All dog parents would want a dog-friendly dog, making new furry friends within the neighbourhood, meeting relatives’ dogs, joining dog gatherings or even welcoming a new dog into the house. Allowing a causal meet up between the two in one of their territories is highly risky – a fight may or may not break loose.
Some dogs tend to display high social behaviour, which can be breed-specific and vary between individuals. There are a few observations to take note of in order to unleash your dog's social nature.
1. Meet on neutral ground
A neutral place is a location that neither dogs feel the need to act out due to a territorial state and is the safest place to meet even if your dog does not display territorial behaviour. Do note that even on neutral ground, your dog may still react due to being overly protective of the handler. Some dogs behave more confidently in their neighbourhood than on new grounds. This is because dogs form packs with established territories in the wild till this very date. The clashing of both packs signals competition as the necessities of food, water, shelter and mates are at stake.
Ideal meeting grounds include a dog shelter, a new neighbourhood, a new park or a new dog run that your dog has been to in less than ten times.
2. Introducing dogs
With your dog on a leash, calmly and confidently approach the other dog and the owner. Be aware that your dog can sense hesitation and react because of it. Stop approaching when you are about five meters apart from the other owner. It is always important to confirm that the owners are aware of the socialisation. This allows safety for both dogs as some dogs may have behavioural or health issues which may not be easily interpreted from a distance.
Be aware of the tension on your dog's leash while socialising as a tense leash indicates being in a tense situation, which may cause your dog to react in protectiveness of you. If both dogs are not fixating (a strong, intense stare that is hard to break) on each other and are displaying calm behaviour, the socialisation can proceed with precaution.
If both dogs fixate on one another, walk them side by side, two meters apart, along the same path in the same direction. Then, slowly decrease the distance to one meter. If they seem relaxed, decrease the distance further until they are directly beside each other, with the handlers standing on opposite sides. This allows complete control and facilitates pulling them apart in case a fight breaks out. Let one dog sniff the other dog’s rear while walking. Stopping the walk will allow the attention to be directed onto one another, which can escalate into a fight.
3. Observe the body language and posture frequently and intervene if needed
The next step would be letting the dogs meet. One can never be completely sure that the interaction can go according to plan even if no aggressive signals are seen. A common scenario is a dog playing rough, which leads to the other dog being protective and snapping back, escalating to a squabble.
An ideal interaction would be smelling each other’s rear, not the head, as the latter is quite disrespectful according to dogs’ behaviour. This is actually how many dog fights start due to the tense and threatening eye-to-eye contact – a challenge. Some signs to look out for include any whining, whale eyes, tail position, tail movements, hackles position, stiffened stance, quivering of the hind legs, the position of ears, speed of approaching each other, size of the pupil, licking of lips, growling and baring teeth.
Vocalisations are rare with the exception of certain breeds that are known to be more vocal in response to situations. Whining indicates high excitement and it would be best not to allow interaction to proceed. If this is done, excitement is reinforced in the already excited dog. Whining is commonly coupled with an overall excited body language, such as lunging on the leash towards the stimulus. This is usually a result of stopping your dog from accomplishing a certain behaviour, or if he is not allowed to quickly enough.
The eyes of the dogs interacting should be relaxed. When your dog is concerned, the eye whites may show visibly, which are termed as whale eyes. This occurs when your dog glances at the stimulus from the corner of his eye, while the direction of the head is adverted. The pupils are commonly dark and dilated. The reaction that follows includes snapping back at the other dog approaching, reacting aggressively or dashing away (fight-or-flight response). In this case, it would be ideal to condition your dog to be calm and relaxed around a variety of new dogs, addressing the issue early which owners are highly capable of and preventing the escalation of fear around new dogs. This can also occur if your dog is meeting with an overly excited dog that is jumping on him.
A higher erected tail or “flag tail”, with very slow and mild to no wagging indicates an intense fixation on a stimulus, with the possibility of reacting to it. A tail raised between a horizontal and vertical position with a mildly curled tip signals dominance and confidence, often coupled with a firm posture. A tail tucked under the hind legs with no wagging indicates fear and if coupled with low, fast wagging movement indicates submissiveness. This is often accompanied by quivering of the hind limbs. The more tightly tugged tail, the greater the fearful state. A tail mildly tucked under but curled sideways indicates uncertainty. A tail drooping down but a distance above the hindlimbs is ideal – a calm and relaxed state.
A moderate speed side to side wagging tail signals the willingness to interact. A wide, sweeping or circular wagging of the tail indicates an overly excited state, which is best not to allow interaction as excitement is encouraged. A stiff tail with slow or mild wagging indicates a lack of relaxation and your dog may lash out suddenly.
