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“It’s OK, my dog’s friendly!”

Why it really isn't OK to let your off-lead dog run up to a dog who’s on a lead.

Terrier running across a field towards camera
No matter how 'friendly' you believe your dog to be, they should never be allowed to run up to an on-lead dog

It’s something I hear all too often from clients, they have been out walking their dog on a lead when somebody else’s dog comes bounding over off the lead with either:

a) no owner in sight or taking no notice, or;

b) owner calling out “it’s OK, my dog’s friendly!”

The bottom line is that if you are walking your dog off the lead, you should ALWAYS have sight of where they are, be paying attention to what they are doing, and you should NEVER let your dog run up to a dog who is being walked on the lead, regardless of how “friendly” you believe your dog to be.

Owners who’ve always walked dogs who like to greet and play with other dogs, may wonder what all the fuss is about, so this article is going to explain why, unless you are 100% sure that your off-lead dog will a) not try to approach an on-lead dog at all or b) if they start to make a move in an on-lead dog’s direction you can successfully call them back immediately before they get anywhere near the on-lead dog, everyone needs to abide by the etiquette that if you see that someone else is walking their dog on a lead, you should immediately put your dog on a lead.

Dog loose-lead walking with owner
One of the reasons a dog may be on a lead is because they are in training

Firstly, consider why the other dog is on a lead?

It may be because:

  1. They haven’t yet learned to recall reliably

  2. They tend to scavenge when allowed to run freely

  3. They are participating in a training session with their owner

  4. They are a bitch in heat, or an entire male dog who would otherwise roam

  5. They are very young and are out and about getting their first early social experiences with other dogs – they are on a lead so that their owner can help ensure they are meeting dogs with whom they will have a positive social experience

  6. They are deaf, blind, have an orthopaedic condition like arthritis or are recovering from illness or injury – they are on a lead so that their owner can help give them confidence, prevent them from running into danger and / or manage their exercise levels

  7. They were under-socialised as a puppy or have had a bad experience with another dog or dogs sometime in their life, and are scared of other dogs – they are on a lead because their fear manifests in them either wanting to run away or in them being defensively aggressive towards other dogs who get close to them, so their owner is trying to protect them from running into danger or protect others from an aggressive reaction by their dog

  8. The owner of the on-lead dog has their own specific needs or limitations

Now, in categories 1, 2 and 3, the on-lead dog (assuming they do not also fall into category 4, 5, 6, 7 and / or 8) may be socially confident and able to cope with the approach and subsequent interaction with the off-lead dog. Perhaps they’ll say “hi”, they may play around for a bit, and then part ways with neither dog having had a bad experience. (It should be noted however that the owner of the on-lead dog may still not have appreciated the off-lead dog’s intrusion if, for example, they had been busy working on loose-lead walk training with their dog when the off-lead dog interrupted and disrupted their session).

If however the on-lead dog is described by examples 4, 5, 6, 7 and / or 8, the approach and subsequent interaction with the off-lead dog has the potential to result in psychological, and even physical, harm to one or both of the dogs, and / or one or both of their owners.

Off-lead white dog greeting on-lead white dog
An entire male dog will not be able to help himself approaching a bitch in heat

The Dog With Raging Hormones

Of course, the owner of a bitch in heat is unwise to take them walking in places known to be popular dog walking destinations because of the attention they are certain to attract from entire male dogs, but it does happen. A male dog can detect the pheromones released by a bitch in heat from several miles away, and when he does, his interest in anything else is likely to go out of the window!

No matter how well-skilled and polite socially he would normally be, he can be forgiven for racing in where his natural instincts take him. Such a situation can of course be very stressful for both the bitch (if she is not receptive to his advances) and her owner (who may be frightened about their bitch getting hurt and / or becoming pregnant), and in addition to the psychological stress, there is the potential for physical harm if the bitch decides to fend-off her suitor.

Further, some bitches in heat and some entire male dogs (because of their hormonal state) can become agitated with the close proximity of ANY other dogs, especially those they may perceive as competition in securing mating partners, which could result in an aggressive altercation.

