Ask The Trainer: “Pack Attack”

Posted on May 16, 2017April 11, 2018Categories Ask The Trainer, DogsTags , ,

Does your dog act differently when walking with another dog? This submission to Ask The Trainer addresses an unusual example of a common problem:

The Dog:
Sadie: A four-year old Australian Cattle Dog, adopted as a rescue when she was 1. Very loyal, intelligent, full of energy, and personality.

The Human:
Claire: 26 year old gal trying her best to use positive reinforcement and tons of exercise to work with Sadie on issues of separation anxiety and reactivity.

The Situation:
Sadie is really good with other dogs, on leash, off leash, she likes to say hi and then walk by! BUT when she is paired up with another dog she knows (our friends’ dogs, other dogs we’ve lived with) she gets very aggressive with other stranger’s dogs, barking at them from across the street, and instigating fights, both on and off leash.

The Question:
What to do? She is not interested in food in the slightest (even super-high value treats such as sausage or cheese) when she’s in this state. What do I call this behavior? How can I train her out of it when I don’t have access to our friends dogs who are key to the behavior starting up in the first place?

Ah, pack mentality. We often meet dogs who seem fine when walking on their own, but turn into Cujo when their doggy sibling comes along. Sadie doesn’t have a doggy sibling, but it sounds like the same process is at work. Having a “pack” to back you up can make insecure dogs bolder and they go from friendly, submissive dogs to barking bullies.

This phenomenon, by the way, is one of the big reasons why your vet will take a snappy dog out of the room to examine it. Removed from the “back up” of the owner, the dog becomes less sure of itself and doesn’t dare aggress. You will also sometimes see this happen when the owner walks the dog – but a stranger can walk the dog with no problems!

Whatever the situation, the ingredients are usually the same: an ounce of perceived support and a pound of insecurity.

So, what to do?

1. Remember that there is a difference between hidden fears and non-existent fears.

Many people think that their anxious/reactive dog is “fine” if the dog is not manifesting negative behaviours such as barking. But the dog is not necessarily fine. The dog just appears fine because it isn’t pushed far enough or feeling brave enough to show how it really feels. Haven’t you ever hidden your feelings to appear “fine”? Dogs do the same. So whether or not your dog seems okay, work on making strange dog encounters positive, and build appropriate behaviours. You want to teach your dog to look at you when a strange dog approaches in return for treats, so that strange dog = look at owner = treats in your dog’s brain, and so that your dog learns to turn and make eye contact with you when another dog approaches.

2.  Work in increments.

If your dog is so worked up that she won’t accept the treats she normally loves, that means that she is too worked up to focus or learn anything. You need to find a distance from the strange dog that you can work with, even if that means the strange dog remains a tiny speck on the horizon. Visit sparsely populated areas, or areas that have views of dogs from a distance – like a field overlooking a dog park – or arrange a set up with a neighbour or coworker’s dog when you have a friend’s dog around as a “back up”.

Work on the same strange dog = look at me for treats behaviour that your dog has already mastered on walks alone. If a strange dog approaches too closely, try to get away – turn and create distance between you and the strange dog until Sadie can focus and enjoy her treats again. If you can’t find ANY distance that works for you, then that means you need to work on the focusing for treats behaviour with no dogs around at all, first! Keep making the situation easier until Sadie begins to have success and then try the next step up.

3. Beware accidental reward for the wrong behaviour.

Situations like this tend to be self-rewarding because, from your dog’s point of view, it seems to work great. Your dog sees a strange dog, barks like crazy, and the strange dog moves on. Barking worked to scare that scary stranger away! And unfortunately, anything else that happens will further convince Sadie that she’s doing the right thing – if the other dog fights back, it will just confirm in her mind that strange dogs are dangerous, especially if you have your friends along with you!

That’s why it’s important to do whatever you need to avoid putting Sadie into a situation that she isn’t ready to handle yet. If she keeps meeting situations that she can manage, and looking at you gets treats and ALSO makes the other dog go away, she’ll start to develop confidence in your strategy and will be willing to try it more and more. But if thrown in too deep, she’ll go back to her tried-and-true plan of bark-bark-grrrrrr.

Ask The Trainer: When To Intervene At The Dog Park?

Posted on August 18, 2015Categories Ask The Trainer, DogsTags , ,


“My dog likes to bark at other dogs at the dog park. Is that okay? He isn’t being aggressive he’s just excited but other people sometimes give me dirty looks. Also, when he’s wrestling with other dogs, when should I break it up?”

Ah, the dog park. If we went into all of the rules of  dog park etiquette, this could be a very long article, so I’ll just stick to your two questions!

First of all, many dogs bark in excitement at the dog park. There isn’t a whole lot that you can do about this. If you take your dog often enough he may find it less exciting and be better able to restrain himself. Dogs who hardly ever get to go are going to be MUCH more excited than dogs for whom this is just every day routine.

But then there are the dogs who bark in other dogs’ faces until the other dog gets angry and retaliates. These dogs are being the equivalent of internet trolls. They are trying to annoy other dogs, trying to provoke a reaction. If your dog is pestering other dogs, then you should definitely put a stop to this behavior. Stop your dog when you see him doing it, make him do some obedience before he is allowed another chance, and best of all, reward him with treats when he plays in a more appropriate manner. If the problem is severe, consider asking a friend to let you have some play dates so you can work on the behaviour in a more controlled environment, and/or call a trainer.

As for when to intervene when things get rough… well…there’s the ideal answer and the real world answer.

Ideally, dogs should be allowed to play rough as long as they are both having fun. Some dogs just love to wrestle, and chew on others, and be chewed on. They growl and flip each other over and slobber all over each other’s backs and play bitey-face with their fangs and have a GREAT TIME. There is absolutely no reason to step in unless one of the dogs stops having fun.

