Is Your Dog’s Play Too Rough?

October 9, 2018

2 snarls smallAs some of you might know, in each issue of Modern Dog Magazine I write either an article or an answer to a behavioral question a reader has sent in. The most recent query came from a woman who was concerned that her dog became over-excited and played too roughly with other dogs at the park. She wanted to know how she could get him to play more nicely. After responding that I’m not a fan of dog parks but that I did respect her concern for other people and their dogs, I wrote what follows. I’m reprinting it in my blog because I thought it might be of interest to some of you. I’d also suggest checking out the magazine, as it’s excellent! By the way, please note that play between dog friends and those who live together may be rougher without being problematic, as they understand each other’s signals and body language well and know how far they can go. This article deals with watching your dog play with unfamiliar or casual acquaintance dogs.

Dogs have different play styles depending on their breed, age, and other factors, but still, they generally understand each other’s body language. The first step in getting your dog to play nicely with others is for you to become very familiar with canine body language so that you can notice when tensions are first starting to build. When I was filming at my local dog park for my DVD Dissecting the Dynamics of Dog-Dog Play, I was able, by editing hundreds of hours of footage of dogs interacting, to break things down into body language and signals that play was becoming too rough or overwhelming. Allow me to share some of these elements.

When dogs are romping happily together, their bodies are like limp noodles. Tails may wag in loose arcs, and mouths may hang open. When a dog becomes tense, his body stiffens. In play, although the tail is wagging, it may be held high and be moving stiffly from side to side (this can indicate confidence or dominance), be lowered and moving quickly back and forth within a small radius (possible nervousness or anxiety), or even be tucked between the dog’s legs (usually fear). When a dog’s body goes stiff and that “happy mouth” closes—he may be staring at another dog or taking offense to something a dog is doing as this happens—this is called a “freeze.” Momentary though it maybe, this important mini-pause gives a dog time to assess the situation before him. Does he need to run away? Should he fight? Or is everything okay, and everyone can go back to what they were doing? Depending on the potential threat, the dog will make his decision. Watch for freezes in your dog and others, along with the other body language mentioned. There is much, much more to watch for, but these will get you started.

As far as the play itself, one thing to be wary of is speed and intensity. It is a lot easier for play to boil over into aggression when things are becoming fast and furious. Are the dogs racing around the park? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but monitor them to ensure that all the adrenaline-fueled excitement doesn’t turn into aggression. The more dogs that are involved, the more potential danger. Also, the more vertical the play gets, especially where dogs are standing on their hind legs and mouth wrestling, the more potential for danger. And, watch for actions dogs may take offense to. A few to watch for are humping, hip bumping or slamming, and placing a head over another dog’s neck or shoulder area.

If you notice that your dog is becoming overexcited or playing too roughly, or that other owners are becoming concerned, create an enforced break in the action by calling your dog to you. If he does not have a solid recall to the point that he will come to you even when playing with another dog, that’s okay; this is a very high-distraction scenario! Practice at home first, then work outdoors, gradually adding distractions as your dog is successful. Don’t forget to reward him every time! You can also practice recalls when the dog park is empty so that your dog will become accustomed to coming when called there (just don’t use food if other dogs are in the park). If you do create an enforced play break, it needn’t be long, just long enough for your dog and others to calm down. If things have escalated to the point where it looks as though there may be an actual fight, call your dog to you or, if he doesn’t yet have a solid recall, calmly walk over and take hold of him. Then leash him and leave the park. Careful monitoring and listening to your instincts will go a long way in allowing everyone to have fun while staying safe.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs & more here, and my artwork here. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.


Mamas, Don’t Let Your Puppies Grow Up to be Bullies

September 17, 2018

dog bully pixabayThis morning, I saw a beautiful 8-month-old pit bull lying on his back. Was he waiting for tummy rubs? Taking a sunbath? Nope. He was lying there, afraid to move lest the three dogs who were bullying him start in on him again. The pit’s owner kept telling him to get up, but I could see that he was afraid. I said something nicely to the owner of the bullies, and then separately went and spoke to the owner of the pit bull. I commented on how handsome the dog was (really, he was) and mentioned that the dog didn’t look like he was having much fun. We chatted a bit and I explained that once the teenager became an adult he might not roll over so easily, and might well fight back instead. And that, unfortunately, does not often end well for pit bulls, regardless of whose fault a fight is.