Young puppy on a lead
An off-lead dog running up to a young puppy could frighten them so much that they become fearful of all other dogs too

The Young Puppy

It is crucial for young puppies to have lots of positive social experiences with a wide range of other dogs so that they learn that interacting with other dogs is a pleasurable experience, or at least nothing to be scared of. Young puppies are very impressionable and a negative experience can have long-lasting ramifications.

It can be very frightening for a puppy to have another dog rush up to them, and this stressful situation can then be made worse if the other dog is making attempts to interact with the puppy by sniffing around them, barking at them, pouncing on them or trying to chase them. An experience like this can mean next time puppy sees another dog, rather than being interested and open to meeting them, they are fearful of being frightened or hurt by the other dog and seek to avoid interaction. This puppy could now be on the path to forever perceiving other dogs as a threat, being stressed every time it sees one in the future, and never wanting to say hello or play with other dogs.

Old Terrier on a lead
A dog who is not physically fit and healthy may be frightened and get hurt by an off-lead dog rushing up to them

The Impaired Dog

Imagine not being able to see or hear the approach of another dog before they are breathing in your face, sniffing your rear end, barking at you or trying to jump all over you.

Or having a body that is in pain and being fearful of being bumped into and feeling more pain.

Or being the owner of a dog recovering from illness or injury, worrying that your dog is going to be pounced on by the other dog or is going to start darting about on-lead in panic or play, in either case risking further damage being caused to their already fragile, healing body.

The Under-Socialised or Bad Past Experience Dog

It doesn’t matter how “friendly” the off-lead dog is, a dog who is fearful of other dogs (whether it’s fear of all types of dog or certain types of dog) is not just fearful of “unfriendly” individuals, they are fearful of EVERY individual (or every individual of a certain type), because the fearful dog has either:

i) never learnt that unfamiliar dogs are safe, or;

ii) they have had a negative experience with another dog or dogs and are now scared of having a similar experience again

Boxer looking over their shoulder whilst on lead with owners
A dog who is undersocialised or had a bad experience with a dog in the past will not welcome the approach of an off-lead dog

The dog who is under-socialised or has had a bad experience perceives other dogs as threatening. They see a dog and feel anxious because they have a pre-formed negative emotional association with the presence of other dogs. The “friendliness” of the off-lead dog is irrelevant.

If you have a fear of spiders and had to sit in a room with spiders crawling around on the walls, it’s not likely that you’re going to differentiate between “friendly” spiders and “unfriendly” spiders, you will feel that they are all a potential threat and not want any of them near you!

The Owner

Service dogs

Sometimes a dog is being walked on a lead to assist the owner’s needs.

When working, these dogs are supposed to stay close to their owner at all times to assist them, for example, guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, psychological support dogs for suffers of PTSD and other anxiety issues, medical detection dogs for epilepsy sufferers etc.

An off-lead dog running over to a working service dog could cause a lot of stress to the owner, not only because like any good dog owner they care about the welfare of their dog, but also because they rely heavily on their dog to look after their well-being too, so any perceived or actual threat from the off-lead dog could have serious repercussions for the health and safety of the owner, either aside from or as well as for their dog.

Lady on mobility scooter walking two dogs on lead
Some owners are more at risk of getting hurt or losing control of their dogs if an off-lead dog creates a disturbance

Physical capability

The owner of the on-lead dog may be carrying an injury, may be small / light / weak relative to the physicality of their dog, may be unwell, or may have another condition which affects their physical capabilities.

If an off-lead dog runs over, causing the on-lead dog to start excitedly bounding around on lead or getting drawn into a physical altercation, the owner of the on-lead dog is at greater risk than the average person of being injured and / or losing control of their dog, for example by being more easily pulled over.

