QUESTION: Hi - We have a 4 yo lab/shepherd (possibly anatolian shepherd) mix that we adopted from the local humane society. He was 6 months old at the time, and had been in 2 homes prior to our adopting him. He is a fast learner, and appears to enjoy learning new things...we have completed 3 levels of obedience, 4 levels of agility, 1 level of scent detection, and are about to start level 2 rally obedience. However, there is a behaviour issue that concerns me, and I'm not sure how to tackle it. He plays well with other dogs off leash, and seems to be aware of the pecking order in his group of "friends", but if I am walking him on leash and we meet another dog, if the other dog acknowledges his presence at all (looks at him, takes a step toward him, etc), he will try to charge at the dog. He doesn't growl, snarl or snap; in fact, his behaviour doesn't "appear" aggressive at all but there is a lot of dominant posturing (pushing into the dog, paws on their back, getting in their face, if you will), and 99% of the time, it ends badly, with the other dog growling, snapping or cringing. I have tried making him sit, and rewarding for holding the sit, but again, if the other dog approaches, he breaks the sit and lunges, and it happens so fast there is no time to correct it before the damage is done. Sometimes, it seems like he is ignoring the other dog until we are right beside it, and then he pounces. I walk him with either a martingale collar or "sense-ation" harness - there doesn't seem to be a difference in his behaviour with either one. For the record, if the other dog ignores him, he will whine, but doesn't lunge. Do you have any suggestions on how I can keep his attention on me? I have tried high-end smelly, yummy treats to entice him, but ultimately he appears to find pushing other dogs around more rewarding than anything. Is my dog a bully? Thanks so much for your time!
ANSWER: Thank you for your question, and kudos to you for engaging your dog in many types of enrichment/bonding activities. You are clearly very attuned to your dog and his needs.
So, my first question would be how is his behavior different when he's off leash? You said he gets on well with dogs off leash. Does he approach them and push into them or approach directly to their face to start play when he's off leash? Or is his approach entirely different, and if it is different, how is it different? What does it look like when he's off leash?
Also, when he's off leash, I'm assuming he's engaging with dogs who are also off leash, while on leash, he's engaging with dogs who are on leash, is this correct? Or does he do this behavior when he's on leash, but engaging with a dog who is off leash? And if that is sometimes the case, do those incidents also turn "bad" or is that only when both dogs are on leash?
So, the first thing to understand is that aggression and dominance actually have nothing to do with each other, so it's not at all surprising that you don't find his pushy in-charge behavior to be aggressive. In fact, most dogs who are actively taking a dominant role in a given relationship are quite calm and relaxed and confident. This is because, as soon as one dog decides to take the submissive role, there is no more confrontation and the relationship becomes quite stable and there's no need for aggressive outbursts.
Without observing his difference in behavior off leash vs on leash, I can only offer directions for training and not specifics. But I can certainly give you some ideas of how to approach changing his response when he's on leash. When dogs are on leash, they often behave very differently than when they are free from the constraint. Sometimes this is about feeling trapped and they don't have the freedom to move around and offer more socially appropriate behavior and so they become pushy or defensive. Other times it is a direct result of the dynamic between both ends of the leash (dog and handler).
I would first want to see how your dog behaves on leash when engaging with dogs he knows well and gets on with when off leash. Does his behavior change with those dogs? Or is it only with unfamiliar/less familiar dogs that he displays these poor social skills? If he's doing this only with dogs he doesn't know, then this tells us it may be more related to being unsure what the other dog will do and so he's being offensive in an effort to gain control of a situation where he may feel less able to provide his normal behaviors. If he does this with dogs he knows well and plays well with when off leash, then we might say it is about the dynamic of the leash itself. You might try having play dates with dogs he knows well. Let them play and burn off some of that big energy, then put the dogs on a long leashes (15 foot) and walk with them together so they continue to feel free. And over the course of a 30-minute walk, slowly gather up the leash until he's effectively on a 6-foot leash. You can let out more if his behavior begins to get pushy as he becomes a little more reined in. And you can go back and forth with more and less leash available throughout the walk to help him get used to being more closely attached to you, intermixed with more freedom of movement.
Practicing with dogs he knows well and gets on with can help him prepare for interactions with dogs he doesn't know.
I would then walk him using the long leash for your regular walks. Keep it gathered to a 6-foot length for most of your walk. If you encounter a dog who appears to want to greet yours, and whose owner is comfortable with it, I would let out the leash to the full extent so that your dog feels as free as possible, which will allow him to move comfortably and be more able to offer more appropriate social cues. Of course, be ready to retreat and gather leash if necessary. This is another reason it's great to practice with dogs he knows and people who know him and are willing to work with you.