I wish this incident were unusual, but it’s not. I see dogs being bullied by other dogs all the time. Some owners stand there, chatting away, completely oblivious to their dogs’ behavior. Others explain it away, saying things like, “Oh, they’re only playing” or “Dogs will be dogs.” I’ve even seen one owner laugh about his dog humping another, saying, “That’s his wrestling move.” Know what? It’s not funny, and it’s not okay. Sure, humping can be part of play and if the humpee doesn’t mind, fine. But if he clearly does mind, that’s when the line has been crossed from rough, dominant play to bullying. If a dog is lying there for a prolonged time, afraid to get up, that’s no longer play. That type of interaction can be dangerous, either in the moment if the bullied dog decides he’s had enough, or in the future, when the bullied dog matures, and is decides he’s simply not going to take it anymore. It is true that some dogs stay submissive all their lives, and never retaliate or stand up for themselves. Does that excuse bullying? Nope. It just means that poor dog is in for a lifetime of it.

Not everyone is aware of the intricacies of canine body language and behavior, but I think we’re all pretty clear on when a dog is being steamrolled by others, especially when it’s happening repeatedly or non-stop. The dogs aren’t likely to stop the interaction; it’s up to the owners to intercede. Even at home, having one dog who bullies another constantly is very likely to lead to the bullied dog going out and doing the exact same thing to others. It’s just one more reason to—sing it with me now—don’t let your puppies grow up to be bullies.
You can find my books (including my latest Keeping the Peace) and seminar DVDs at, and my artwork at You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Of Hanging Dogs and Unheeded Advice

September 7, 2018

penny smallThis morning, I saw a man hang his dog. Granted, the dog was wearing a body harness, but it was still disturbing to see the four small, white paws flailing four feet off the ground as the dog thrashed and snarled. We’ve passed this man and his two dogs a number of times on recent morning walks, and each time, one dog remains non-reactive while the other lunges, barks, snarls, and does everything but perform a 360-degree head turn while spitting green pea soup.

I normally say nothing to man, long ago having decided not to interfere with other people’s dogs unless it’s truly warranted. Besides, I want to enjoy my time with my own dogs. But it’s awfully hard to enjoy oneself when seeing a dog hanging, body harness or not. I forced a smile, stopped, and the man stopped a few feet away. The dog, back on the ground, continued to bark at the top of his little lungs. “I know a good trainer you could call if you’d like some help,” I said, smiling and using my most pleasant tone of voice while straining to be heard over the cacophony of barks. “What?” he yelled. I repeated myself. When he finally understood, he snapped, “Are you pay? You pay? Why you annoy me?!!” I said calmly that I wasn’t trying to annoy him, that I was trying to help. “I have her only three weeks!” he shouted, and stormed off, dragging the dog behind him.

While I don’t appreciate being snapped at, I actually felt bad for the little dog and also for the man. I’m sure he was overwhelmed by this new dog who, unlike his other well-behaved fluffball, seemed to want to attack every dog he encountered. I’m sure he had no idea how to handle it, as evidenced by the fact that in addition to having seen him hang the dog, I’ve seen him at other times pull the dog back and yell at it repeatedly, and pick it up and all but shake it while loudly reprimanding it. Those things, along with today’s hanging, were what had finally led me to say something. Maybe the man really can’t afford training, and I understand that. But he must either believe that the techniques he’s using will teach the dog not to react, or, like so many, believe that the behavior will somehow improve by itself over time. I hope he’s right about the latter, but am not hopeful. Considering that he’s teaching the dog that bad things happen when he sees other dogs, chances are it will make the reactivity worse, not better.