Secondly, be aware of the typical behaviours that a dog will demonstrate when they feel frightened

If a dog is frightened, they will usually do one of 4 things:

  1. Freeze – stand, sit or lie down and be as still as possible hoping that the perceived threat (in this case the off-lead dog) doesn’t see or approach them

  2. Fiddle about – engage in behaviours designed to a) physically relieve their feelings of anxiety (e.g. yawning, shaking their body off) and / or b) which communicate to the perceived threat that they themselves are not a threat and want to avoid conflict (e.g. looking away, sniffing the ground)

  3. Flee – to create space between themselves and the perceived threat so that they cannot be harmed

  4. Fight – engage in any of a range of behaviours such as growling, barking and lunging to discourage the perceived threat from approaching them. If the perceived threat continues to get closer, the frightened dog’s last resort to try and protect itself from harm is to bite. People who try to break up a dog fight by intervening with their own body often get bitten too.

Thirdly, understand the impact the lead can have on the on-lead dog’s reaction to an off-lead dog

Unsure-looking dog freezing on lead
Being on a lead can make a dog feel more vulnerable to a perceived threat such as an off-lead dog running towards them

As already explained above, there are a number of very good reasons why some owners walk their dog on a lead because their dog cannot practically or safely be let off the lead.

Being on a lead can however make our dog feel vulnerable and stressed when they are presented with a stimuli which they perceive as intimidating or threatening, because:

a) the lead can inhibit our dog’s ability to communicate clearly with other dogs if it prevents them from being able to demonstrate body language associated with particular feelings. If they cannot clearly signal through movements and body positions that they do not want an off-lead dog to come any closer, the off-lead dog may continue to approach

b) the lead restricts our dog’s choices about where in space they feel most comfortable in any given scenario. For example, if our dog feels frightened by the approach of an off-lead dog, the lead prevents them from ‘fleeing’, therefore a dog who would ideally choose to run to get away, can effectively be ‘forced’ (by the tether of the lead) into ‘fight’ mode and demonstrating defensive-aggressive behaviours instead

c) if we are anxious about what our dog’s reaction will be to the approaching off-lead dog, we can inadvertently transmit our anxiety down the lead to our dog, who in turn may become anxious or more anxious because they detect that we are worried

d) we can interfere with our dog’s ability to manage their own responses to the off-lead dog, for example by shortening the lead or picking our dog up, which can make our dog feel out of control and more frightened

For any of the above reasons, even dogs who appear to be socially relaxed with other dogs when they are themselves off the lead, can become stressed and defensively-aggressive when they are on the lead and another dog approaches them.

Fourthly, how good are your dog’s off-lead social skills really?

Relaxed Golden Retriever standing in field
A 'friendly' dog will demonstrate relaxed and non-threatening behaviours that show they are open to a social interaction

Your dog may enjoy meeting and playing with other dogs, however the manner in which they approach another dog, and the way in which they respond to the facial expressions, body language and possibly vocal communication being displayed by the dog which they are approaching, are key indicators as to whether your dog is behaving in a “friendly” manner from the point of view of the dog that they are approaching.

There is no one definition of “friendly”, however with dogs as with humans, I think most people would agree that a “friendly” individual is not only one who enjoys social interaction, but one who also has great social skills. An individual with great social skills puts others at ease through their own behaviour, has the ability to understand how others are feeling by reading their communication signals, and adapts their response as appropriate.

A dog with well-honed social skills will:

a) demonstrate relaxed and non-threatening behaviours that show they are open to a social interaction, including:

  • Moving at a slow, steady pace

  • Travelling in an arc towards the other dog rather than moving directly towards them

  • Stopping at a distance to invite the other dog into their space

  • Blinking

  • Turning the head or body away

  • Sniffing the ground

  • Licking their nose

  • Yawning

b) observe the facial expressions, body language, and any vocalisations displayed by the other dog, to understand how they are feeling and respond appropriately:

i) if the other dog reciprocates with relaxed and “friendly” communications that indicate interest in a closer social interaction, our well-skilled social dog will approach closer in a relaxed and steady manner

ii) if the other dog responds with facial expressions, body language and / or vocalisations that indicate they are uncomfortable with the prospect of a social interaction and don’t want our dog to come any closer, our social star will respect the other dog’s communication and discontinue their approach, possibly offer more behaviours designed to show they are not threatening, and if the other dog is still uncomfortable, move off and leave the other dog alone to continue their walk in peace

So what about the so called “friendly” dog that comes racing over to our on-lead dog wanting to play?

