IS YOUR DOG A BULLY?
A “bully” is a socially inept dog who may enjoy playing with other dogs off-leash but is more than likely unaware of the proper play protocol. He may be overly zealous in his attempts to play, and knock other dogs around, chase them mercilessly, or growl or posture in ways that seem antithetical to play. This could be due to poor socialization as a youngster, or to genetic tendencies to ignore doggy societal “codes.” Bully dogs tend to become aroused easily (this has nothing to do with sex, though neutering can definitely help) and find it hard to calm down quickly.
All dogs have body movements and facial gestures to enable them to communicate clearly, quickly, and effectively with one another (and humans), especially to signal intent. Most dogs instinctively know these gestures and they are cemented further during the first 8-16 weeks of life if the puppy is raised in optimum conditions, i.e., with Mom and littermates (until 7 or 8 weeks) and human interaction. Some dogs that missed out on these optimum conditions may be socially “stunted,” but they can usually be taught how to interact nicely with other well-mannered dogs. Dogs with cropped ears and tails are at a disadvantage, too. Other dogs may perceive them as aggressors with “pricked ears” or, since they have only stubby tails, may not be able to read their intent.
Though bullying can be corrected or minimized, it follows the maxim of “practice makes perfect,” too. Bully dogs that are allowed to practice the bullying behavior will get better at it, so getting the dog under control is of great importance. If the behavior cannot be managed effectively, it must be prevented entirely–no more off-leash play unless it is with dogs who can handle the interactions effectively (this means that dog park visits are out of the question since you cannot control what dogs come in the park).
Dogs have different play styles and will meet dogs with play styles not similar to their own from time to time. These dogs may be able to play nicely once they figure out whose play style is the one to use! Other dogs with oppositional play styles cannot ever seem comfortable with one another–this usually happens when a shyer dog meets a dog with a more physical style. The shyer dog doesn’t appreciate being “mowed down” and will react with physical resistance (snapping, growling, or lunging to drive the more exuberant dog away) or by shutting down and trying to get as far away as possible from the “aggressor.” Often the “aggressor” will move on to a more suitable target if one is at hand. No dog should be allowed to terrorize another!
Two physical dogs can often play together for hours because they play like one another: chasing, body slamming, neck gnawing, mounting, “mouth wrestling,” rolling on the ground, etc. As long as the play is equal, with lots of “back and forth” and give and take (they switch roles frequently), they should be fine. Two less physical dogs will also tend to play nicely for long periods because their play styles are congruent: run and chase, some “mouth wrestling,” and tug with objects. (Styles can and do overlap.) If either dog begins to try to avoid his playmate, or seems unduly stressed or agitated by the play, separate the two and let them try another time. You are your dog’s protector and manager–if he is stressed, remove him. If he is over-aroused and making the other dog(s) stressed, remove him. Play is important for well-adjusted dogs, but it should be fun! Your focus should be on your own dog and how he is handling the play session.
If your dog is habitually the bully, following are some strategies you can use to help stop him from becoming a permanent “canis non grata.” They fall into three categories: prevention, management, and training. Management is immediate and often easier to implement, but you should strive to move beyond it and actually train your dog when possible–management techniques can fail. Implement these as you can; some may not be possible for your situation.
Preventing The Bully
- Do not allow him to play with strange dogs off leash until he is trained and is no longer being a bully. If he is under your control and on leash, he will be unable to practice most undesirable behaviors. (*For preventing over-arousal while on leash, see the end of the document.)
Managing the bully
- With dogs he knows well (housemates and friends’ dogs–not dog-park dogs) and seems to respect, allow short play sessions under your close supervision. As long as he is behaving, allow him to continue. At the first sign of bullying, remove him.
Training The Bully
- Most bully dogs exhibit signs of arousal that their aware owners will learn to spot with practice. Your first step is to become aware of what those signs are in your dog, and how long after he begins to exhibit them he will begin bullying. Some examples of signs include: piloerection (hair standing erect on neck and back); crouching; stifling movement (moving slowly and fixedly toward another dog–like a cat about to pounce); staring; growling or other vocalization; ears completely forward and tail held rigid and high over the back. They may happen very quickly, all at once, or they may be spread out. Become a student of your dog when he is playing so that you will know exactly when he is aroused. Interrupting and redirecting him just before he enters full arousal will be the key to training him.
- Teach a solid “pay attention” command (usually his name, but any one-syllable command that he never hears otherwise unless he is going to be rewarded for it works too) to your dog. He is solid when he will respond to that command when off-leash by coming and sitting in front of you and watching your face EVERY time you tell him to, regardless of what he is doing at the time. He should focus on you and not move away until you allow him to. Getting him to “solid” takes time and patience, but it is not difficult. During the training period (several days to several weeks, usually), prevent or manage him closely (see above). Teach him a release command that means, “it’s OK, you can look away now.”
