There’s a reason the old saying “you only have one chance to make a first impression” remains popular—it’s true! First impressions can mean a lot for dogs too, so knowing how to introduce dogs is important. Whether you are having a guest dog at your house, permanently introducing a new four-legged friend to your family or just visiting a dog park, there are things you can do to set your dog up for success.
First though, let’s imagine you are at a party and someone you don’t know runs up to you and starts talking very close to your face in a loud voice. You are likely to feel threatened, or at the very least, annoyed. You will probably want to get out of there as fast as you can. Dogs feel similar about greeting other dogs, and there is proper technique when introducing dogs.
We’ll address dog park meetings further below, but if you are introducing two dogs where the owners already friends, it’s easy to think you should just expect your dogs to enjoy each other as much as the human friends do. However, here are some important steps to consider prior:
- What do you know? Think about what you know about each dog and how you think they will each react. For example, if your dog guards his or her tennis ball, don’t have that tennis ball “trigger” anywhere near your first meeting site. We want this to be 100% positive!
- Meet on neutral ground. As tempting as it may be to introduce dogs inside your home, a neutral space can help them find common ground (and space to roam if things don’t go well the first time). A place your dog is used to meeting other dogs is a bonus.
- Proceed with caution. This does not mean get nervous. This should be fun! Plus, dogs can feel your tension. This just means to have two adults walk slowly with each dog on its own loose leash and monitor how both dogs are reacting.
- Walk the dogs side by side with some space between, then cross paths to let them pick up on each other’s scent, but still no contact. If either of the dogs shows any sign of irritation, fear or aggression, stop here and take a break.
- Let the dogs meet if there are no signs of issues, their body language very closely (see more on this below). If the dogs tense up at this point, take a break.
- Drop the leash and watch them play, if they are ready. Try to have minimal interaction from the humans unless there is an issue.
These tips can be adapted for a dog park situation, although more informally. The key at a dog park is to take it slow, no matter how excited you (or your dog!) are to be there. Easier said than done when your dog is excited to run, but here are a few tips.
Watch out for other dogs running up unexpectedly—nose-to-nose greetings, hard staring and other behavior that can escalate quickly. In fact, when you get to the dog park it’s a good idea to stay on the perimeter with your dog on leash at first so the dogs can notice your dog without bombarding it, as the person above experienced in our party example. Once the dogs have settled down you can more confidently let your dog off leash.
After your dog starts to meet the other dogs and you talk to your friends, family or new dog park buddy, it’s important to pay attention to your dog’s body language and help them walk away and take a break if needed, even if that means ending your conversation early. You do not want the situation to escalate.
We’ve talked about body language in a prior blog Every Dog Can Talk: Can You Speak the Language? but in the context of introducing dogs, especially for the first time, here are some tips from our trainer:
What a good reaction from both dogs looks like:
- Visual contact, but without hard stares or eyes wider open than usual (aka “whale eye”)
- Loose tail wagging
- Sniffing each other with continuous movement (no freezing or cowering)
- Mouth open and relaxed like smiling
- Play bowing and bouncing around
Signs your dog is not comfortable and should be redirected to another activity/space:
- Stiff body
- Hair standing on neck/back
- Ears pinned back and cowering
- Exposing teeth
Unfortunately, not all dog owners are aware of the steps and tips, so please share this with your fellow dog owners to help keep all dogs safe and happy!