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Friday, 20 April 2012

Nice to meet you?

Hi my name is Judy,

I have a pure breed Blue Roan, neutered Cocker Spaniel who is three years old soon.

During greeting a new dog, Elmo will sometimes greet then freak out/rumble and I lead him away; he wears a head halter.

He was pinned down by the throat when two years old by a female Boxer at dog training. There was no damage, and he has been bitten on the nose whilst greeting a new dog. We meet a number of nasty dogs which I steer him past.

Sometimes he growls at a male sheepdog and male Boxer as the owner keeps trying to push her Boxer to greet even though I told her no. Is this social aggression or defence?

He has mainly smaller friends and does get scared of bigger dogs.

Many thanks

Judy, by email

Karen Wild, behaviourist (, advises...

HI Judy

It can be hard to tell without seeing him for myself, but it might be that Elmo is anticipating a bad outcome and so although he is keen to say hello he may then fear some kind of reaction from the other dog and so begins to feel uncertain, hence the growling. I like to teach dogs that react in this way (particularly those that have had a bad experience) that saying hello is fine but only as long as the dog turns away and comes back to the owner immediately when the owner says so. The effect of this is that the dog feels a little more confident that their owner will step in calmly if things get out of hand. It also means the owner can get very good at anticipating early signs of stress from their dog, such as licking and yawning, and can take control of the situation with a predictably rewarding outcome. In other words, the owner is the one who is confident and in control rather than letting the dog deal with a potentially worrying situation.

We cannot always identify the specifics as to why our dogs may not like other dogs - it may be that he finds male dogs threatening or as you suggest, big dogs. Keep a detailed diary of the dogs he meets and begins to react to, and ones he gets along with, to help you identify this. If you can, ask their owners if the dogs are neutered, as this can have an influence too.

I would suggest that he is simply worried about bigger dogs and probably needs to simply go for a walk with a bigger dog - not nose-to-nose greeting which can be overwhelming. Just a simple, old-fashioned walk, so that both dogs can gradually get to know one another without any confrontation or pressure. Choose a calm larger dog that you know is unlikely to react and take your time. It may be that on the first few walks the dogs don't even get to sniff one another, but that is find. We need to make sure all the dogs, particularly yours, learn that bigger dogs are not a threat and that staying relaxed means a lot of enjoyment. A qualified, kind methods trainer or behaviourist can help you build up to greetings of a more 'head-on' nature, to represent the realities of everyday meetings!



  1. It sounds like defense; he's in a situation he's not comfortable with or scared of so he's trying to tell the boxer and sheepdog to please leave him alone. I would avoid the woman totally for quite some time at least, as she's clearly going to push things too fast for your dog.

    First thing you need to do (if you haven't already) is learn some body language so you can recognise the signs as soon as he begins to get uncomfortable. This is usually long, long before he starts to growl. Look for things such as licking his lips; moving slowly, tensing up; ears hard forward or pinned back; scanning his environment (looking for threats); yawning; sniffing the ground a lot; sitting/lying down; turning his head away from other dogs (deliberately ignoring them - 'la la la I can't see you!') or turning his whole body away; tail wagging slowly (unsure) or hackles up (also unsure), to name a few! Knowing what to look for will allow you to take things at his speed and most importantly, recognise when he's getting too stressed and take him out of the situation long before he gets too upset. That will give him time to learn to cope, and also teach him that he can leave when things are too much for him - that will then help him relax around other dogs.

    I suggest you look into Grisha Stewart's BAT (behaviour adjustment training) technique - it is very effective and teaches dogs to cope and relax very nicely. I use it a lot with clients' dog-aggressive dogs, using my own dogs as decoys. She also explains the various stress signals in her book (with lovely illustrations).

    I would also try to make big dogs a source of good things - so whenever he's noticed one, give him something extra tasty. They'll then start to become predictors of reward, and he'll find them much more enjoyable to see!

    If you're in a situation where you can't avoid the other dog, I suggest you have a plan in place. For example (this is what I've done with my own dog-aggressive dogs); if it's a dog just coming past but quite close, I have my dog sit and watch me - this distracts them but also makes them very boring to the other dog, minimising the chance of the dog coming over. If it's a dog coming over to say hello, the above can work through the boring-effect (and has done for me on many occasions - dogs just sitting looking at their owner aren't worth the bother!), or for a more determined dog, get yours behind you and keep yourself in between your dog and the pestering dog. Or, throw some treats at the incoming dog to distract it and use the time to get yours away.