The exercise you should practice (with known dogs/people) is arrange to "meet" on a walk. Stop at distance of about 20 or 30 feet. Speak with the owner: "That's a great dog. Do you think he'd like to meet my dog? I'm going to let out his leash so he's more comfortable meeting your dog." Get approval from your friend, then give your dog a cue like "go say 'hi'" and let out the leash and follow so that when he gets to the other dog, there is no tension on the leash. The leash should look like a soft smile and be jiggly in the air. You should have one hand at the end of the leash holding securely to the loop. Your other hand should be arms length away, holding the leash so if necessary, you are prepared to do a quick pull-him-away as you turn and walk away briskly. During this practice, give the dogs literally 3 seconds to greet, then in your cheeriest voice, call your dog, "Fido, let's go!" and turn and trot away about 20 steps. Reward him with super high value food like meat or cheese. If he's not interested in food, try having a small, but favorite tug toy handy to play tug for 30 seconds. Then, after the separation and reward, you can repeat this exercise from "Is it OK if they greet again?" all the way through the process.
I encourage practicing the conversation with your friends who help you for two reasons. First, you'll want it to be clear in your head what you're going to say to strangers. And also because that routine will help your dog learn what to expect and when.
I would also work on a couple protocols that can help to reduce his excitement around dogs, and help him to redirect back to you. The first is called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT)
. This protocol is all about empowering the dog to make choices about whether or not he wishes to engage. Your role is to make sure he doesn't get in over his head. If getting right into the other dog's space is too much for him, then maybe he only really needs to smell them or follow them to gather information about them from 10 feet away (or further). Keeping enough distance that he can watch the dog, but doesn't feel drawn to the dog like a magnet.
The other protocol that works well for this is called Look At That
. This exercise begins at a great enough distance that your dog can see the other dog, but does not feel compelled to go running up to the dog - so whatever distance your dog needs at that moment from 5 feet to a half-mile.... In this game, you hang out with your dog and relax and wait. When your dog sees a dog, you mark it clicker if he knows that or "Good!" and then give a treat or a moment of play if he prefers Tug. If he doesn't see the dog, but you do, you say "Look at that!" and point toward the dog. The moment he looks in the direction of the dog, mark it and reward it. Some people change the cue and say something like "where's the doggie?"
The main point of this exercise is that you are NOT waiting for your dog to react to the other dog. You are only ensuring that he SEES the other dog. In fact, you want to mark and reward looking at the dog, not reacting. As your dog begins to make the association that seeing other dogs reliably predicts something awesome from you, you will start to see him look for and find a dog, and then immediately check in with you in anticipation of his prize.
Be creative with his prize. If he needs liverwurst, or french fries or baby carrots, then that's what you use. If he needs cream cheese or peanut butter from a squeeze tube, that's fine too (be conscious of fat content and use teeny bits, and adjust his meals for the rest of that day to account for the extra fat and calories here). If he's more rewarded by playing Tug then have his favorite tug toy with you and it only comes out once he sees the dog. Play for 10-20 seconds, then remove the toy and hide it again until the next dog appears. If he's prefer catch, then have a ball handy to toss in the air for him. If he'd prefer to run with you, then be set up in a space where you can run in a big circle once or twice - whatever is going to be rewarding for him is what you use here.
You may also find the book Click to Calm
to be very useful.
Finally, and this may be the most important bit of this whole response. . . there is no rule that says your dog must greet other dogs while they're on leash. In fact, it's probably the most tension-filled interactions your dog can have. If he has dog friends that he is comfortable with and has regular play time with (and even if he doesn't, really), there is no reason you have to allow your dog to greet others. I nearly never let my dogs greet other dogs when they're on leash. I always walk my dogs on long lines (10 foot for my 10-lb dog and 20 foot for my 35-lb dog) and if I do want the dogs to greet, I let out the entire line so that my dogs have room to move. I also stand far enough back that I only need to take one or two steps away to get my dogs moving with me. They also have a great "Out" command to disengage with whatever they're doing (learned through Nose Work exercises when it's time to leave the search area). But, in reality, I nearly always keep my dogs near me and step off the path and ply my dogs with string cheese and other goodies as the dogs move past us. I just tell the other person we're working on being calm with strange dogs and they're not prepared to have greetings today...