- Once he has a solid “pay attention,” start allowing him short play periods with dogs he knows well and is equal to in size and play style. More “laid-back” dogs are best; they will keep him from becoming too aroused. Watch him closely. After a few minutes of play, use his “pay attention” command and when he responds quickly, reward liberally, pet him slowly and calmly from head to tail five strokes, talking softly and slowly, then release him to play some more. These “timeouts” will last about 30 seconds to one minute.
- Repeat step 2 four or five times during this play session, then quit and separate the dogs. Reward your dog with several yummy treats so that he learns that when play is over, there is still something good waiting for him: you.
- Try a play session a day (no more) with this same dog or an equivalent for a few weeks, gradually increasing the amount of play time as well as increasing the “time-out” sessions to 1-1.5 minutes each. The dog should respond to your call quickly and happily, regardless of how much fun he is having. If he doesn’t, the command needs more training–go back and make it solid during a less distracting time.
- By now your dog has a solid pay attention command and has had several play sessions where he was not allowed to (or didn’t care to) bully anyone. If you can arrange it, have a friend or two with dogs your dog does not know well come over to play. Keep a lightweight leash attached to your dog’s buckle (NOT training) collar and watch him closely. At the FIRST sign of arousal, pick up the leash and give his command. Use the leash to reel him in if need be. When he gets there, reward liberally, pet him slowly and calmly from head to tail five strokes, talking softly and slowly, then release him to play some more. These “timeouts” will last about 30 seconds to one minute.
- Gradually increase, under controlled circumstances, the chances for your dog to play with others. Redirect him as SOON as he begins to become aroused–do not wait for him to practice his bully behaviors. As soon as you see the signs, call him and make sure he complies. Since keeping a drag line on him isn’t always safe when he is in a mass of playing dogs, you will need to work him gradually up to a point where the line is no longer needed, and use an interrupter in the meantime (see #9).
- If you move too fast in the training, he could have a relapse. Go slowly and steadily and make sure he is always rewarded for non-bully behaviors. If you watch him start to play nicely, praise him. Use delicious treats to train him and to reward his attention (be careful with these in a crowd of dogs, though).
- Interrupting the “bully behavior chain” in its infancy is the key. If he is not wearing a drag line, keep a water pistol handy to squirt him to interrupt. As soon as he stops, praise liberally.
- You can also use your body to “block” him if you see him heading towards a confrontation. Redirect and reward. If he gets too aroused, take him to a quiet corner until he can be calmer, or remove him from play.
A dog who views you as his leader and responds “on a dime” to the pay attention exercise will be easier to train. A dog who does not will only be able to be managed. The choice is yours. Prevention and management are easier to implement, but without training, the dog will always need the other two. It is very difficult to manage bully behavior during “free-for-all” play sessions. Since a bullying dog can be a threat or a public nuisance, your responsibility is to train him.
Not all dogs are capable of playing nicely with others. Several breeds are genetically programmed to dislike or aggress to other dogs. (These are the “bull” breeds and consist of Pit Bulls, Bulldogs, Boxers, and their mixes. Many terriers are also not as congenial to other dogs as we would like.) Know your pet’s limitations and find other ways to exercise him if this is the case. It’s better to be safe than sorry. One missed communication from your dog or his play buddy could result in a nasty fight. Don’t put your pet or someone else’s in danger. Always supervise dog-to-dog play, and end it if it gets out of hand.
For more information, call the AHS Education Department at (404) 974-2899.
**For “on-leash” bully behavior (lunging, growling, rushing up to other dogs), you are more in control to begin with. Don’t allow this behavior. Redirect and reward his attention BEFORE the other dog gets too close for comfort. Leash aggression is common in many dogs because the leash acts as an unnatural “barrier” to communication. Many dogs are aggressive on leash but fine when off it.
Keep the leash loose (teach your dog a solid “heel” command and enforce it) and keep your attitude upbeat as you approach another dog. Keep your dog’s attention (reward it with lots of praise and yummy treats), and all will be fine. If you lose his attention, redirect away from the other dog and reward your dog for his attention. Prevent nose-to-nose greetings while on leash.
Keeping the leash taut and having anxiety about what your dog might do is counterproductive. Prevent “close calls” and reward your dog for proper behaviors. Practice makes perfect!
This information is part of the Atlanta Humane Society’s SmartHeart Educational Series.
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The Atlanta Humane Society and Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, Inc. is a private nonprofit organization for the purpose of preventing cruelty, relieving suffering, and providing humane treatment of animals. The Society’s mission is to eliminate causes of animal suffering with an emphasis on education and the human/animal bond.