With summer now creeping up, I receive more and more calls about dogs that are dog-dog reactive. Yes, I said reactive, not aggressive. The truth is most of the dogs I see are not truly dog-dog aggressive. What is the difference? A dog-dog reactive dog is given a job they don’t want or put in a situation where they are forced to take control or correct another dog. A truly dog-dog aggressive dog will break skin on just about every bite they deliver. They will bite, hold, and sometimes shake the other dog if they get close enough. Most cases, the other dog will not even need to be close for the aggressive dog to start their attack. In these cases, a truly dog-dog aggressive dog will typically turn to bite an owner in their excited state. Their attacks are full out lunges with hair raised on their shoulder/neck region, full teeth bared, and a deep growling bark.
A reactive dog will sometimes show an anxious state; they may try to run or avoid the other dog, or they may only bite at another dog if it gets close. You may see a reactive dog start barking or lunging at another dog without them being too close, but their so-called attack is much different. A reactive dog will start barking in a higher pitch, not a deep guttural sound; their hair will be raised all the way down their backs or in a split Mohawk style (up on their neck and rump only, nothing in the middle). They will generally be shaking, pacing, and delivering rapid short barks. Some of my owners call it the “nervous breakdown” look. They are right, these dogs are so nervous about a dog coming close to them that they set themselves into a frenzy to avoid contact.
So how do you help your dog-dog reactive dog become more social? Not by going to a dog park and throwing them to the “wolves” so to speak. Nor should you invite a bigger dog over to put them in their place as so many trainers have suggested to people. That is just a cruel way of showing you do not have the leadership skills to protect them.
First and foremost, you should hire a behaviorist that can truly tell you if your dog is aggressive or just reactive. Once you determine this, it will be easier to rehabilitate them. A truly, aggressive dog should only be handled by an experienced behaviorist. If they suggest letting another dog teach them a lesson, find another professional, period. If your dog is reactive and it is determined that they are acting on defense, it is your job to take the leader position of controlling greets and properly socializing them.
Proper Social Skills
As the weather gets warmer and the days get longer, more and more people are going to the dog parks for social skills and exercise. While some dogs fair well at dog parks, if your dog is reactive, this could make matters worse. So many people humanize their dogs but we don’t think about how we would react in the same scene. So lets try to see it from our view.
You have been locked up in an office all day and your friends decide to go out to a bar to “socialize”. You walk into a bar and someone you haven’t seen in years comes running up to you. You know who they are because you can see them and recognize them. They come over get right in your face to talk to you. They then grab you in a hug and hold on for more then 2 seconds. They continue to hold you in the hug for a long period of time making you feel very uncomfortable. You try to move or push them away and they get offended. So now a verbal argument starts, some pushing and shoving, loud yelling, and finally a full out fight. What a great way to socialize right?
This is what happens when we bring our dogs to a dog park. One of the dogs (if not all of them) inevitably will rush you and your dog at the gate, get up in their face, possibly try to hug/mount them, stay in their face, or sniff their rear end for what seems like forever then start yelling/barking at them for not accepting their greet. If we want to humanize our dogs, you must think about what you subject them to that would bother you.
When you go to a bar to socialize with your friends, you do not wrestle or fist fight with them, grabbing them by their heads, and giving them noogies. (This is the equivalent of two dogs biting each other, boxing, and mounting.) You sit down and relax talking about the day and just enjoy their company. If you go to a outdoor picnic or party, you may play some sports like Frisbee or softball, (chase in the dogs world) but you do not constantly try to make the other party goers feel weaker then you by flexing your muscles and throwing them to the ground. (In the dog world, standing over another dog and rolling them for not submitting.) So I ask you why would you subject your dog to this and think it is all in good fun????
The best way to socialize dogs is to walk them together in a controlled manner and eventually just sit down and relax. Yes dogs like to chase and this is good play, but if you see your dog getting mouthed or bullied, you must step in! Just walking together without worry that the other dog will get out of line, will make a tremendous difference in your dog. You have to be in control of the dogs if you expect your dog not to correct bad behavior. Again if someone got in your face or started punching you in your arm, you would defend yourself, correct? Then why do you think your dog will not correct rude behavior? A corrective bite in the dog world is very quick and it usually comes after a verbal warning. It normally does not break skin but it can be quite startling for us humans. Before you reprimand your dog for reacting, make sure you are paying attention to the entire scene.
Remember, a true leader is always calm, confident, and fair. Protect your dog from situations you would not want to be in either.