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Canine Behavior/my dog dislikes my nephew


I have a rescue 1-2 year old cocker/cavalier king charles spaniel named Riley.  He seems to be okay with most people especially after he gets to know them.  My problem is that he has an issue with my 28 year old nephew, Joe.  Most of the time when Riley sees Joe, he will bark, growl and lunge at him. He has never physically attacked him or bitten him, but it is upsetting to both of them.  Sometimes Riley seems to forget that he doesn't like Joe and he will go up to him to be petted.  At some point he remembers and starts growling and barking.  Joe is hesitant around dogs--he has had several bad experiences with them and I think he is afraid of dogs in general.  When Riley growl at him, Joe will just stand there and look down at him.  What is the best way to handle this issue?  I see Joe several times a month and the family does an annual camping trip.  I take Riley most places with me and need the two of them to get along.

I'm sorry that your nephew has had several bad experiences with dogs. That can certainly color his expectations as well as his interest in being near dogs. Unfortunately, what's likely happening right now is that Riley sees Joe's discomfort in Joe's body language (stiffness, tension in his body, prolonged stares - keep an eye on the thing that frightens me - etc.). He may also smell Joe's discomfort as Joe may be experiencing an increase in adrenalin and cortisol (stress hormones). And there are physiological reactions that come with increased stress hormones which include dilated pupils, increased rapid breathing, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, a slowing in digestion and some other things as well. It may be quite subtle or it may be rather extreme and obvious, depending on the level of fear/discomfort that an individual is experiencing. And dogs experience these same changes when they're nervous/fearful as we do. So if Joe is having any of these responses to fear then in all likelihood Riley sees them and/or smells them. This can increase Riley's anxiety about Joe.

There are some things you can try, and depending on how fearful Joe is, it may be best to begin this process with a professional trainer who is not only skilled at fearful/timid dogs, but who also has experience with humans who are fearful of dogs. Our goal is to help Joe feel safe and secure with Riley so that Riley no longer feels uneasy about Joe being present.

I'm putting this on Joe partly because he has a history that prompts him to be fearful of dogs and because you indicate that Riley is not concerned about most people and it seems to be Joe specific. So by helping Joe feel better about Riley, we will be able to help Riley feel better about Joe.

First, I encourage you and Joe to both read the book On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals , by Turid Rugaas. It's a very accessible book for pet owners. It walks you through many of the more subtle behaviors that dogs do and what they indicate about a dog's emotional state in that moment, how other dogs generally react when they see a dog giving these signals and which signals are things that WE can do to help our canine friends feel better/safer/more secure. Many signals indicate contentment (squinty eyes, ears down and back - but not the same as pinned to the head, soft body - no muscle tension, smiling which is a soft, open mouth with the top lip soft enough to cover the top teeth and usually the tongue lolling out just enough to cover the bottom canines, etc). Some signals indicate nervousness (hyper vigilance - looking around and trying to be aware of EVERYTHING in the space, panting excessively for the temperature and level of recent exercise, yawning when clearly not tired, licking their lips which may be as small as little tongue flicks just out the front of the lips, to licking the nose to licking the nose and sweeping off to one side or the other of the mouth, etc.). Trying to appease/defuse tension and avoid conflict (sniffing the ground intently - almost trying to be invisible, averting gaze, turning head, turning body away, getting smaller by sitting or laying down, showing belly, etc.). Some signals tell us the dog is downright scared (cowering, running away, tail tucking, offensive bluffs such as snarling, baring teeth, barking, growling, lunging, hackles raised, etc.). And then there are the distance-increasing signals - sometimes they are actively aggressive "I am going to hurt you" and sometimes they are the offensive bluff as described above.

Understanding the details of these cues can make a huge difference in your and Joe's interaction with Riley. If Joe can read Riley (and you can help him), then you might see when Riley is becoming concerned or uncomfortable long before he feels the need to speak up and bark/growl at Joe. This gives you both an opportunity to adjust the interaction, redirect Riley to some other activity or have Joe change his body language so that Riley then feels safer with Joe. This is often enough to stop a potentially ugly encounter before it ever gets started.

