It is summertime and some of you may be caring for another dog while the owners are away. I have been asked for advice, so I am offering unsolicited advice to all of my unsuspecting readers. My advice is based on my experience, books, and videos, not any formal training or certification.
And I can guarantee you that every dog trainer will probably disagree with some of my opinions. All us dog people are crazy.
People believe that I am a dog whisperer. I am not, but I have fostered and rehabilitated over 200 rescue dogs. My experience is with small dogs that have been surrendered to shelters, rescued from puppy mills, abused by owners, picked up as strays, or rescued from a hoarding situation. The dogs that I worked with were often fearful, damaged, biting, or insecure dogs. So, I tend to anticipate worst case scenarios.
There are different training techniques that I categorize into two groups: assertive training (e.g., Cesar Millan), and reward based training. In my opinion, both are useful for different issues. Assertive training works well for aggressive behaviors (e.g., object/leash/food aggression, biting, disrespect, anxiety). Reward-based training is effective for teaching dogs the rules of human homes (e.g., housetraining, chewing, bad habits).
First a digression. I disagree with one of the most common behaviors that I witness when people approach an unfamiliar dog. They ask the owner if they can pet the dog (good!) and then lean toward the dog and put their hand out for the dog to sniff (not good!). In my opinion, this is a dangerous and unnecessary gesture that can lead to unexpected bites. Here’s why.
By the time you approach the dog, it has already learned about you from its superior sense of smell. It knows your gender, if you have pets, your age group (e.g., child or adult), and similarities to its humans. (Most dogs are not able to generalize, and insecure dogs can be fearful of someone who doesn’t share the characteristics of their humans.) Not only will the dog not gain additional information from sniffing your hand, but the gestures of leaning over and sticking out a hand can be perceived as disrespectful, threatening, and even aggressive to a small and insecure dog.
This is what I recommend. First, ask the owner if you can pet the dog. Maintain your distance (at least 4-5 feet), talk softly at the dog, smile, and make eye contact during the encounter. Observe the dog’s behavior. If it is holding your gaze, moving toward you in a playful manner, getting close to you, it wants to be petted (tail wagging is usually playful, but not with aggressive dogs). If it stays back, hides behind its owner, avoids your gaze, growls, shows its teeth, stares in a menacing way, or moves away, it is doesn’t want contact. It is nervous, and nervous dogs are not always predictable. In this sequence you have demonstrated respect to the dog because you didn’t invade its personal space, you asked permission, and you respected its answer.
This is what I do with small dogs (but I recommend this only if you are experienced and can speak “dog”). I ask the owner if I can pet the dog. Then I squat down at the dogs level about 4 feet away from the dog. I talk softly, smile, and maintain friendly eye contact with the dog. In this simple gesture I have communicated that I respect it, and that the dog can trust me (because I made myself vulnerable). I wait for it to tell me what it wants. Since dogs are social creatures, they want a connection, but some are just too fearful, too sheltered, or too protective. If the dog exhibits any of the behaviors that I mentioned above, I stand up, compliment the owner on what a cute dog it is (have you ever seen a dog who is not cute?), make smiling eye contact with the dog and walk away.
Over time, the dog will realize that I am not a threat. One of the dogs who is now a frequent visitor at my home required several encounters before he was willing to trust me. It was simply a matter of allowing him to make contact on his terms.
On the other hand, if you are approaching a confident dog or puppy, they are usually fine with the approach of sticking out your hand.
It is easy to miss the cues a dog is giving. Before I began rehabilitating dogs, my toddler daughter and I were visiting some close friends and their Airedale bit my daughter in the face. It was our fault.
The Airedale had never encountered children and my toddler made him nervous. My daughter was fascinated by him, didn’t touch him, but followed him when he tried to move away. Frustrated, he eventually growled. His owners continued to assure me, don’t worry, he loves everyone. Frustrated by our unwillingness to help him, he finally bit her, but he didn’t break skin (this is a sign of a fearful or frustrated dog, an aggressive dog breaks skin and can be VERY dangerous). The purpose of the bite was to get her to go away. Nonaggressive dogs bite as their LAST resort, after they have tried everything to get you to listen.
Immediately she looked at me to learn how she should react. I smiled and praised her and explained that the dog was cranky, and it was his way of saying he wanted to be alone. Then we created a game about what cranky people and animals might do. By downplaying the incident, she never developed a fear of dogs.
