Have you and your dog ever encountered someone walking with their large dog on the street, and wondered if it was safe to allow your dogs to say hello?
On one hand, you want your dog to be well-socialized. You might feel good about both dogs’ body language. Maybe the large dog and their owner look friendly, and you know your dog wants to greet them.
But you’d never forgive yourself if you allowed your small dog near a large one, and she got attacked, seriously hurt, or even killed.
And still, you don’t want to seem rude or discriminating. You don’t want to hurt their feelings.
It’s a tough call to make, but usually, it’s not worth the risk. Here’s what you should know if you ever feel conflicted about letting your small dog play with a big dog.
On-Leash Greetings Usually Aren’t The Safest
Some encounters are more triggering than others.
When a dog is on a leash during an encounter, they may feel cornered. Even if they’re excited to meet the other dog at first, that dog might be just a little too pushy, just a little too overzealous with that butt-sniffing.
A dog’s normal reaction to an overwhelming encounter is to step away. When they’re on a leash and can’t do that, they may growl, or even snap at the other dog. This can start a full-blown fight in seconds.
In the past, I allowed Matilda and Cow to greet other dogs for a maximum of three seconds, then I’d say, “good girls! Okay, bye!” and move along. That way, there wasn’t time for tension to build.
Nowadays, I notice that people typically do not even try to let their dog greet mine. I think people are becoming more aware of how risky on-leash greetings can be.
So now, I rarely stop to greet other dogs. It does happen sometimes, especially if we do not have time to cross the street. Usually, my dogs get a quick sniff in, and we move along.
If you are going to let your dog say hello on-leash, try not to walk directly towards the other dog and walker, instead, approach towards the side and make sure the dogs have plenty of space to get away.
The dogs should ideally be able to sniff around and enjoy the environment alongside one another, rather than be in one another’s face.
If either dog has a stiff posture, hackles raised, tail straight up in the air, or shows any other sign of discomfort, quickly move along.
Not all on-leash encounters have to be dangerous. If you get your dog in a habit of very quick, short greetings, and they always have positive experiences, you most likely won’t have a problem.
However, you cannot control the other dog, you don’t know their history, and you don’t know if your dog will do something to tick them off.
Can We Go To The “Big Dog” Section At The Park?
Off-leash greetings are definitely less tense, but harder to control.
Several times, we have had a loose dog run up to us, or we have been in the big section at the dog park, and absolutely nothing happened.
Many large dogs have a wonderful, calm temperament, and they won’t react even if your small dog is being an asshole.
But you might meet that one dog that isn’t so friendly towards small dogs.
If you’re on the other side of the park, you might not be able to react as quickly as a growl turns into a bite.
If you do plan to have your small dog play with a larger dog, you can try having them get to know one another through a barrier like a fence first. That way, they can take in one another’s scent without the pressure of being in one another’s space.
Fence reactivity is another thing on its own, though. We used to live next door to a large dog.
Matilda, Cow, and the big dog would have awful screaming matches through the fence every time they were out at the same time.
With some training, I managed to greatly reduce the incidences and encourage them to stay away from the fence entirely, but if the big guy next door started talking smack… of course my girls still found it hard to stay away.
One day, the big guy next door got loose when we were out on a leashed walk.
The tension of an on-leash greeting plus the addition of their big archenemy should have been catastrophic… but the big guy just politely sniffed the girls, then went back to his owner when she called him back inside.
Keep in mind that when you have a small dog, you can meet a perfectly friendly large dog and still walk away with an injury.
Big, bouncy, playful dogs tend to lack spacial awareness. They can trample your dog.
Even Cow, who has lived with Matilda for most of her life and should know better, occasionally runs into Matilda.
Small dogs are vulnerable to eyes popping out, broken bones, and worse when trampled by a large dog. Be super careful, especially in small spaces, and even more so with large, bouncy puppies and young dogs.
Is There Any Safe Way To Make Friends?
From what I’ve written about it, it may sound like there’s no completely safe way to let your dog interact with other dogs.
And this is true.
But if you understand the risks, if you’re watchful, have a solid understanding of dog body language, and listen to your gut, you can keep your dog safe.
Some Rules To Follow:
- Don’t bring food or high value toys. Dogs can get possessive in the mere presence of goodies – yes, even if their friend isn’t trying to steal something from them.
- Give space. The dogs should both have the freedom to get away if they’re uncomfortable.
- Watch closely. Look for signs of fearfulness (flattened ears, tucked tail) and defensiveness (straight up tail, raised hackles).
- Avoid invading territories. First meetings should, if possible, be on neutral territory.
- Avoid flexi leashes. It can be very difficult to control a dog on a flexi (retractable) leash. They’re best used for open areas, if at all.
- Avoid face-to-face leash meetings. Instead, try walking alongside your new friends so the dogs can sniff around and explore together, rather than feel pressured to interact.
- Try not to pick up your small dog. It’s tempting to grab your small dog when you’re feeling wary of a larger dog, but it’s usually better to let your dog stand their own ground.
- Know your dog. Some small dogs feel insecure and will go on the offense, growling and snapping at the big dog’s face, which can trigger the big dog to defend itself.
- Communicate with the other dog’s owner. Always ask, never assume that a dog is friendly. If the big dog is known for being gentle with small dogs, they’ll likely be okay with yours. However, that does not guarantee that they will interact safely with your dog.
- Don’t worry about being polite to humans. It’s okay to cross the road to avoid a dog-human pairing you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s okay to refuse to let your dog meet someone else’s. You do not have to explain yourself to keep your dog safe.
Saturday 26th of November 2022
Very well written! I totally agree when it comes to on-leash meetings, I have had nothing but bad experiences with dogs meeting while on a leash but sadly a lot of dog owners do not realize this.
Wednesday 31st of August 2022
Our Saint Bernard, 175 pounds, has loved our ten-week-old collie puppy, ten pounds, from day one. She has never acted aggressive toward her and lets the pup do anything to her. But we're having one major problem. My Saint Bernard doesn't seem to be too cautious about the space around her, and sometimes, she suddenly moves and steps on the pup's foot or gets feisty and dashes across the yard or the room. She has already hurt the puppy three times by stepping on her foot or accidentally bumping into her leg with too much force--not at a full run. It's horrible when it happens. The puppy whines, cries, limps, and holds up her leg. It doesn't appear that there's any serious injury, but it concerns me. We do try to pick up the puppy when the Saint gets excited, but sometimes it happens very fast, and we're too late. Do you think this will work out better as the puppy gets bigger? She will be 50 pounds when she's an adult. Do you think it will work out to have these two together?
Thursday 1st of September 2022
@BB, they sound like an adorable pair!! But... I'm concerned too. As a growing puppy, a serious injury could leave her with lifelong orthopedic issues. To make it work it's crucial that you're able to separate them, maybe with crates, gates, separate time outside until your pup is finished growing. Depending on how old your Saint is, they might mature and develop more impulse control as they get a bit older, especially if you're working on skills like "settle," look into "mat training." Please keep us posted, I hope things work out for your girls!
Friday 22nd of January 2021
Your blog is amazing, Lindsey! Thanks!
Monday 15th of June 2020
one of my friend owns german shepherd dog, his dog doesn't allow any dog near him... why don't know...
Tuesday 9th of June 2020
Most of my clients are little dogs, so I get asked this question a lot. I will definitely refer them to read this blog! Thank you for sharing this useful info!