    If you can 'borrow' any owners with big dogs who will do as you ask, so much the better - a controlled situation, going at your dog's pace, will be really helpful for him.

    Most importantly of all - I don't get the impression you do this, but it's worth saying anyway - DO NOT tell him off at any point around big dogs. Ever. They are already a source of stress; adding a telling-off will only add to that stress and make things worse. Keep any and all greeting short and happy, once he's comfortable to do them - literally a sniff-and-leave so he doesn't have time to get scared, and the other dog doesn't have time to get giddy!

  2. I don't think I've ever heard of the term 'social aggression'.

    It's important to remember that the majority of aggressive behaviour is based in fear; the other options are medical, and idopathic.

    A vet could tell you whether Elmo has a medical issue which needs treated, and that would be my first port of call. If the vet rules out illness, or a painful condition; the next person to see is a good trainer or behaviourist - check out the Association of Pet dog Trainers and the Pet Professional Guild to find a force-free trainer in your local area.

    Each trainer probably does things slightly differently, but no-one should want to put or see Elmo in a position where he feels the need to defend himself, and I would suggest that - as much as possible - you do not put Elmo in that position any more. That may mean walking him at different times of day, or in different areas, or exercising his mind & body at home some days; but the more he practices this behaviour, the more he will learn it 'works' (as far as he is concerned), and it will be a harder habit to break should it not be a medical problem, or should it persist if a medical cause is found and treated.

  3. Hi Judy,
    I would suggest that although there was no physical damage during Elmo's past encounters, his confidence may well have suffered. This means he could have learned a bad association to bigger dogs or maybe just with the breed that pinned him (only he knows).
    Try not to panic or make the situation of seeing other big dogs a stressful one. Avoid the situation if you feel it is best but do it in a 'matter-of fact' way, don't drag him away as that may heighten his fear, 'mum is scared and anxious so maybe there IS a problem?!'.
    Not all dogs get on with each other. Only they know why but it is good practice listen to his language and respect it. If he is growling it probably means he is not happy. So try not to put him in a stressful situation where he probably doesn't want to be in. Gently guide him away using treats, which may help make the association a better one. If he only got treats around dogs where he is slightly anxious, the anxiety will be slowly diminish. The association begins to change to, 'I see a big dog and treats appear from mum'! But ensure you are not too close to what he considers ‘scary’.
    A good afternoon can be spent sitting on a park bench and whenever a big dog appears in the distance, Elmo gets food. Dog disappears, food stops.
    You are then slowly changing his association and making him feel better about other dogs, as well as enjoying a pleasant afternoon with your best friend!
    Good luck.

  4. Yvonne Collins1 May 2012 at 04:33

    Hi Judy

    I wouldnt even try to guess what label to put on this behaviour, but what you can do to help to cope better in these situations is to keep out of situations which he is clearly uncomfortable with. I don't mean to socially isolate him, just take things at his pace. The first thing I would do is avoid this woman with the Boxer and Collie - her behaviour is maintaining your problem and frankly it has nothing to do with her. No one should be forcing their dogs on yours. So if she cannot bring herself to do as you ask her to do - avoid her!
    Next assess which dogs you feel it would be safe to allow him to think about making friends need dogs which will allow him to approach and simply walk away from him should he react badly! Watch dogs interact with each other on the park and decide which ones you like the look of and which ones you feel are best avoided, then approach the owners of those you like and ask if they would be prepared to help you. If they are in agreement, ask them to walk with you with both dogs on lead - walk side by side to avoid the face to face greeting which is sure to instigate the reaction in your dog. As you walk and the dogs get more comfortable with each other you will notice they will stop and sniff the same spots - one may stop first and walk away as the second one starts to sniff, eventually you will notice that they both sniff the same spot for a few seconds TOGETHER. IMO that is the point that the dogs are comfortable in each others company and you can start to relax and allow them to interact with each other.
    What you have described is typical of a dog who is friendly but has had a bad experience - he wants to approach and make friends, but once he is in close and personal he remembers what happened previously and reacts accordingly. Keep him safe institgate situations where he can gain confidence without getting too close like described and you should see his confidence grow.
    Good luck