The unfortunate truth is that many people believe that if they simply expose a dog to a trigger over and over, the dog will eventually stop reacting to it. Sometimes, it does actually work. But most of the time, it makes the behavior worse and can also cause problems for other dogs and owners in places like dog parks and on hiking trails. It makes me sad to think of that little dog, and I’ll certainly be steering clear of him for his own sake. I hope that somehow, although the man became defensive when we spoke, that a seed was planted and he might consider training in the future.
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Who Wants an Aggressive Dog?

August 30, 2018

cartoon bulldog aggressive pixabayI ran into a friend at the park this morning. After greeting each other’s dogs, and then each other (the proper order, of course), we got to talking about—what else—dogs. Our conversation began with a mention of one of the regulars whose dog is known to be aggressive toward other dogs. The topic then turned to breed genetics, and my friend told me a story that floored me. A friend of his had gotten a dog years ago. It was a pure pit bull, and he’d purchased it from a breeder who bred a specific line that was known to be aggressive. At this point, I had to interrupt. Why, I asked, would anyone purposely breed aggressive pit bulls? “Because that’s what people want,” he answered. That floored me, and angered me on many levels, starting with the fact that as a breed, the last thing pits need is more bad PR.

The man who’d bought the dog believed that if he raised it with enough love and kindness, aggression would not be an issue. (Why he bought the dog from that “breeder” in the first place is a mystery.) Can you guess what happened? Despite doing lots of socialization and training, and giving the dog plenty of affection and attention, the dog mauled him, causing extensive damage to his arm. The dog ended up being euthanized.

Why is anyone purposely breeding aggressive pit bulls? And who is knowingly buying them? I suppose buyers include those who are looking to fight dogs (a group who deserve their own special circle of hell). Then there are those who want to use the dogs to guard drugs; here in L.A., we have what are referred to as “bandogs,” which are usually aggressive, territorial, pit-mastiff mixes used for this purpose. And then there are always young, wanna-be macho men with TMT (Too Much Testosterone). But beyond those groups, some people truly don’t understand the difference between “aggressive” and “protective.” It’s not uncommon for someone to want a dog that will be territorial of their home should someone try to break in, or to be protective if they’re threatened on the street. There are dogs that are trained and sold specifically for those purposes. But they’re called “protection dogs,” not “aggression dogs.” There’s a difference. A good protection dog is not aggressive; in fact, he has a solid temperament that allows the aggressive behavior to be turned on and off with voice commands and hand signals. These are good family dogs who would never attack their owners. A truly aggressive dog, on the other hand, might go after dogs or people in ways that can be unpredictable, and can cause damage both physically and emotionally, given the fallout.

I’ve been involved in the dog rescue community for many years and don’t know of a single rescue that wants to take in an aggressive dog. Why? Because there’s not a long line of people wanting to adopt one. Again, true aggression is not what any legitimate dog owner wants. If someone does happen to adopt a dog who displays aggressive behavior, hopefully they attempt to use behavior modification techniques to alter that behavior. In the meantime, here’s to “breeders” like the one mentioned here being shut down and never allowed to have dogs again, and to educating people about the difference between aggression and being protective.
You can find my books and seminar DVDs at, and my artwork at

Cooperation Versus Coercion

July 26, 2018

Muffin LR4 edit smallI’d like you to imagine that you are a young, not-yet-verbal child who is entering a foster home. Naturally, you are a nervous about meeting your new foster parents, and wonder what life will be like. You don’t yet know what will be expected of you or how you will be treated. And since you’re not familiar with the daily household routine, you will need to be taught. On your first morning, your foster father says he’s going to take you out for a fun walk to see the neighborhood. You’re very excited! But when you run to the front door and fling it open, he scowls and pushes you away from the door. You’re surprised and a bit frightened at being handled that way. You try again, and this time the man seems very angry. He shoves you more forcefully than the first time. Now you’re truly afraid. You dare not go near the door. Instead, you wait, looking at the man, not knowing what to do. He smiles, opens the door, and gestures for you to go through. You learned a valuable lesson; don’t open the door and run out, but instead wait for the man to open it.

