Our Greyhound is 80 pounds, and is the sweetest thing on four feet. Our Border Collie, Sadie, has what I call "trust issues". As a general rule, we let people know as they approach with their dogs that she's not friendly with dogs, comment on how cute their pet is, and continue on our walk. Most owners are happy that we mention it, and everyone is happy.
Today, we rounded a corner, both our dogs are leashed, and I see a woman with her three mini poodles coming out of a door across the street. I assumed they were leashed, so I brought my attention down to Sadie, had her do some tricks, and kept her attention while the woman could start her walk. The next thing I know, she's yelling at her dogs, which brought my attention up, just in time to see the flock of 3 mini apricot poodles running across a street (that abuts the McGrath Highway - not a safe place for off leash critters) darting at my dogs. She yelled out that they were friendly, and at the same time, I'm yelling out that mine is not. I held on to Sadie's head collar, as one of the dogs muzzle punched Sadie under her belly. Sadie did not bite, but I'm pretty sure it's only because I was holding her head.
I see this ALL. THE. TIME. When I teach classes, the friendly dogs come in pulling their owners into the classroom space, eager to see what new adventures are going to happen - all the while, there are dogs in the corner that are demonstranting very clear signals that they don't like the new dog approaching.
Think about some stranger on the train reaching over and giving you a noogie. Now think about how your dog feels when some unfamiliar dog bounds up with no social skills, and doesn't get the hint to back off.
Your dog might be the friendliest dog in the whole wide world. The other dog might not be. Don't assume, and don't risk a dog bite.
Dogs, like people, can be introverts or extroverts, and just like people, this can be dependent on context. My husband is generally soft spoken and most would describe him as an introvert - but you get him around his friends, or watching a football game, and he's quite the opposite. I tend to be very outgoing and extroverted - except in front of people I don't know and highly respect in my field - then I become quite shy. Sadie adores our Greyhound and has one Boston Terrier friend. Otherwise, she's not interested in making new friends, and who am I to say she has to? She has her people, she has her two canine companions, and that's enough for her.
We do our best to keep a potentially bad situation at bay. However, sometimes you cannot control for all the variables - the insistent owner that keeps saying "but no - he just wants to say hi!" or the clueless handler that, despite your best efforts, confidently asserts that your dog is too cute to ever hurt another dog. Or, the woman who has no recall on her three dogs that charge across a street next to a major highway, who just clearly doesn't get that her actions are illegal (Somerville has leash laws) and dangerous (to her dogs, drivers, and other dogs).
I'm positive I didn't make any friends today when I told her that her dogs really needed to be leashed, and that if my dog had bit hers, she would be responsible. When she continued to insist that she was only getting them outside to the back yard and that it's no big deal, I told her it clearly was a big deal considering they ran away from her into danger. At the very least, they should be under voice control and have a strong recall command, because it could be something else, perhaps a teenager behind the wheel, a school bus (which just passed us as this was happening), or a person who couldn't control their reactive dogs.
Just because my dog didn't bite hers today does not mean that it couldn't happen - Sadie has bit before, which is why I'm really careful and honest to passing dog handlers by saying "Not Friendly" when dogs look like they are approaching. I am Sadie's advocate, but also I'm really looking out for the safety of her dogs as well. It really doesn't matter if you're walking 20 feet, or 2 miles. If you have no off leash recall on your dog, your dog must be leashed in the city. Period.
Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA is a dog trainer at Magical Mutt in Somerville, and at New England Dog Training Club in Cambridge. She focuses on K9 Frisbee, Young Adolescent Dog Behavior and Puppy Classes. Another version of this blog post, as well as where to take your dog off leash, resources for teaching a reliable recall, and how to exercise your dog off leash if appropriate can be found at http://muttstuff.blogspot.com