The “Kick Me” Sign

Years ago, when I worked at a doggy daycare center, I noticed that some dogs were picked on much more so than others. The normal protocol whenever a new dog entered the facility was for those already inside to rush over to the gate and check out the new arrival. They’d sniff and maybe jump on the new dog or invite him to play—it could be overwhelming, for the newcomer, but the group soon dispersed. But when certain dogs would enter, it was different; the meet and greet would be more tense, and would sometimes result in the dog being bullied or even attacked. There seemed to be no consistency regarding which dogs this happened to as far as breed, size, color, or other easily discernable characteristics. The one constant was that these dogs were relentlessly bullied by the others, as though they were wearing a “Kick me” sign.

You might be thinking, Well, of course there was a reason—it was the body language the targeted dogs were displaying. That makes perfect sense, and in some cases the incoming dog’s body language did seem to elicit the bullying behavior. But with some dogs, even to someone accustomed to noticing the minutiae of canine communication and body language, it was impossible to discern anything specific they were doing. They didn’t appear insecure or submissive; they didn’t avoid the other dogs; it really was an interesting phenomenon, and of course, the staff always felt a bit sorry for them.

The scenario makes me think of kids who are constantly bullied at school. Often those kids start out in homes where they don’t receive much parental support, and so they grow up feeling insecure and unsure of themselves. Even if they don’t do anything specific to broadcast that fact, other kids pick up on it and treat the child differently. I believe it’s the same with dogs. If you believe that dogs can pick up “bad vibes” from dogs who are truly dangerous—and I certainly do—then why not feelings of insecurity? There are certain dogs I see other dogs give a wide berth at the park, even though that dog has never done a single thing as far as I can tell to make them wary. It’s not hard to believe that certain dogs seem to invite bullying by their “insecure vibes.” So perhaps either there are signals so minute that humans don’t normally pick up on them with the naked eye (perhaps we would if reviewing video footage), or they just broadcast a certain type of vibe to other dogs. Your thoughts?

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16 Responses to The “Kick Me” Sign

  1. Michelle says:

    I have one of these dogs. I don’t take her to dog parks anymore, but when I did she was either completely ignored or picked on by the group (just as you describe with the dog daycare).

    I’ve often commented that when I watch her in a small group of dogs she reminds me of that poor kid at school who wanted so desperately to join in, but was never included. When two dogs play a game of chase for example, she sort of runs along behind them with a hopeful look, but is soon left behind – dejected (or at least it seems to me!). She is an insecure dog, but when one on one plays quite well with others, so it’s not that she doesn’t have the social skills. I think she just gives off a vibe that makes her an easy target – just as some kids do. They don’t quite fit in and others pick up on it, especially when in a group of like minded friends who can gang up and bully.

  2. Cheng See says:

    Agree Nicole, maybe it’s a body language that is not noticeable to even an experience dog person , but notice by other dogs. Would be interesting if there is a video footage to view. Maybe something from their eyes (a zoom in of the video) perhaps ? Or maybe their vibes as you say…something that goes on in the dogs mind on its way to his or her first day at the centre. A sort of negative thought that is pick up by the other dogs?

  3. Perhaps with dogs there is a non-visual cue. Maybe a scent, pheromone or something else that us humans aren’t aware of. I think with the dogs we are hung up on the body language because its something we can perceive. I think in this context we need to focus on what the dog senses that we don’t. With humans and bullying, its almost always body language. In human self defense classes, we teach certain postures that are predatory rather then prey type postures and behaviors. If a human has a prey type posture and/or behavior its likely to be a target.

    • Cheng See says:

      Agree withDave . Could be a scent…

    • Tegan says:

      I agree. Working in boarding kennels, I used to see ‘kick me’ dogs too. Sometimes we could get these dogs to mix with one other dog, but often they didn’t do well in the group. I think there’s probably a non-visual cue that the dogs are perceiving because, as Nicole noted, it seems to be consistently the same dogs that get picked on.

  4. Susan says:

    I’ve also experienced the exact opposite. I had a foster dog once who appeared just like a regular guy. He was terrified of thunderstorms (to the point of squeezing his 95 lb body into a 36 inch wire crate that then had to be disassembled to extricate him), but was otherwise a kind and gentle soul. I never heard him bark, despite having him for about 6 months. I never saw him posture, growl or even give a hard stare to any of the other dogs in the house.

    YET, if he placed a toy in or near his bed not a single other dog in my house would go near that toy. If he was laying on the sofa, they chose somewhere else to lay down. They always walked beside him as though he was the greatest king on the planet and treated him with only kindness, deference and respect — even my dog-reactive resident dog.

    To this day, I have not been able to figure out what that dog had that no other dog in my home has had.