Now let’s imagine that instead, the man leads you to a small carpet near the front door. He gestures to you to stand there, and when you do, he smiles. He then walks to the door and begins to open it. Excited, you begin to move toward the door. He closes the door and waits. You’re momentarily surprised, but then think for a moment, and step back on the mat. The man smiles. Very quickly, you learn that waiting on the mat not only makes the man happy, but makes the door open so fun things can happen.

In both front door scenarios, you learned a lesson. However, the first method caused anxiety and trepidation, and taught you that you might need to be wary of this new stranger. In the second scenario, you learned that the man you would be living with seemed kind and patient, and behaved like someone who would show you what was expected. Of course, kids are not dogs, but the comparison of teaching with cooperation versus coercion, along with the possible fallout coercion might cause, is a legitimate one.

Among dog trainers, the concepts of cooperation and coercion are well known, and are implemented constantly. Confusingly, though, labels such as “positive trainer,” “balanced trainer” and others don’t really tell the average dog owner much about which way a trainer chooses to train, and can even be misleading. I’ve seen a self-proclaimed “positive trainer” jerk a dog so harshly that the poor dog ended up hanging off the ground by his neck. The only positive there is that owners should positively run the other way! Regardless of labels, though, any approach to training dogs is either based in cooperation or coercion. Sure, there are different forms of coercion, some much harsher than others, and many trainers only use coercion once a dog has been trained and chooses to disregard a command. But here I’m talking about when we’re first teaching dogs what we’d like them to do. A dog can be taught in a variety of ways to lie down, for example, from being lured into position with a treat to having someone stomp on his collar near the neck so his head is slammed to the ground, followed by his body. (Think that sounds awful? It’s how our group class trainer taught it when I was a kid. I was horrified.) The dog ends up lying down either way, but showing the dog what’s expected first, rather than using harsh physical force, is much more pleasant for everyone and builds trust rather than causing mistrust and fear. And what about things like leash walking where the dog isn’t given any instructions at all, but is simply jerked every time he makes a mistake? It would be like me wanting you to learn a ballroom dance, but instead of teaching you the steps, I just stomp on your foot every time you make a mistake. Wanna dance? Didn’t think so.

And that, really, is at the heart of it all. Dog training shouldn’t be a battle of wills, but an ever-evolving dance of communication and cooperation. It’s the way I’ve always trained and always will, and it’s what is kindest to the dog. Either way, the dog will learn; but what else the dog is learning—kindness and trust, or mistrust and fear—is even more important.
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Who Started It?

July 17, 2018

5_2147 Large guard dog.jpgThis morning, as Sierra and I were enjoying one of our local park trails, I spied a woman walking along the narrow path in our direction. Her dog was off leash, so I called out to her, “Good morning!” This was as much of a signal to put her dog on leash as it was a friendly greeting. Fortunately, she immediately leashed her dog. As we passed each other, though, her dog lunged and snarled at Sierra. The woman jerked her dog’s leash harshly and reprimanded him verbally.

“It’s okay,” I told her, “It really wasn’t his fault.”
“Of course it was,” she snapped, and continued walking.

…But was it? What I’d seen, and what perhaps the woman had missed, was that as we’d passed, Sierra had given the other dog a look that didn’t exactly say, “Halloo, me fine-furred friend. Top o’ the morning to ye!” (And when did Sierra become Irish, anyway?) If I had to guess, I’d say that look was more along the lines of, “I don’t know who you are, but don’t even think about messing with me.” That look, you see, was more of a hard stare. Normally, if I’m concerned that this type of thing might happen, I get Sierra’s attention, pass the other walker, and it’s a non-issue. This morning, blame it on a lack of sleep and a splitting headache, but I wasn’t paying as much attention. Nothing terrible happened, but I’d prefer that it hadn’t happened at all.

The thing is, hard stares are not at all uncommon. Although other dogs pick up on them immediately, they can be so fleeting that they’re easy for owners to miss. I can’t tell you how many times, as a trainer, I’ve been called to someone’s home and told that one dog was starting fights with the other, only to find that the alleged victim was giving the other dog a hard stare, to which the other dog was simply reacting. In my book Keeping the Peace, which addresses dog-dog aggression in the home, I describe a situation in which an owner believes one dog is jealous of the other, because when she sits on the couch with the second dog, the first one comes up and starts growling and barking at him. What she doesn’t see is that the dog on the couch is giving the other dog a hard stare, to which the first dog is simply responding.