I point this out because if it's hard for your boy to meet other dogs while he's on leash, then one option is to simply disallow him from such greetings. That is a training exercise in itself for him - that he doesn't get to meet ever dog he sees. You can do as I do and just step off the path and redirect his attention. My boys will do almost anything for string cheese, but if your dog needs a more physical outlet, that's when Tug can be a great option if he likes that game. It just means you have to carry his tug toy on all walks. You can work on the Look At That/Click to Calm exercises to check in with you. You can simply turn and walk another direction, cross the street, trot/jog with him as part of a well-trained game all just to avoid the interaction. One skill I often teach clients is an emergency retreat, which helps the dog to redirect back to the owner. I got this exercise from Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. Below is a link to my video demo. Essentially, it's an emergency Come command. Practice with NO distractions until he's great at it. Then start practicing with subtle distractions like a car passing a block away, or passing a house where he knows there's a dog, or a dog that's a block away, and building up from there until you can turn a corner, see a dog 10 feet in front of you and do this exercise. Again, start with dogs/people you know who will be willing to work with you while you train him.
Hopefully one or more of these ideas will prove helpful to you. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thanks so much for your detailed answer! I'm not sure if this will clarify his reaction (or change anything in your response), but regarding his greeting of his "friends" - he is pushy with them, too, but they are similar size and temperament, so it is like a "clash of the titans" scenario; lots of jumping and pouncing before they get down to the chase. Interestingly (at least to me :)), after he greets an unfamiliar dog, when I finally get him under control and have him sit, it's like he loses interest in it...he'll just sit there and ignore it. It's like he has never learned how to greet properly...no polite sniffing for him! I agree with you that he doesn't need to greet every (or any) dog - this often happens when I'm trying to avoid just that. I will certainly try your suggestions, especially "where's the doggie". That sounds like a game that he would really enjoy!
Thank you for the followup. Knowing that his behavior is essentially the same, and based on your description, it actually does sound like just inept greeting/play behavior I wouldn't describe it as "bullying" so much as just an overbearing personality - I think of the person who walks into a room talking a bit too loud, drags the chair to shift position, rather than pick it up and move it to the new position quietly, interrupts conversations to say something that may be irrelevant... that sort of thing.
So, with this new information, I would encourage two things.
First, work on an Out command. You mentioned that you have done scent work with your dog. I first taught my boys the Out command as an indicator that it was time to leave the search area. If you don't already have such a command, I would introduce it to Nose Work games. Once the dog has found the scent/food, tell the dog "Out." and escort him to the area you hold him while you reset for the next Hide. For my dogs, they wait in the kitchen behind a baby gate, so Out came to mean return to the kitchen and go through a gate. I then started randomly using the Out command any time I needed them to move out of the room they were in. If they were under foot while I was cooking, I'd tell them Out and point out of the kitchen (the opposite during the game, which is how they generalized that Out does not mean go to the kitchen, but rather to leave where ever they currently are).
One of my dogs is what we call a "groveler" in that his preferred greeting involves going directly up to the other dog and licking their face. He will lick for as long as they let him and this is potentially dangerous if the dog doesn't care for it as they can easily bite my dog in his face. So, one day, he was greeting a strange dog and after about 2 seconds, I told him "Out" in a cheery voice and took 3 or 4 steps away from him, and he promptly turned and trotted back to me where he got rewarded generously. I have since used it on multiple occasions during initial greetings as well as during play dates when I feel like a Time-Out would be a good thing just to give everyone a chance to catch their breath.
So... teach your pup a solid Out command and then use it during lots of circumstances like I have - and include it in his play with his friends. Calling him out of active play is a great indicator that he is able to still hear you and regain his composure.
The other thing I would reiterate from my initial response is the 3-second greeting. And I will revise it to be literally 2 seconds (one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, "Fido, let's go!!!"). The reason for this is that for a lot of dogs, that first 2 seconds is greeting and gathering information, and then at 2.2 seconds, one dog decides the other is too much in their face and so becomes defensive, and that's when we get the scuffle.
So if you are going to allow an on-leash greeting, be diligent. It should be no more than 2 seconds and then separate them cheerily. Then, if everyone wants to, you can repeat that (again 2 seconds and then separate). Then you can feel it out and see if you want to do a 5 second interaction.... You will find the hardest part of this is to remember to count from the moment the dogs are near each other. I find I get caught up watching and observing and I forget to count. Practice 2 seconds with a stopwatch or the second hand on your watch until you have a good feel of exactly how SHORT 2 seconds really is. This will help you feel it and help your dog away in a timely fashion as he learns a slightly better greeting style - if you decide to try greetings.
Please do followup in a few weeks and let me know how it's going.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine