LETTING DOGS MEET: THE THREE SECOND RULE - Part 2

Back in 2012 I wrote an article, Letting Dogs Meet: The Three Second Rule, which continues to be one of the most popular on my website. So, before continuing, please allow me to say “thank you” to everyone for all the likes, shares, comments and emails. I truly appreciate it and am so happy for those of you who found it helpful. Of course, there have also been some naysayers and some really good questions along the way, so, I decided it was time to write part 2. In this article I will respond to some of the most important three second rule comments and questions that have come to my attention over the years. I hope you find it helpful. 

Has The Three Second Rule Been Tested? 

I don’t know of any scientific studies but I learned it from a trainer who had been using it for years plus I have clients do this in my group classes and it works very well. I also come across positive social media posts such as this one:

“This rule has made my rescue dog go from a dog who used to lunge when she saw dogs 30 feet away to a soon-to-be therapy dog! This method truly works and can help dogs get over their reactivity in no time if you apply it correctly :)”  

So, it’s being tested out there in the real world and seems to be helpful. 

Can The Second Greeting Be Longer?

“Decent tips. A little much limiting to 3 second, multiple meetings but better safe than sorry.” 

I should have made this more clear in Part 1. Assuming the initial greeting went well, and after taking a short breather, the second greeting can go longer. However, when those same dogs meet again, days or weeks later, you may want to repeat the three second rule. They may not remember each other or the mood could just be different for some reason. 

The Importance of a Loose Leash

“Interesting article. I'm not a fan of on-leash greetings in most situations, but, I think the most important thing is a loose leash. I didn't see this mentioned in the article.” 

For the record, part 1 actually did mention a loose leash but I definitely agree that I should have put more emphasis on it, which I will do now: 

In a nutshell, tension in the leash puts tension in the dog which puts tension into the greeting. Tension in the leash causes frustration which can often be expressed or relieved through aggression. Tension in the leash can cause a dog to come on too strong, which can be offensive to the other dog. It can also make a dog feel defensive, similar to being trapped or cornered. So, a slack leash is way more important than most people give it credit for. 

Important Note: Not only should the leash be loose when the dogs are meeting, it should be loose before they are allowed to meet. It is also super important that your dog be familiar with leash pressure as a means of communication prior to on-leash greetings. If you try to pull your dog away when he is not ready to leave, not trained to yield to leash pressure and not conditioned to accept a leash correction, the tension in the leash could possibly trigger an aggressive reaction. 

This is a long and controversial topic that is beyond the scope of this article. 

(Please use the search function at www.ThrivingCanine.com for communicating with the leash, loose leash walking, how to stop pulling, teaching heel, etc. or email chad@thrivingcanine.com to book a consultation)

Should Dogs Be Allowed To Meet On-Leash In The First Place?

Over the years a lot of professional trainers have commented that they do not allow their own dogs to meet other dogs on walks and advise their clients to follow suit. Obviously I disagree, otherwise I wouldn’t have written the article, but let’s look at why this might be controversial.

The most obvious reason is because on-leash dog-dog greetings often go wrong, but, is avoiding them altogether really the best solution? I don’t think so. I prefer to help people make the greetings go well. 

Many trainers are also concerned that allowing dogs to meet on walks will cause reactivity, a decline in engagement or a loss of obedience. I simply don’t find this to be the case. In my experience, it’s actually the dogs that are never allowed to meet on-leash that are the most reactive or distracted by other dogs. A balanced approach is to teach dogs to greet properly while on leash as well as how to walk on by without greeting...sometimes we greet, sometimes we don’t. 

(Feel free to search “three paths to a socialized dog” at www.ThrivingCanine.com for more tips) 

Can Three Seconds Be Too Long? 

“If two dogs are going to have it out, they rarely need three seconds to determine that.” 

As stated in Part 1, three seconds is the maximum amount of time for the initial greeting...maximum, not minimum. 

If two dogs “are going to have it out” they will likely show signs of it before the greeting starts. Part 1 covered the importance of the dogs being calm before being allowed to meet and some body language to look out for. As soon as you see any of those warning signs you need to end or avoid the greeting. That means before the three seconds are up or before allowing the greeting to start. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Rehabilitating and socializing aggressive dogs or uniting dogs that don’t get along is beyond the scope of the three second rule. (contact chad@thrivingcanine.com for a consult on these issues) 

Exceptions To The Rule & Counting To Three 

“Sorry, but this is a shortcut to reading dogs. (And it's a two second rule the way it's described.) Looking at weight distribution is a more accurate predictor of what will happen next.” 