Is it appropriate to respond to a hard stare with a growl or a bark? Well, let me put it this way: If you were sitting on a subway and someone were staring at you in an unfriendly way, would you be likely to smile and say, “Have a nice day!” or would you say something along the lines of, “What are you looking at?” (As for me, well, you can take the girl out of New York…) By the same token (Subway? Token? Sorry…) it’s perfectly appropriate for a dog to respond to a hard stare—essentially a threat—by doing what he feels he must to assert himself, whether that includes growling, barking, or lunging.

Most dogs are really very good at understanding the subtleties of each other’s body language. Again, it’s we humans that can easily miss mini-moments of posturing that are here and gone. But, we can make an effort to pay more attention and learn to pick up on those signals, which will in turn help us to better understand our dogs’ behavior, and to react appropriately.
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more here, and my artwork here.


The Truth About Consequences

June 5, 2018

2 dogs waiting pixabay smallI was sitting across the kitchen table from my dog training client, trying to get a word in edgewise. The woman herself wasn’t the problem; it was her two young children, who kept interrupting, yelling, and generally acting in a way that could only be described as bratty.

The woman warned them: “If you don’t stop that, you’re going to your rooms.” Still, the children carried on.
“I’m warning you. Be quiet and let me talk to the nice dog trainer lady.” Still nothing.
“That’s it, I’m counting to three. One….two….three!” And yet… the kids kept it up.
“Go on, go to your rooms.”
The kids just sat there.
“Okay, then, be quiet if you want to stay.”

Needless to say, this is not the way to establish consequences, whether with children or with dogs. And while we might not be able to tell dogs in the same way we can warn children that their behavior is about to have an unpleasant consequence, we can certainly show them, in a fair, consistent way, that we mean business. In my house, unfortunately, canine incontinence has become an issue as of late. One thing that helps is to take my dogs out to potty regularly. Fortunately, I had put the behavior on cue when they were younger, so they both know what it means when I say, “Go potty!” The problem comes when one or both just don’t feel like it. Who knows whether it’s the hot weather, laziness, or what, but sometimes one dog will just stand there and watch as the other walks with me to the potty area and goes. Now, when my husband, being the kind, wonderful guy that he is, takes them out to potty and this happens, he runs back inside with them and gives them both a cookie anyway. Being nice is great, but in this case, not so effective. And so, I explained that we were only going to reward the dog who pottied. Not only that, but we were going to make a big deal of it. And so, the next time after Bodhi went out and dutifully did his business while Sierra stood on the dog ramp waiting, I gave Bodhi a cookie and lots of effusive praise. I only wish I had a photo of Sierra’s face. Her jaw dropped, and there was a thought bubble over her head that read clear as day, What the…? The next time, it was the opposite scenario, with Sierra being the only one who pottied. And so, she was the only one who got rewarded. On day three, guess what? They both went immediately when cued. And, they both got rewarded. Things have been much easier ever since.

Consequences don’t need to be harsh. They just need to be clear and consistent. For example, my dogs know that before they get walked in the mornings, their job is to sit on the mat by the front door until released. This means exercising self-control while I open the door and scan the porch to make sure there are no rattlesnakes, bunnies, or other surprises out there. When I give the release word, we all go walking. Once in a while, one dog or the other breaks the sit. Do I shrug and think Eh, we’re in a rush, let’s just go and leave, or does the door close again until they reseat themselves and stay? What do you think? While the former is definitely tempting, the latter is what reinforces the behavior. Don’t be lazy! What the specific rules are at your house are not as important as the fact that you have rules, and that you are consistent. The truth about consequences is that dogs understand them and learn very quickly—so long as we are fair and consistent about reinforcing them.
You can find my books (including my latest, “Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home) and DVDs at and my artwork at

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