Black Labrador with hard stare running towards camera
A fast, direct approach with an unwavering stare can understandably be interpreted as intimidating or threatening

The off-lead dog who locks their eyes on the on-lead dog and moves directly towards them, especially at speed, is not demonstrating the relaxed and non-threatening behaviour we used to describe our well-skilled social dog above. They are in fact demonstrating antisocial behaviour which is definitely not congruent with being “friendly” from the perspective of the on-lead dog, who could very understandably interpret this approach as intimidating or threatening.

If the on-lead dog then responds by barking, growling and lunging to let the off-lead dog know they don’t want them to come any closer, and the off-lead dog ignores these signals and continues to approach the on-lead dog, the off-lead dog is disregarding the request of the on-lead dog and just doing what it wants. The off-lead dog may enjoy social interaction but they are showing POOR social skills by not respecting the communication of the on-lead dog, and therefore by our definition above, they are NOT being “friendly”.

Finally, the law

The UK Government website states that it is against the law to let your dog be dangerously out of control anywhere. A court could decide that your dog is dangerously out of control if it attacks someone’s animal, or if the owner of an animal thinks they could be injured if they tried to stop your dog attacking their animal.

If it a ‘fight’ breaks out between your off-lead dog and the on-lead dog, there is a risk that your dog could be accused of attacking, because they were the one who ran over to the on-lead dog, and you did not have them under control on a lead.

You can get an unlimited fine or be sent to prison for up to 6 months (or both) if your dog is deemed to be dangerously out of control. You may not be allowed to own a dog in the future and your dog may be destroyed.

Raising awareness

Unfortunately, many dog owners are oblivious to the harm their off-lead dog is, or could be, doing by running up to dogs being walked on the lead, therefore it is important for those who do know to help raise awareness. Recently I have seen many online ‘posters’ circulating on social media designed to help spread the word, and hope that with the speed and reach of internet transmission, that these will reach a lot of people who just don’t know what a problem their off-lead dog’s behaviour can be.

Dalmatian wearing yellow 'nervous' collar
The Yellow Dog Project is helping to raise awareness of those dogs who need space from other dogs and / or people when out on walks

The Yellow Dog Project “is a registered charity created to bring awareness to dogs who need space while training, recovering from surgery, or being rehabilitated”. It promotes the simple message that if a dog is wearing something yellow, then this means that they need to be given space.

The Yellow Dog Project sells lots of yellow doggy attire printed with messages such as 'NERVOUS' and ‘I NEED SPACE’ to help other dog owners identify dogs who will not welcome the approach of an unfamiliar dog. As awareness of the Yellow Dog Project continues to grow, wearing yellow will become an increasingly strong visual signal to other dog owners not to allow their off-lead dog to approach the yellow dog.

As a trainer, I believe it is also incumbent for dog professionals to help educate their clients about appropriate dog-to-dog interactions and owner etiquette when sharing public places. I believe that in the vast majority of cases, it is a lack of awareness and understanding, rather than knowing disregard, which can lead to conflict in situations such as the off-lead dog approaching the on-lead dog.

Need help with your dog?

When looking for a trainer / behaviourist to help you with your dog, ensure that they only use positive, force-free techniques and do not use physical or psychological intimidation of any kind.

If your dog finds the presence of other dogs stressful / frightening, then there are kind and positive training and management techniques available which you can implement with your dog to help them to feel more relaxed and confident when other dogs are nearby.

If your dog isn’t reliable about coming back to you when called, then there are fun and rewarding training games that you can play with your dog to transform a delayed, slow and meandering return, into an immediate, fast and engaged recall.

Complete Canine Dog Training is a positive reinforcement trainer based in Henley-on-Thames, South Oxfordshire. In addition to running puppy and dog training classes and workshops local to home, Sara provides one-to-one training throughout the Thames Valley. To find out how we can help with your puppy / dog training needs, contact us by telephone 07833 662417, email submit the contact form on our website at

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“Be Your Dog’s Best Friend” with Complete Canine Dog Training.


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