Presence of hackles
Hackles are involuntary signals of uncertainty and irritation when aroused by a stimulus, often another dog. The presence of hackles indicates a lack of relaxation, which can lead to displaying behavioural issues such as aggression. This is commonly seen when a dog tolerates another dog’s excessive energy, such as those of an excitable puppy. At this stage, it would be wise to evaluate the energy states of both dogs before deciding which dog requires behavioural training.
Position of ears
A calm dog should have ears looking relaxed, with the positioning varying between breeds and individuals. Dog owners should be familiar with the relaxed position of their dog's ears.
Your dog is most likely anxious if the position of the ear is lowered. This is often accompanied by fearful signals. Your dog is most likely submissive if the ears are momentarily curved and mildly flattened against the head. This is often accompanied by submissive signals, such as lowering of the head and fast wagging of the tail in a lowered position. For breeds that have large, floppy ears such as Beagles, Cocker Spaniel and Golden Retrievers, more attention should be paid to the base of the ears instead of the entire ear.
Ears pointed forwards occurs when your dog if curious and fixated on another dog. This is a form of silent excitement. Do expect your dog to lunge suddenly.
Speed of approaching each other
Rushing up to another dog should never be encouraged as it shows the lack of understanding of other dogs’ boundaries. The dog that is being rushed up to has the right to protect himself, as he may be unable to discern the intent of that dog. The excited dog may then interpret the protective behaviour as initiating a fight, especially when they are in close proximity, leading to a loud and rough squabble. Hence, a respectful dog should approach the rear of other dogs calmly and slowly, preventing any fights from potentially erupting.
Licking of lips
Lip licking indicates anxiety and a lack of relaxation. Your dog is showing signs of being uncomfortable in the presence of the approaching dog. Before blaming your dog for being fearful, judge the response of the approaching dog. Is he domineering or lunging towards your dog? However, if it boils down to your dog’s anxiety, have patience in training your dog to be less fearful of new dogs. Regularly bring your dog to the dog run or other socialisation events and reward calm, relaxed behaviour through the provision of rewards.
Growling and baring teeth
Showing the canines is a precursor to an attack seen in most mammals. It is commonly a warning for approaching dogs to back away, rather than dogs attacking out of dominance. As mentioned above, judge the response of the approaching dog before blaming your dog for being fearful or insecure. It is perfectly fine to do so if the approaching dog is not behaviourally well-behaved. If the other dog’s approach seems fine, have patience in training your dog to be less wary of other new dogs.
4. Reward ideal behaviour
If any or both dogs display a play-bow, immediately reward that behaviour. That is a respectful, playful state and is most ideal when allowing two dogs to meet up for the first time. Rewarding good social behaviour will encourage your dog to do the same when meeting new dogs in the future.
5. Sniffing the urine/faeces
You should allow your dog to sniff the other dog’s urine or poo once that dog is done, and likewise. Although it may seem gross, your dog will get more information from smelling the excretions, and allow them to get a better understanding of each other. It is similar to reading the information of that dog, in dogs’ style. Urination or defecation in the presence of another dog is a good sign, as it indicates relaxation.
6. Integrating both dogs at home
Both dogs should be closely monitored by someone when in a confined space for minimally the first week. Examples include the space in a vehicle, resting space in the house and along narrow hallways. Tight spaces increase tension as there will be a higher chance of physical contact, which can be easily misinterpreted by skittish or cautious dogs.
The foundations should be set in place from the first day to prevent future regression of rules. Rules of sharing eliminate any possibilities of possessiveness which sets the following interactions up for success. Have both dogs feed together three meters apart after enforcing the leave it command. Leaving the food allows their focus to be directed to you. Like a teacher enforcing rules, all the students follow the teacher’s rule, eliminating any squabbles between the students themselves. You may watch with close supervision during the initial feedings. Toys and resting spaces should be shared too. Always encourage both dogs to participate in social activities in the beginning, helping them get along quicker.
7. Introducing a puppy to an adult dog
To introduce a puppy to a dog, take note of the observations mentioned above. Additionally, make sure that your dog has a stable temperament prior to the puppy’s arrival, as some adults seem intolerant to the excited behaviour displayed by a puppy. While a common belief is to frequently separate the puppy from the existing dog for “breaks”, this is not addressing the issue but rather avoiding it. An excitable puppy will not be any less excitable after frequent separations but rather, conditions the puppy to be more excited upon the presence of the dog, increasing irritation of the existing dog. Keeping an eye on both pooches is key to successfully merging their lives. If no one is able to supervise, it would be ideal to temporarily have them in separate fenced areas.
Being aware of the observations to look out for and following the exercises mentioned should allow your dog to be on the path of being a social furkid. If the interactions between your dog and another dog don’t seem to be going according to plan, do contact an experienced dog behaviourist.