Now, back to that canine visitor. Prior to the visit, put all dog toys and treats out of reach. Once you can ascertain that your dog isn’t jealous or aggressive, you can put them back. Next, imagine what is going on in the canine visitor’s mind. She (I am using a female pronoun for the canine visitor, but this applies to both male and female visitors) believes she has been abandoned, into a world where she doesn’t know the rules. She might be stressed or anxious.
Begin by gently teaching her the house rules (treats can be helpful); reward her for going to the bathroom outside, show her the dog cushions, etc. Every time you reward the visitor, reward your dog as well. If you have another dog, put away any of the visitor’s dog toys until the dogs get to know each other. For the next three days, your canine visitor will probably follow you everywhere because you are her only link to her previous life. If you have a dog, give affection, treats, and food to your dog first. This sets the rule. The new dog must learn her secondary position in the pack.
If your canine visitor is an only dog, she is used to being the queen of the castle. She will behave as she has learned to behave in her home, namely, she is the top dog. But not in your home. I use a petting technique to teach visitors their position in the pack. I put my canine visitor in a sit while she watches me pet my dogs first. Then I put my dogs in a sit and pet her, giving her a little extra affection for waiting so patiently. I repeat this until all dogs learn their place in the pack.
Your dog will teach the visitor the rules of the house. But if your dog becomes jealous, you need to pay close attention, especially if you have a bossy (alpha) or older dog.
Dogs typically have a disciplinary progression with other dogs. In the first progression, they turn their head away or move away. If the visitor doesn’t respect your dog’s space, your dog will make a low, soft growl. Each time your dog makes a proper correction, praise him. (A common mistake is to discipline your dog for growling, but in dog language it is a perfectly acceptable and respectful way to communicate.) If the visitor refuses to listen, the next correction is a louder, more menacing growl…this is an acceptable and routine escalation, so do not correct your dog. But, it is getting tense, and you need to act. Move the canine visitor away, put her in a sit, speak gently, give her a single pet, but do not try to comfort her, she is learning.
The next escalation by your dog should be a snap, not a bite. Now you are approaching the danger zone, the next correction is likely to be an attack.
Make eye contact and speak sternly to the offender (your dog or the visitor) then immediately separate the dogs and keep them apart until both dogs relax. (Remember, comforting a dog is actually rewarding it. Be stern and confident but don’t yell, they need to settle themselves down.) Sometimes it is safer to put them in different rooms, but that can sometimes take them longer to settle.
This is the normal correction/escalation process in dog language, if either dog jumps to the “triple dog dare,” act quickly to avoid a fight.
If the visitor becomes aggressive, remove her immediately from the situation. She is trying to set the rules. (There are exceptions, of course, if your dog is a “chill” dog, it may not mind if the visitors runs the show.) Each time the visitor shows aggression, show your displeasure (by gazing into her eyes reproachfully), and remove her until she calms down.
Sometimes the stress of being in a new home can cause visitors to have accidents and your dog to mark (both male and female). This is annoying, but normal, the visitor may feel nervous and either dog may wish to mark their territory.
As for sleeping arrangements, that depends your dog’s current sleeping habits. If you have more than one dog, treat the canine visitor the same as your pack. Putting the visitor in a crate while the others are walking freely can cause the pack to gang up on her.
We have a saying in rescue: three days, three weeks. In three days, the situation will settle and work well. In three weeks, the visitor is completely comfortable in this arrangement. (But don’t worry dog owners, as soon as your dog sees you, she will go bananas, and a joyful homecoming will ensue.)
If you follow these rules, by Day 3, all should be calm. As you can see from this picture, my bossy 15 year old Maltese-mix, Gus, is sharing his space with an adorable, super high energy puppy visitor. It took the full three days, because the sweet, stubborn, little visitor wanted to play and both of my elderly dogs’ preferred to nap.
If both dogs are young, play with the dogs together. Play fetch, run, take brisk walks, all of these will bond the visitor to your pack. Use these games to teach them their status in the pack. (But avoid aggressive games such as tug, this can cause redirected aggression—where one dog transfers his excitement/aggression to the other dog).
These are just a few of the lessons that I have learned. I can assure you right now that there are dog trainers, dog owners, and dog behaviorists right now that are shaking their heads and proclaiming me a moron.
After all, all dog people are crazy.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.