Even when it turns into a real dog fight, there is usually no need to intervene because it is over very quickly. A yelp, a snarl, and they break apart. Don’t assume that the attacking dog is the cause of the trouble, either. Usually these quick altercations happen because one dog did something annoying or inappropriate, failed to read the other dog’s signals, and the other dog finally snapped.

These lessons can actually be a good thing. Young dogs tend to be very inappropriate – jumping on dogs they haven’t even sniffed hello, pestering dogs who are giving out clear “I don’t want to play” signals. That’s normal, and older grumpy dogs actually perform a valuable service by telling an annoying whipper snapper what is what every now and then.

Of course, any time there’s an altercation, both dogs should be given a time out and a chance to cool down. But that’s about all you normally need to do.

It’s only when a dog starts screaming and KEEPS SCREAMING that it is time to come running. Even then, intervene with caution. Reaching your hand into a dog fight is a great way to get bitten, and then you have even more trouble, especially if you live in a province like Ontario where they place any dogs who bite under quarantine for rabies.

It is bad for a dog to get hurt at the park, but legally, it causes far more problems when a human gets hurt. A dog who bites another dog might get cautioned. A dog who bites a human might be ordered destroyed.

Most dog fights end with little more damage than a torn ear or cut on the cheek or neck, although in rare cases they can cause severe injury or death, especially when there is a big size difference between dogs. I have seen a couple of tragic cases of small fluffy puppies being mistaken for squirrels or rabbits by bigger dogs.

So, in an ideal world you hardly ever intervene unless someone is actually getting killed.

But we live in the real world, don’t we? And the real world dog park is full of owners who will panic if they hear your dog play growling during a friendly wrestle session with their precious Fluffers. The real world is full of people with puppies who yell at you when your elderly dog teachers their rambunctious puppy a well deserved lesson. And in the real world, we aren’t exactly happy about the idea of letting our dog get his ear ripped. If nothing else, that’s still a $500 vet visit.

So exercise your best judgement. If your dog is playing rough, but no one is screaming and the tails are wagging, watch the owner of the other dog. If they seem happy, then just enjoy. If they look worried or concerned, then step in and redirect your dog somewhere else.

If your dog snaps at another dog, even if the other dog deserves it, give him a time out and if the other owner is upset, a sincere apology. Always offer to pay for any damage that your dog does to another dog, even if the other dog deserved it, because we socialized dogs shouldn’t hurt other dogs when they fight, so you are ultimately responsible.

And if someone else’s dog snaps at your dog, even if you don’t think your dog deserved it, cut the other owner some slack. If your dog did diserve it, cut the other owner a lot of slack.

We all love our dogs and none of us want anyone else’s pet to get hurt. We just want them to have fun. But sometimes their best teachers are other dogs.

Ask The Trainer: “My Sister In Law Hates My Dog!”

Posted on August 11, 2015Categories Ask The Trainer, DogsTags , , , , ,

“My sister-in-law hates dogs. I could shut my dog in the basement whenever she comes over, but I don’t really want to. What is the etiquette here?”


“Anonymous” writes,

“My sister-in-law hates dogs. I could shut my dog in the basement whenever she comes over, but I don’t really want to. What is the etiquette here?”

It’s always difficult when a guest doesn’t love animals the way that you do. We want our guests to feel welcome and comfortable in our homes, but on the other hand, we shouldn’t have to shut members of our family away just to make our guests more comfortable.

After all, if your sister-in-law hated children and you had kids, would you shut them away? So it is okay to resent being asked to do the same with your beloved pet.

Some people simply aren’t able to shut their dog in a room when guests come over – Dogs with separation problems may bark disruptively or cause damage in the room. Even well adjusted dogs may simply assume that you’ve made a mistake by locking them in the bedroom and will yap to let you know that they want out.

On the other hand, refusing to lock your dog away could be seen as inconsiderate, which would cause family drama, and no one wants to deal with that, either. Furthermore, you don’t want your sister in law to feel like you are choosing a dog over her – which would seem insulting to someone who doesn’t understand the important role that dogs can play in our lives.

In general, I have a “love me, love my dog” policy.

However, I would be willing to bend that policy on occasion in the following situations:

  • If there is an allergy involved.
    • (…And if there is, then honestly locking the dog up isn’t going to make much difference – there’s dander all over your house.)
  • If my policy is going to cause family distress
    • (If your sister in law is your husband’s sister for example, does he support you or does he want his sister accommodated?)
  • If my dog is not well behaved.

This last point is also the most vital – it is reasonable to ask non-allergic guests to tolerate a polite, well behaved dog. It is not reasonable to ask any guest to tolerate a jumpy, barking, drooly, mooching dog with no sense of personal boundaries.

So, with that in mind, here is the most vital obedience command to teach your dog:

On Your Spot/Place


Choose an out-of-the-way location with clear boundaries, such as under the coffee table, or on a mat or dog bed. Teach your dog to lie down in that place on command, and then continue to chuck treats at periodic intervals as a reward for staying there. Start with asking your dog to stay there for a minute or two at a time, and slowly work your way up to longer periods of time.

Meal times are a great time to practice this. It teaches the dog to stop sniffing around your feet, which no one likes, and works the training into your daily routine.

Then try doing it when dog-friendly guests are over. Tell them that they can pat your dog AFTER he has done his time on his spot.

Soon you will be able to order your dog onto his spot when your sister in law comes over, and keep him there, with the occasional “thank you” from you in the form of a high value treat.

That way your dog gets to stay in the room, gets a few treats, and doesn’t pester your sister in law. Win/win!