Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What do I do if an unfriendly dog approaches mine at the dog park?

A reader has asked me to address the following issue. She writes:

“What to do if you are at the dog park with your dog and a “not friendly” dog approaches. I would love to say this never happens when we are out, but there have been a few times that I have been out with my dog and another dog comes up that is a little too aggressive (starts to show aggressive dominance behaviors like mounting). If you had any tips about how to handle while minimizing getting hurt that would be great!”
Sensi's two small friends holler at him to stop being so boisterous

This is not something I have a whole lot of experience with, since my dog is not a dog-park-dog. To answer these questions, I'm drawing on my experiences of stopping off-leash dogs from approaching Sensi and I while we're out on walks.
Here's a series of posts specifically about that (Learning from Sensi, Learning from Sensi Part II, The charging dog and Challenge the charger).

To check my advice, I've also asked professional dog trainer Nicole Herr to give me some tips. I'll be interested to learn whether our advice is similar and will certainly post what I hear from her.

All right, here's what I've got:

The first step is being able to identify whether there’s any offensive communications going on between your dog and the new one who has approached. Again, this is where knowing canine body language is worth its weight in gold.

First off, how did the dog approach yours? Did it barrel toward your dog, head to head, and not stop until bodily contact was made between the two? That is the ultimate statement of rudeness among dogs, and it’s perceived by many dogs as a threat of aggression — meaning as soon as the offending dog does make contact, your dog has already readied himself for an altercation. This means that even if it was just a lack of good doggie manners driving the offending dog to run at yours and not aggression or the threat of aggression, an altercation may still be had.
This doesn’t necessarily apply between dogs who know eachother. But for two dogs who have not met, one dog running directly at another without stopping and engaging in routine dog-meeting pleasantries is generally a threat.
If you see this happen, stop the approach before physical contact is made with your dog. Position yourself in front of your dog (between your dog and the charger), puff up your chest, straighten those shoulders and stare coldly and intently into the charging dog’s eyes. Do not avert eye contact for a split second. Stand still. And understand that you are now threatening the charging dog and telling him to stay away. There’s always the risk that he won’t stop and may attack you, though I’ve done this more times than I can count and it’s worked like a charm every time. But the risk is there.
The offending dog will likely stop abruptly. He may stand and stare at you. He may run away in the other direction. Hold your ground until he moves on. If he tries to meet your dog again later with proper doggie manners, you’ve made your point and helped a dog learn some good etiquette about meeting others.

Secondly, what do the dogs’ tails tell you? If the offending dog’s tail is held high, up over its butt or like a flagpole up in the air, and your dog is perhaps tucking its tail or wagging it low and rapidly, then you have a problem. This is a clear and early sign that the offending dog is feeling dominant over your dog, who is feeling submissive.
Sometimes these situations work out — the submissive dog submits, the dominant dog stays dominant and all is balanced. But more often than not, an altercation is brewing.
I personally don’t approve of dominant tails. I don’t want to see one on my dog and I don’t want to see one any other dog around me.
If I were in a dog park situation where a dominant-tail dog and my dog were exchanging sniffs, I’d break up the meeting. I use a throaty, growly, sharp “Eh!” to get dogs’ attention. Generally, you’ll see that dominant tail drop instantaneously.
Then, I’d walk toward the offending dog, walking right into his space, to back him up. If he doesn’t immediately start backing up as you walk into his space, you can gently press your shin (I said GENTLY PRESS, not kick and NOT with force! The goal is to push, not strike!) into the dog’s chest/shoulder area to move him back.
He may stand there, looking at you, confused, not quite ready to give up more of his space. Tell him to get lost. Wave him off. If it doesn’t work, stand there and hold your ground until he decides to trot away in a different direction.
If he tries to go around you, body block him. If he takes a step to his left, you take the same step to match him. Claim your space. Claim your dog.

If another dog is mounting yours, I’d pull out that growly “Eh!” in conjunction with physically pushing the dog off your dog. Follow-up your push by walking into the dog’s space, forcing him to back up. Tell him to get lost or stand your ground until he does.

There’s no easy cue, no phrase universally-understood-by-dogs that you can use or sound you can make to let an offending dog know you want him to get lost. You do have to get physically involved, even if it means nothing more than standing in front of your dog and staring at another dog until it runs away.
You do need to understand that you are asserting yourself as dominant when you employ these tactics, and that in some cases, your actions will be perceived as threats by the dog they are aimed at. If you stare down a dog upon first arriving to the park, I wouldn’t try hugging and kissing up on the dog later in the visit to try to make friends. He’s probably scared or at least intimidated of you and wants you to keep your distance now, just like you told him to keep his distance earlier in the visit.
With any of these actions, you are risking that the offending dog may become aggressive toward you. I would argue, though, that if a dog is dangerously aggressive, none of these tactics would work in the first place. But, God forbid that someone would be so stupid as to bring a dog with a dangerously aggressive temperament to an off-leash dog park.
You’re more likely to find an offending dog has little more than poor social skills, poor training and mild behavior issues. Those are traits open for manipulation.

Now, the real question is: How do you handle the aggressive dog owner who thinks his/her offending dog is perfect and gets mad at you for “scaring” or “harassing” her precious pooch who could never, ever do anything wrong? That’s the altercation that won’t be so easy to settle.

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