearing at the time of each incident. On sight of such clothing. my heart rate rapidly increases, my stomach drops into my feet, my breathing rate is increased and more shallow- effects of adrenalin surges through my body. It takes approximately 5-10 minutes for my body to settle back down.
(Don’t worry people, the police were involved and fingers crossed the behaviour has ceased. But hopefully this helps prove my point! My immediate and long term physiologically responses to certain triggers have been affected by these incidents. Negative associations to environmental cues have been made).
In a nutshell, letting your dog make a distinct beeline across large distances (which I’m going to define as 20 metres or more) to UNKNOWN dogs is NOT fair on the other person nor their dogs. Plus, it puts your dog at risk of a defensive response- and if you’re 50 metres away…..what are you going to do about it?
It doesn’t matter that their dog isn’t on lead and it doesn’t matter whether their dog is social or not. It’s just not socially appropriate.
A dog may be on lead for the following reasons:
1) They are injured (then being circled at high speed is really not going to help with recovery).
2) They are being kept under control (perhaps they are overly predatory in that particular area or near a road).
3) They don’t like certain breeds/types of dogs and the owner is trying to protect your dog from a bad experience. Are you going to protect your own dog?
4)Their dogs don’t like unfamiliar dogs / or all dogs (These dogs have a right to be walked too)
5) Their dog may jump at people (The owner is trying to protect you from injury, are you going to protect them from injury too by helping them not be yanked around?)
6) Their dog is nervous of unfamiliar people. (You then frantically shouting or cussing at your out of control dog is not going to help this association is it?)
Whether the approaching dog is ‘friendly’, a ‘puppy’ or ‘playing’ is irrelevant. Although, I hate to break it to some….. an 8 month adolescent dog is no longer a puppy and other dogs may be less than forgiving of their teenage behaviour. That puppy license expired long ago.
Some potential consequences of dogs rushing at other dogs
1) Handler injury (being pulled over, yanked, slammed into).
2) Dog Injury
3) Dogs get tangled up and panic (a conflict may ensue)
4) Interference (of the negative kind) with someone’s training/management of their dog’s behaviour
5) Negative associations/ unwanted learning experiences from the event
Does being “only a puppy” justify a potential broken hand and subsequent time off work from a long line injury? The ‘puppy’ running high speed rings around my dogs causes the lead to be yanked out of my hand at speed (The longline in this instance was to prevent squirrel chasing).
I’ve even met people whose legs have been fractured by large dogs running over and colliding with them. If your dog has a habit of running over at speed to people/dogs you best make sure you have 3rd party liability insurance as you may well need it one day.
Will the owner of the ‘playful’ entire, male dog whose actually not playing at all and has in fact come over to posture at my dogs (including my 14 year old senior dog) be happy to accept that any behaviour problems their ‘playful’ dog develops in later life is the result of their lack of understanding of what play behaviour actually looks like?
It’s an unfortunate factor we see in some dogs- the accumilation of events resulting in over reactive behaviour. If enough dogs react defensively to the tense body language then that ‘playful’ dog may one day escalate their behaviour and learn to use this down the line in a pre-emptive ‘beat them to it’ fashion.
We have an obligation to learn the language of this species we take into our lives. They don’t speak English, let’s learn to read “dog” at the very least!
Play is mutually enjoyable and involves loose body movements. It does not involve tense, upright, rigid posture or intense stalking behaviour. Plus dogs should be invited to play through a polite initial conversation and negotiation, rather than a 20mph approach and tense facial proximity!
Will the person who let their working line collie run full pelt over the meadow at my dogs be willing to pay any physio therapy bills for Kanita who now has a shoulder injury from colliding with Roo? (As they both moved to meet the dog and were so focused on it they collided). I was happily minding my own business and monitoring my senior dog who was struggling on that walk.
Lastly, will all of you collectively accept responsibility for the momentary stress and inconvenience you put me personally under as I try to simultaneously stay close to my senior dog, whilst managing my other two dogs to bring them close to me or to move away? Will you collectively acknowledge that you’ve played a role in potentially setting back months/years of hard work in reducing Kanita’s reactions towards dogs? When you observe her being more alert at that walk location will you be aware that your decision making potentially influenced this behaviour?
This particular walk location happens to be best suited to my senior dog’s needs (it’s flat with short grass) and if Kanita is too sensitive I face the option of doing an extra walk a day or going somewhere else that he may struggle more with. I should be able to walk where I need to without suffering the consequences of anybody’s actions other than my own!
If people wish to socialise their dogs with your dog (s) then do the right thing and wait for some visual evidence of this being welcomed. How can you tell if someone does not want your dog to meet their dog or alternatively, that letting your dog run over may not be appropriate? Here’s some observable behaviours to look out for.
1) They are walking in a different direction to you
2) They don’t appear to be aware of you
3) They are more than 15-20 metres away from you
4) They are recalling their dogs back to them on sight of you (or making attempts to).
5) They are standing still, looking at you (this is them trying to suss out which way you or your dog intend to go, so they can go the other way)
6) They are putting their dog on lead on sight of you
7) They are gathering their long line in
8. )They appear to be trying to gesture something at you using their arms, like they are guiding a plane in to land or like they are trying to stop traffic
9) They are calling something out to you
10) They see you and start walking in a different direction
Some of these behaviours are not (yet) socially soliciting or more importantly some of them are DISTANCE INCREASING BEHAVIOURS. This is your cue to get your dog under control. Excusing the absence of your responsibility to have your dog under control (good recall) by your dog being ‘playful’, ‘friendly’ or ‘a puppy’ does not cut the mustard.
Let’s have some empathy and consideration towards others and not put our dog’s apparent enjoyment of their walks above all else. Let’s educate ourselves on dog and human body language.
Thankfully, in my experience, more and more people are becoming aware of this when dogs are on lead. 🙏
However, I feel awareness needs to be optimised in dog owners about HOW our dogs should be approaching ALL dogs, on lead or off. What does a polite, social approach look like? Charging at speed? No! Stalking? No! Signals should be sent by dog and humans across distance that both sides are comfortable with a greeting or passing. Sometimes this looks like a person carrying on towards you, looking quite relaxed and unbothered. These are the people to let your dog go greet (but from a sensible distance, e.g under 15-20 metres).
Calm, slow and polite approaches create less problems all round. Let’s optimise our awareness and consideration people. Spread the word!
NB It’s worth noting that everyone makes mistakes and sometimes our dogs don’t always behave as we want them to. However, what makes the difference between this and the subject of this post is awareness and responsiveness to mistakes that we make.