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.
Judy, by email
Karen Wild, behaviourist (www.karenwild.co.uk), advises...
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!