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Canine Behavior/Meeting other dogs

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Question
My Yorkie-Maltese mix is very friendly and gets along well with other dogs that she knows, but when she is introduced to a new dog, she always sniffs first and then growls, runs behind them and nips at their back legs.  If the dog stands its ground, then they go on to play.  A couple of times the other dog has tucked its tail and run, both times she chased them, barking and growling.  Why does she do this and how can I stop it?  It freaks the other dog's owners out more than the other dogs.

Answer
Greetings, and thank you for contacting All Experts,
It's difficult to assess dog behavior when the accompanying body language and context can't be observed. Please take my answer with a grain of salt since I am writing from a keyboard several miles away and can only imagine an approximate scenario. I will try my best to cover several possibilities.

If your yorkie/maltese is very friendly with dogs she knows, my first suspicion would be she's not comfortable around new dogs she doesn't know well and somehow got stuck in a behavior pattern that has worked for her in the past. It's a good idea to try to see if there's a certain pattern in these introductions that trigger such responses from her or if this is the case with just about every new, stranger dog she meets. Is the other dog approaching too fast? Does she growl when the other dog sniffs her? Is she asking for more distance? Is her body language tense or is she playful when she growls? Does she run behind them when they move away the moment she growls and lunges? Is she on leash when she behaves this way? Following are some possibilities:

1) She is not comfortable and is asking for distance. Deep, low guttural growling is a distance-increasing signal when it's deep pitched. This dog is asking for space. Lunging and nipping at the legs when the dog moves away is often a coward approach of a dog who won't lunge when the dog is facing them. In this case, the lunging and nipping at back legs is reinforcing since it often works in sending the other dog away. In other words, the dog repeats this behavior over and over because he/she feels rewarded by this.

2) She is eliciting play. In this case, the growl isn't deep, but it's more of a playful growl requesting that the dog moves away so she can engage in the predatory chasing/nipping role. If your dog is normally vocal during play consider this possibility. This may be her play style and something that she gets a kick out of. If the dog is not frightened by her display, then the play continues. If the dog is intimidated and leaves, of course she's left with no play mate to play!

3) She's in conflict. Some dogs are a bit intimidated by dogs they don't know so they may be unsure if they are dealing with a friend or a foe. You may see growls, barks and lunges, but then she may change her mind and decide to play. Possibly, when she acts this way, the other dog will send a calming signal and she may accept it and then engage in play. You can read more about calming signals here:
http://www.canis.no/rugaas/onearticle.php?artid=1

4) Is your dog leashed when she does this? In such a case, she may fit the description of a reactive Rover, a dog that is frustrated by the leash or any other barrier that prevents him/her to play. If she morphs into play mode right when you unsnap the leash, this may be a possibility. Read more about this here and see if it fits the behavior you're seeing:
http://alexadry.hubpages.com/hub/Dog-BehaviorUnderstanding-Barrier-Frustration-i

It's best to keep leashes loose when meeting new dogs. Tense leashes interfere with doggie body language and you may also involuntarily transmit the sensation that there's a possible danger ahead if you do this every time she meets a new dog and are a bit worried about the outcome. Dogs do best when they meet side-to-side rather than from a frontal approach. Before letting them sniff and all, it may be a good idea to walk them together in a neutral territory so they can get acquainted with each other. Here a great read for better leash introductions:
http://unleashedunlimited.com/how-to-introduce-2-dogs-on-leash/

Regardless of what causes the behavior and what's going on your pooch's mind (we may never really know), you evidently want to work on this behavior The above leash introductions may help, but may not be enough. For starters, it helps to prevent rehearsal of the behavior. In other words, the more she practices the unwanted behavior, the more it establishes, so you'll have to find a way to prevent her from engaging in this from the get-go. You may want to practice the below exercises first with dogs she knows well and then progress to new dogs only when you're pretty much certain she's better under control. Ideally, you should do this in a trainer's class setting under the supervision of a professional.

After walking her along with a dog, since she always sniffs first, try to feed high-value treats before she gets to the point of growling, running and nipping. This should keep her mind distracted and disengaged from the unwanted behavior pattern. While you're at it, you can try to train a replacement behavior that is incompatible with the lunging and nipping. If for instance, you ask her a "sit", she ultimately cannot sit and lunge and bite at the same time!
Here's an article about  Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors:
http://alexadry.hubpages.com/hub/Dog-Training-How-to-Use-Differential-Reinforcem

Note: if your dog doesn't take treats and is unable to pay attention to you when around other new dogs, she may be way too aroused, stressed and over threshold. You may want to consider preventing her from engaging in encounters with unknown dogs until she is better under control and less stressed. It's not good to have her reach this point and intimidate other dogs and dog owners! Read this article about threshold and how to recognize threshold levels in dogs:
http://alexadry.hubpages.com/hub/Dog-Behavior-Understanding-Threshold-Levels-in-

It's best to enroll the aid of dog behavior professional for a proper assessment and treatment. If your dog's behavior is triggered by barrier frustration, a reactive Rover class may be beneficial. If it's triggered by stress and fear, your dog may need a program of desensitization and counterconditioning to help her overcome this initial behavior. Here is a sample of a program for aggressive dogs but that apply as well in dogs who growl, lunge and nip out of fear/stress/anxiety: http://alexadry.hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Help-a-Dog-that-is-Aggressive-Towards-Ot Often such behaviors, left untreated, tend to become more deeply rooted and can even worsen overtime. I hope this helps! Let me know if I can be of any further assistance. Best wishes!
Adrienne

Disclaimer: Please consult with a dog behaviorist if your dog is displaying aggressive behaviors. Only a dog behaviorist may see and assess behaviors and offer the most appropriate behavior modification program tailored for your dog. Use extreme caution and make safety your top priority. By reading this answer you accept this disclaimer and assume full responsibility for any of your actions.  

Canine Behavior

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Adrienne Janet Farricelli CPDT-KA

Expertise

I can answer questions pertaining dog psychology and general dog behavior. Why is my dog doing this? And what can I do about it? are common questions I am asked. I will not answer questions concerning health problems as this is out of my spectrum, but I can recommend a vet visit if there are chances behavioral problems may stem from a possible underlying medical problem.

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I am a certified dog trainer (CPDT-KA) that has attended seminars on dog behavior. I am acquainted with behavior modification programs and have read several books from reputable authors such as Patricia McConnell, Turid Rugaas, Nicholas Dodman and Bruce Fogle to name a few. I have rehabilitated dogs affected by moderate to severe behavioral problems.

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Suite 101 Examiner.com Daily Puppy

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Certified dog trainer (APICC, CPDT-KA)

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Over 800 fans on my blog offering tips for training dogs and treating behavioral problems

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