Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Socially Challenged Dog

One of the best things about having a dog is having someone to share long walks in the park or fun trips to the nearest pet store with. It's nice to be able to get out of the house and take your pet with you. For many people, this is as simple as getting up, clipping on a leash, and going. For others, it's a little (or even a lot) more difficult. A lot of dog parents are in the unfortunate position of worrying about how their pet is going to react in the event that another dog shows up.

The fact is that every dog has its own personality. While your pet's ability to "play nice" can be heavily influenced by outside factors (such as proper training and socialization) it's not too uncommon for a dog to be born a little antisocial. There are even dogs that are selectively social and tend to bond more quickly with other canines of a certain breed, size, activity level, or play style. These dogs tend to prefer friends who have a lot in common with themselves.

A good example of this is my border collie mix, Cricket. Cricket is a great dog who really enjoys playtime with other canines. Unfortunately, she doesn't understand that not every dog comprehends or appreciates her weird and overly intense version of "herding dog" play. I can't be certain if her problem is purely lack of socialization during her first several months of life (I adopted her at the awkward age of around nine months old) or if it's just bad luck with genetics. Being part border collie, she has a drive and intensity that comes out 100% during play time, and few dogs have what it takes to match (or understand) this. Her favorite pal to this day is a friend and fellow trainer's border collie mix, Bosco. Add one part huge field, one part Bosco, a sprinkle of Cricket, and you have a tranquil and happy scene of synchronized dog-running that could bring a tear to any animal lover's eye.

On the other hand, you could get the very opposite of that scene by adding a smaller dog (or larger dog that is not of a herding variety), a Cricket, and about ten seconds. While her goal is not to harm the other animal, she really does not know how to handle herself in a way that would convince another dog of the same. Cricket definitely falls into the category of  "socially challenged."

Your dog may or may not sound similar. Adverse reactions to other dogs can manifest in a lot of different ways. Some dogs appear to be very aggressive (or actually are aggressive) while others only show fear. Owners of the obviously fearful dogs aren't usually the ones who complain unless said fear is nearly paralyzing. In a lot of cases, I've seen this type of fear present in a way that portrays the dog as extremely obedient despite the pet never being specifically trained. These dogs not only stay by their owner's side no matter what, but would be a mental and emotional mess if their person left their sight for even a few seconds. While this is often easier to manage than a fearful dog who becomes defensive, it does indicate an extremely high level of insecurity and anxiety. If handled incorrectly (by repeatedly forcing the dog into uncomfortable situations) it could even lead to more aggressive displays.