It definitely is a “shortcut” but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Professional trainers often get caught up in the intricacies of dog training and lose touch with regular dog owners who desperately need shortcuts. That being said, there are exceptions to the rule. Professional trainers, enthusiasts, doggie daycare staff, etc. probably don’t need this rule and should definitely learn to “read dogs” more thoroughly. Bottom line, the three second rule is for those who are not experts at reading canine body language. 

Is it two seconds or three? We may be splitting hairs here but it is definitely three. It goes like this: “One alligator, two alligator, three, let’s go.” The ”let’s go” replaces the third alligator (keeping the three second count) while simultaneously giving the dog instruction to walk away. If it was “three alligator” and then ”let’s go” it would actually be a four second rule. 

What About The Leash Causing Conflict?  

“I read your article on letting dogs meet. I’m just wondering, what are your thoughts on the leash causing conflict?” 

For sure, a TIGHT leash can cause conflict but a loose leash should not. As mentioned earlier, the leash needs to be loose. This is often a matter of going back to leash training basics, learning how to pop the leash correctly and conditioning the dog to accept leash pressure without conflict and in an emotionally positive way. (Feel free to search “Leash” or “Heel” at www.ThrivingCanine.com for more tips.)

The Bookends: Permission and Interruption

People tend to focus on counting to three and forget the two bookends of the three second rule, which are permission and interruption. 

Permission: The dog must settle and wait for permission on a loose leash until you say “Ok” or whatever your release word is. If the dog has no concept of yielding to the leash or of holding still until given a release cue, then there is some basic obedience homework to be done. 

Interruption: When the dog-dog greeting must be interrupted be sure to use a happy tone. You don’t want to sound like you’re scolding the dog or risk adding tension to the situation, so keep it light and fun. The leash should be loose as you give the dog a chance to listen to your voice. If the dog doesn’t respond immediately then you need to add a light leash pop (tug and release) to interrupt the interaction. Do not allow the dog to lean into the leash. Any pressure on the leash must be relaxed right away. Praise the dog as you take a breather before allowing a second greeting...which can be longer than three seconds.  

What About The Submissive-Sudden-Attack?

“I've gotten pretty good at reading dogs over the years but I've just been in too many incidents where "oh he's friendly" and the dog greets for 2 seconds and goes right for the attack. What about dogs that appear super submissive, then suddenly attack?” 

This is very interesting and something I should have discussed in part 1. When a dog shows signs of being “super submissive” they are not calm and should either not be allowed to meet yet or the greeting should be interrupted before three seconds. It is very possible that the dog is actually in a fearful state. This can put the dog into what behaviorists call “defense drive” which more commonly known as “fight or flight”. Many times these dogs feel conflicted, they don’t try to run away because they are actually interested in the other dog but they are also feeling overwhelmed or intimidated. The dog may feel as if they are cornered and then they “attack”, as she puts it. 

I’m 99% sure this problem would be eliminated by following the three second rule. I’d suggest reading Parts 1 and 2 again...slowly...word for word and then put it to the test. 

Is The Three Second Rule Only For Reactive Dogs? 

“I usually like to chat with the owner for longer than 3 seconds while our dogs meet. I don't understand why the greeting should be so short, assuming both dogs are well-behaved and happy to meet each other. Why cut a good thing short? I would say this ‘rule’ should only apply to dogs who have a history of not reacting well to meeting new dogs.” 

I totally understand why people with friendly dogs might feel this way. I have also noticed over the years that it’s often the folks with the most cavalier attitudes that traumatize easily and switch to avoiding greetings all altogether once they’ve had a bad experience. Both of these attitudes are out of balance. 

Here's the problem: how dogs are going to behave is not always obvious, so making a three second assessment is probably wiser than making a blind assumption. In other words, “assuming both dogs are well-behaved and happy to meet each other” is a risky assumption. Remember, you don't know the other dog or the other person. When they say “Oh, he's friendly” it simply isn’t always true. 

Better Safe Than Sorry

The three second “rule” is really just a suggested precaution. You don’t have to use it if you don’t want to but there’s not much to lose by trying it. You’re not ending the greeting completely, you're only interrupting it for a few seconds. If nothing else, it’s good practice for teaching your dog to come when called, even when there are major distractions. You can even give your dog a treat for coming to you and then go back for a more thorough greeting. That’s not a bad deal for the dog! As mentioned earlier, the second greeting can go longer and you can chat to your heart's content. So, isn't it worth a few seconds to be safe rather than sorry? 

Thank you very much for reading all the way to the end. I hope it was helpful. 

Peace, Chad 

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-Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer and Canine Behavior Consultant

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