Proper Social Skills with Dogs

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.

Learning your dog’s body language: Targeting



  Many people misread their dog’s body language; I see it on a daily basis.  I have clients that come to me because their dog is “friendly” one second and biting the next.  The problem here in most cases, is that we are reading their body language incorrectly.  My clients see a wagging tail and think their dogs are happy and playful, I see a whole different scenario. 

  In an attempt to explain their body language, I have posted some photos of what you need to look out for.  I will explain in detail, the body language you are seeing in the following pictures as well as what you are not seeing.

  The first set of pictures here are an example of targeting from a rescue we rehabilitated and adopted out.

Relaxed Targeting


Picture 1. Relaxed Targeting:

  Here his body is relaxed; notice his top line is slightly curved down.  He does not display any tightness in his body at all and if you were to touch him, he would be very “soft”, meaning he would move into your touch and you could move him easily with almost no force.  His legs are not braced or squared off; meaning they are relaxed with the toes pointing out.  He is also not “puffing up” or putting his chest out.  You could move him by simply touching him. His ears are relaxed but slightly forward, not forced forward.

 Another sign that he is relaxed is that he is panting.  If he were stressed and panting, his tongue would be wide at the end and hanging long.  Notice his tail is level to his body; at the time of this picture, it had been wagging in a sweeping motion.  The tail can tell you a lot about your dogs’ mood.  A level or low sweeping tail is a happy tail! A rapidly wagging tail is a nervous dog and just the tip of the tail wagging means something is about to happen! Here his head is not tilted downward and he is almost carefree in his look.  This is a typical stance of a dog that is showing interest in something.   

Extreme targeting



Picture 2. Extreme Targeting:

  Now here, notice how tight his body looks!  His top line has gone from relaxed to straight. His body is so tense you would really have to try hard to move him and if you touched him, he would feel very “hard”; meaning his muscles are tightened.  His legs are now braced and squared off.  Notice how his front legs are together and facing forward, and his back legs are almost straight and no longer bent at the knee.  He is now leaning into his front end and “puffing up”.  His mouth is now closed and his head is tilted down. I call this the angry professor look!  You all know what I mean. You’re in class and you are talking, you look up and there is the professor looking over his glasses at you. This is a clear example of a hard target, his head is pointing down and he is looking straight down his nose. His ears are now forced forward.  Many people have a hard time telling the difference between ears that are forced forward and relaxed forward.  Look closely at the two pictures.  In picture one, they almost look like they are facing outward.  Here they are pushed forward all the way. In this picture, his tail is tightly held up and not wagging.  If the picture had been taken from the front, you would notice slight forehead wrinkles.  In some dogs, these wrinkles are very pronounced during a target. 

 Picture two is a typical stance prior to lunge. This dog happened to be extremely dog-dog aggressive. Two seconds after this stance, he had an explosive reaction towards the dog on the other side of the fence.

  Some dogs will also raise the hair on their back.  This is very important to pay attention to.  If your dog’s hair only stands up on their neck and shoulders, this is a threatening manner.  If, however, their hair is raised all the way down their back, this is a fearful manner.

  I have had people insist their dog is “mean” when they are approached by another dog.  They tell me their hair stands up and they bare their teeth or snap at the other dog.  When I ask them where the hair stands up on the dog, they generally tell me from nose to tail. I then ask how the other dog approached.  The normal answer is the other dog rushed in and greeted face to face.  Their dog was not being “mean” but acting out of defense fight drive.  They were fearful of the rude approach and tried to protect themselves. 

  Dogs have different drives that they act on.  In defense, they have fight or flight.  If your dog is on leash and they are fearful of another dog, they cannot go into defense flight and run away.  This means if they feel unprotected by their owner, they will resort to defense fight to protect themselves. Correcting a dog that is fearful and soft, can be a big mistake and usually advances the aggression.

  If your having trouble with dog-dog aggression, please contact a behaviorist. Make sure they understand body language, the level of different drives, and how to change drives in your dog.  Every dog is different, but they all share the same drives.  Understanding their body language and which drive is higher in your dog, will help make rehabilitation more effective.   



Tara, Brandie, Amanda & the “Pack”