Cricket, Sugar (foster dog), and Obi
Whether your dog is randomly lashing out at other dogs, shaking in obvious fear, or attaching itself to your hip at every moment, the steps you take to fix the problem are pretty much the same. The points below won't change your dog's genetic makeup and can't necessarily change his preference for certain types of other dogs (after all, even I prefer people who have at least a little something in common with me) but they will help you attain control over the situation. Without these practices, Cricket would be our only dog and fostering dogs would have been out of the question.
  • Teach your dog that eye contact is very rewarding. Spend time throughout the day clicking (or saying Yes!) and then treating for eye contact. Once your dog is offering eye contact frequently you can add a cue such as "Look at me!" Don't skimp on the rewards for this one, it will be a lifesaver. If your dog is paying attention to you, he's far less likely to get into trouble.
  • Once your dog is great at giving eye contact on cue, start planning practice sessions with other dogs. Don't go into this blindly! A dog training class is a good example of a nice controlled environment for practice. Just be sure the trainer doesn't try to convince you to simply suppress the symptoms by using leash jerks or other physical corrections (think prong collars, choke chains, squirt bottles or shock collars). We want your dog to actually enjoy being around other dogs. At the very least, we want your pet to be calm and in control, never going into a frenzy. Dogs should be on leash during all practices, but try to avoid a lot of tension in the leash. If your dog is heavily pulling, you'll need to also incorporate teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash into your sessions. Tension in the leash is a very common trigger for reactive dogs.
  • If possible, have someone with a calm, well-socialized dog help you out with practice times outside of class. Don't start off by practicing with dogs that are so hyper that your dog doesn't stand a chance at remaining calm around them. Their excitement and energy will only serve to get (and keep) your own dog worked up. He will never have the opportunity to "get it right." 
  • Keep your distance!! This one is tough and requires a keen eye for your dog's body language and cues. This is even more difficult if your dog is one who is fearful and hides behind you as opposed to offering more obvious "I've had enough" signals. Your goal here is to find a comfortable distance to work from and stay there for now. Don't rush into another dog's space if that is going to trigger a bad reaction from your own pet. Find a good distance where your dog doesn't get too heavily distracted by the other pup and start by working in that zone only.
  • Immediately reward for eye contact and any other calm behaviors. If he is looking at or otherwise interacting with you instead of getting wrapped up in the presence of other animals, then he deserves a reward. Even if he's just standing beside you as if he couldn't care less about any other creature he's doing a fantastic job. This is also a great time to practice other behaviors such as sit, down, or loose leash walking so that both of you are paying less attention to the other dogs in the area. Just be mindful of the distance that needs to be kept between you and everyone else.
  • It may take a while for you to start catching on to the more subtle signals that your dog is starting to get too worked up, but watch him carefully and you'll learn. The sooner you learn to remove him before the reactivity starts, the sooner he'll learn self control. Some of the signs that I see people miss most often are lip licking and stiffness or tension. If your dog starts licking his lips he could be getting overly nervous or excited and you need to immediately attain eye contact then start increasing distance from the other dog. If your dog goes still/stiff/tense the same rule applies. A very tense body is often the precursor to full-on barking and lunging so the best course of action is to get your dog's attention in an upbeat and happy (but quiet and controlled!) manner. If you do this correctly, your dog won't even care if the dog across the room said something bad about his mom... all he knows is that you've become more interesting and are giving clear, comfortable signals. If asking for eye contact doesn't work right away, move right on to walking your dog away from the situation, then try for eye contact again once you've reached a comfortable distance. Don't waste your time yelling and scolding or you'll quickly teach your dog to simply ignore all of your confusing nagging.
  • As with any other training, you'll want to increase difficulty as your dog improves. Over time you can close in on the distance from the other dog and even add dogs that are less mellow. Just remember to always go back to making things easy from time to time. Continuously upping the bar tends to lead most dogs into regression. If the effort is always on the brink of "too much" they will give up. This should be a positive experience and that means that it shouldn't always be extremely difficult. Set your dog up for success, not failure. As mentioned earlier, repetition of any behavior is the key to seeing that behavior happen more consistently. If your dog is repeatedly "getting it wrong" then you need to look at ways to make practice sessions easier so that getting it right becomes a habit that he eventually won't even have to think about. 
  • When increasing difficulty by walking closer to another dog, make sure to keep it very brief. Don't get into another dog's space (even within several feet) and linger there. Practice casually walking by and rewarding your dog for eye contact and calm behavior as you move along. Always return to a comfortable distance from other animals. 
  •  In the beginning stages, avoid allowing your dog to play with new dogs. The goal is for him to learn and practice self control. If he has a habit of becoming overly excited and going into barking or lunging fits, then allowing play too early could overstimulate him into losing the self control he's gained so far. 
  • Did I mention that you should reward for eye contact and any other calm behaviors? Use high-value treats to ensure that your dog has more reason to pay attention to you than the dogs insulting him from across the room.  

Something else to keep in mind is that this particular issue often involves a lot of variables from one dog to the next. Certain dogs can be much harder for yours to "read" due to docked tails or cropped ears (the ears and tail are vital in dog-to-dog communication). Some dogs have play styles that really just don't mesh and come off as far too intense and scary. Herding dogs may want to chase while other types prefer tackling each other like football players. Insecurities or possessiveness can also turn what seems like a fun play session into a furry ball of teeth and tension. It is very possible that even once you gain control over your dog around others, you'll still have to be very picky about who he actually has play dates with. This is okay! Not everyone is going to love everyone and your dog is no exception to this rule. It might also help to note that most dog fights, despite how loud and scary they appear, do not result in serious injury to either party. If you do find yourself in the middle of what seems like a brawl, don't dive in to pull the dog apart. Try loud, startling noises instead. Keeping an air horn handy isn't a bad idea if you want to play it extra safe.

It is very important to both you and your pet that you feel confident in your understanding and handling of these types of situations. If you are unsure or your dog is aggressive in a way that you feel might lead to harm of yourself, another person or another animal, make sure to enlist the help of a professional trainer. I do have to reiterate how important it is to find someone who won't resort to harsh physical corrections as this will only lead to making the problem worse in the long run. We want our dogs to learn how to properly behave in these situations, not how to reluctantly suppress the anxiety/aggression just enough to avoid a painful correction. Being on the brink of an emotional meltdown is not exactly exhibiting the self control and calmness that we are aiming for. Make sure your trainer understands this and doesn't simply opt for the "easy" way out. The cue for your dog to behave should never be a jerk from a leash or an angry flurry of curse words. It should be the situation itself.

If you have any questions on this subject feel free to leave me a comment or send me an email:


  1. Great post! I honestly wish Skye fell into this category, as I've had lots of success helping dogs through fear. Skye is very socially awkward but also overly confident. When she hits it off with dogs it is picture perfect, but if there isn't an instant click then the barking starts. We've been working on her barking at dogs for almost 2 years and there has been a lot of improvement in my eyes, but it's hard to convey that to the owner of the other dog. One step at a time, but I've found that over confidence or aggression is much harder to work with than fear.

  2. Thanks! I can definitely agree there. Cricket is on the overconfident side for sure (at least when it comes to dogs smaller than her). It has taken a *lot* of practice on keeping her focus to manage the problem and she still isn't (and may never be) to the point where I would let her off leash to play with a small dog. But at least it's not an out of control situation by any means. Good luck with Skye!