  5. Rayna says:

    I have seen this behavior as well. Dogs do sense a weakness in others. What is seen as bullying, I see as an attempt to run off, get rid off, the weak member. As much as we love our dogs, we still have to see them as animals. In wild packs, a weak member is usually run off or even killed. The weaker members are not confident to hunt or defend and by feeding them, it takes away from an important member. Since our dogs still retain a lot of those pack tendencies, behavior like this is not uncommon.

  6. Susan says:

    I have also had the exact opposite situation. I had a foster dog once that seemed to be just a regular guy. He was terrified of thunderstorms (to the point of squeezing his 95 lb body into a 36 inch wire crate that had to be disassembled to extricate him after the storm passed), but was otherwise a kind and gentle soul. I never heard him bark, even though I had him for 6 months. I never saw him posture, growl, lip curl or hard stare.

    YET, if he placed a toy in or near his bed not a single other dog in the house would go near that toy. If he was sleeping on the sofa, they all chose to lay elsewhere. They walked beside him like he was the king of all kings and treated him with deference and kindness, never once snarking, growling or staring, even my dog-reactive resident dog.

    To this day, I have not been able to figure out what that dog had that no other dog in my home has ever had.

  7. andie ruddy says:

    I agree there is a lot of canine communication going on that we don’t perceive both with posture and scent. When the signs are invisible and there is really no clue as to why a dog is being bullied I have often wondered if there is perhaps something going on medically or chemically (mentally) with the dog that is giving of a different scent.

  8. Jen says:

    I am concerned that you seem to make a connection between insecurity in people and dogs, and then state that certain dogs “invite bullying,” thus leaving the reader to wonder whether you feel children are also “inviting bullying.” As a licensed mental health professional and a dog handler and trainer for the past 20 years, I can state with confidence that while some children (and dogs) have co-occurring insecurity and bullying issues, this is not true across the board and certainly no child “invites” bullying. Please be sure you are not endorsing such behavior (in either species) by making it the fault of the victim.

  9. Anne Lee says:

    To my disappointment years ago all the dogs were picking on this poor Boxer at the dog park including my dog who got along with all dogs. After I corrected my dog I called out who’s dog is this? Your dog is being picked on. No one answered.
    Years later after taking dog training I met another of these dogs that get picked on at the shelter I volunteer at. I taught her calming signals. Look away when you see another dog, don’t walk directly up to a dog etc. I think it helped. Not sure. Maybe it shows confidence? She got adopted very soon after so can’t prove my theory.

  10. Ashley says:

    I used to notice this all the time when I worked at daycares …. Maybe its a pheromone thing … I know usually its a sexual attractant thing but maybe its an unconscious scent that both humans and dogs give off and something in our and thirty brains pick up ….

  11. Hi Nicole – I have a “kick me” dog. My younger Rotty is always being picked on and as a study of K9 Body Language I have never been able to fathom why.
    We will be walking both dogs and they will always target the younger one, leaping on him, not being at all friendly – even so called “friendly breeds” such as a labrador have just exploded out on no where and attacked him.
    Yes Chevy is a an anxious dog, even scared of his own bark sometimes, and out Cat even targets him. Any given thing could frighten him. He usually likes going for walk, I find late evening early night time is better as there generally isn’t any dogs around being walked or even barking at him through fences. He is clearly much more relaxed at those times than if I walk him during the day.
    As he has been attacked a number of times now, if I walk him during daylight hours he is clearly much more tense and you can visably see him walking on his toes, watching out for other dogs that might attack him.
    His relaxed walk is a very droopy, almost slovenly, sometimes you can even hear his nails scraping on the path occassionally.
    Recently whilst walking both dogs (the older one was in his doggie cart to assit with walking due to a very arthritic spine), as we passed our neighbours fence, their Boxer was going crazy and only following Chevy along the fence line!
    Chevy really does like to interact with other dogs but not out in public and I have to assure him when we are in private that he is not going to be hurt.

  12. D. Sakurai says:

    My male akita is sort of a “kick me” dog. He seems to agitate neighborhood dogs when he walks by them and other dogs always try to mount him. He is a rescued dog that has always lived in multi-dog households (unusual for the breed) and has a lot of fear issues. The only body language I notice is that he keeps his head down low and he is very nervous around unfamiliar dogs (avoids direct eye contact, lots of calming signals). However, he gets along with dogs (regardless of gender) he has met several times and is not one to initiate aggression. I have seen my female dogs take food away from him and he does not do anything about it. One time my shiba just gave him a look and he dropped the food out of his mouth.

  13. Matthew says:

    I wonder if there is a smell that goes with fear/insecurity that the dogs are picking up on?

  14. wildewmn says:

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I would love to see research done on canine behavior in reaction to the pheromones emitted by other dogs. If you believe that the DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) products work to calm dogs, certainly dogs to react to this type of olfactory input.

    There is also an “aura” that both people and dogs have that others react to, and I wonder about the role that plays as well. Dogs certainly pick up on the nervous energy of their humans, and even though other dogs may not be acting anxious in a way we can perceive, other dogs might be picking up on that nervous energy.

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