I would also encourage Joe to do some mental imagery work when he's NOT with Riley. It may sound silly, but the brain doesn't discriminate between real memories and mental imagery memories, so practicing in his head when he's relaxed and safe in his own home can help him prepare for interactions with Riley. By visualizing relaxed encounters and consciously practicing breathing calmly, sitting comfortably, being conscious that his muscles are relaxed - his shoulders are not in his ears, etc. can help him to display a more relaxed body with Riley. Practicing in his head that he's going to look at Riley's bum/tail rather than in Riley's eyes will help him to make a habit of doing this. If Joe is staring at Riley in the face/eye then Riley likely finds this intimidating and increases Riley's sense of distrust. A lingering direct stare is considered a threat in Doggie Etiquette. Also, physical interactions should happen when Joe is sitting down. He should try to present himself with a shoulder toward Riley, rather than his chest square to Riley*. He should reach out his hand, but keep it at least 8-10 inches away from Riley and let Riley come to him for the physical greeting - if Riley doesn't want to greet Joe, then he won't come over. If Riley does want to greet Joe, then he should keep his hand palm up and make contact under Riley's chin, on his chest or side - but DO NOT reach over Riley's head as this is another very confrontational move in Doggie Etiquette. He won't always have to be so particular about this, but because he's nervous right now and Riley doesn't trust him completely, we want to be VERY CLEAR that Joe is not a threat. As they feel more comfortable with each other, and as their bond builds, then Joe will naturally relax more and more and Riley won't be so concerned.

* If Joe presents his shoulder to Riley and Riley comes around to Joe's front in order to interact or during an interaction, that's OK. Joe doesn't have to keep shifting. It's just that the initial invitation is less threatening when our body is soft and not in perfect line to the dog.

If Riley does begin to bark at Joe, we should respect that Riley isn't comfortable. Joe should NOT stare at Riley, nor should he stand tall and look down at him. That's a very confrontational stance to take in that moment. Instead, we should try to redirect Riley into a game by offering a favorite toy - offer to tug, or tease him with it and then toss it for him to chase/pounce. Someone else can call him away just to break the tension, Joe should avert his gaze and soften his body. He shouldn't run away or leave the room, but if he's standing and Riley starts barking, Joe may just shift his weight a little so that he turns a shoulder a bit toward Riley and then Joe can look at the ground or the ceiling away from Riley. This is just using "Dogeese" to defuse the tension and avoid conflict. There is no challenge for hierarchy going on. It's just Riley saying "I'm uncomfortable and I don't know if I trust you right now," and Joe saying, "I don't want to fight with you."

I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance. You may also speak to your vet for a referral to a local professional with appropriate experience to work with Joe and Riley to help improve that relationship.  Good luck!

On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals

There's also a companion DVD if you're a visual learner. I encourage you to read the book first as this will help the DVD stuff make more sense. The DVD shows dogs doing the behaviors and how other dogs respond. It also has a couple demonstrations of people doing some of these behaviors and how the dog responds to us using their cues.

Calming Signals - What Your Dog Tells You

Jody, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist  

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, CPDT- KA, APDT


IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 5 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.


I have been professionally modifying behavior and training obedience for 7 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I have just changed the name of my business. It is no longer Good Dog! Dog Training. The new name is Nutz About Mutz!. If you see previous questions with the Good Dog! website information, that is my response.

I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications ; ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

I have a graduate education in animal behavior and learning. (While I completed my coursework and did the requisite research, I did not defend a dissertation. I am qualified, but not certified and so technically not a doctor. This is commonly referred to as Ph.D.-ABD which means All But Dissertation.) My educational focus was with non-human primates, but my personal interest is with domestic dogs and their relationships with humans and other animals. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences.

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