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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 11:46 am | Overcast 61º


Inquisitive Canine: It’s All Fun Until Someone Gets Hurt

Play between two dogs should be consensual; if it's not, then it's not play but aggression

Dear Poncho:

My dog is a 16-pound Cocker Spaniel and the anti-alpha dog. My neighbor has a tiny Pomeranian that’s an absolute nightmare. Every time we walk by, the owner wants me to let my dog off leash to have a “play date” with her psycho dog. The Pom “nips” nonstop at my dog, who just lies down or cowers and takes the abuse. Very alpha for such a tiny little devil.

The Pomeranian’s owner thinks her dog is playing, but her dog is biting at the throat, face and legs of my dog. Do I just avoid them or is there a way I can get my dog to stand up to this bully?

Joan Mayer and her sidekick, Poncho
Joan Mayer and her sidekick, Poncho

Our neighborhood does things together a lot and it might be weird if word got out that “I don’t like her bully of a dog.’’ Maybe I could punt her like a little football across the street when my neighbor’s not looking? This is Texas, after all.

— Anxious in Austin

Dear Anxious:

Hey, I’m all for “Keep Austin Weird,” and I can certainly understand how upsetting it can be when our “kids” get picked on. However, I’d say it’s best to refrain from physically punishing any animal, so let’s go a different route, shall we?

As a dog mom and professional dog trainer, I’ve learned to recognize the appropriate behaviors associated with healthy “dog play.” In a nutshell, “normal doggy play” is the practicing of the many behaviors dogs would need in order to survive in the wild long enough to pass on their genes.

Imagine your little spaniel, out on her own, hunting for food, chasing down prey, running away from predators, finding a mate and mating. Of course we know they won’t need to do any of this, right? We feed them, spay and neuter them (or arrange “marriages”), protect them from danger, and much more. But their DNA still tells them to practice and become proficient in all of these skills.

You can read more about how to recognize proper play behaviors on my dog training blog.

One of the most important elements of healthy dog play is that it be reciprocal among all parties involved. If the Pomeranian is the one doing all the initiating, then getting turned down, going “nonstop” and not backing off after your dog has said “no thanks, don’t feel like playing,” then I can see where she would look more assertive, or as you say: “Alpha.’‘

Although biting and nipping can be part of normal play, from what you’ve described, this situation doesn’t sound reciprocal; it doesn’t appear that the Pom is “listening” to your dog. Sure, there are some dogs that would rather be chased, or rather be the one chasing. But it needs to be consensual. If one dog doesn’t consent, then it’s not fun, not “fair” –– and, in your case –– brings a whole new level of stress to the relationship between you and your neighbor. I’m sure neither of you adults would put up with this scenario if it were being played out by human children, as opposed to canines.

OK, so what is the best plan for you and your dog, while maintaining peace in the neighborhood? Try these suggestions:

Help your your dog learn to trust the neighbor’s dog: Pack up your treat pouch with little pieces of the yummiest food you have; something your cocker will do back flips for. Then, whenever you go for a walk, give your dog pieces of the tidbits, but only when the Pomeranian is around! If the Pom isn’t around, no steak for your cocker.

With repetition and consistency, your dog will start to associate “My Pomeranian neighbor means steak for me!” You’ll know it’s working when your dog looks at the neighbor dog, then at you, almost saying, “Where’s my steak?” I would also add in some “UT cheerleader” behavior on your part, as in “Yippee! There’s the Pomeranian!” As opposed to wanting to play kicker for the Dallas Cowboys.

Help your dog build self-confidence around the Pomeranian, as well as other dogs that may exhibit this type of behavior. Again, you’re going to carry treats with you. But this time you’re going to focus in on your own dog’s behavior, and not what’s going on in her environment: Reward-reward-reward!

You are going to reward your dog with a yummy treat and lots of praise (cheerleading) for bravery! At first it will be just for looking at the Pomeranian, then progressing to having your dog walk closer and closer to the Pom, then eventually having the Pom walk toward your dog. And finally greeting each other. Of course, advance these steps only if it’s safe for all the parties involved.

To read about additional tips and tricks for gracefully handling potentially awkward situations with a neighborhood troublemaker, visit the Inquisitive Canine blog.

Having a basic understanding of the definition of appropriate dog play, a plan to help your cocker overcome her shyness and build confidence, and a few ideas of how to handle your neighbor and her Pomeranian should all add up to peace in the ‘hood. With time and consistency, the dogs might be the ones planning the next block party.

— Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho. Joan is a certified pet dog trainer and dog behavior counselor. Her column is known for its simple common-sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog. Joan is also the founder of The Inquisitive Canine, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, e-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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