Today we're going to talk about how to react to any dog, from the most obedient to the most poorly socialized, in an intelligent, preservative fashion. A lot of what we discuss here will appear to be common sense, but be sure to take it quite seriously. It could mean the difference between an injury and a dog marked for life as a 'problem dog', and a safe, happy interaction.
We're going to review five different dog behaviors and how to act appropriately when they happen.
Most dogs you encounter, if feeling aggressive for whatever reason, will give a warning growl or a snarl. Aggression requires your respect. Avoid direct eye contact, and withdraw from the situation. Never, ever, under any circumstances, punish the dog. This reaction, no matter how mild, only worsens the issue, as it tells the dog that if he or she behaves this way, he or she will get attention. Whether or not that attention is good or bad is irrelevant to the dog.
Few dogs are downright aggressive, but snap because they are feeling afraid, anxious, or simply are confused on the appropriate way to behave. As a pet parent, it is up to you to figure out what is triggering these episodes in your dog, and then speak to a veterinarian or qualified professional (pet behaviorist, for example), for advice.
It will seem like the hardest, most counter-intuitive thing you can do, but it is imperative, if you want the barking to stop, to simply ignore it. Never shout at your dog to stop, as he or she will interpret this as you joining in the noise making. Instead, retraining is required. Retraining means teaching your dog how to bark and to be silent on command, while avoiding barking triggers (for example, a ringing doorbell, being left at home alone, etc). If you are unsure how to train your dog to bark on command or to be silent on command, do some research into positive reinforcement training or find a certified pet trainer to show you the ropes.
3. Play biting, or mouthing.
Young dogs, and certainly puppies, like to put their mouths on everything. Often this involves biting, and it can really hurt! When this happens with your growing dog, get into some real over-the-top play acting and screech in pain while looking as though you have been genuinely injured by the action. This informs your dog that the bite was so hard that it really hurt you! Over time, and with consistent repetition of this reaction, your dog will get the message that the bite was too hard. If the pup is very overexcited, put the dog away immediately after the biting occurs and leave the room. The dog will very quickly learn to be gentle with you.
Does your dog shiver and shake when about to go outside, meet new people, or encounter new friends at the dog park? If so, it is imperative that you, as a responsible parent, set a good example by resisting the urge to comfort your dog. It may seem cruel, but if you do move in to comfort and console your pet, it will only reinforce the fearful behavior. If, on the other hand, you behave normally and remain composed, going about your regular business, the dog will learn that there's nothing to be afraid of. Feel free to distract him or her with some basic training commands, to reinforce the idea that you are in control, and to reassure your dog.
This is the moment when your dog is the cutest. He or she is putting on his or her best, 10/10 adorable face, born from generations of perfecting the method at human dinner tables the world over. No matter how cute your dog appears at this time, you must never indulge this behavior. Ignore him/her. If you can't trust yourself to resist that adorable face, put the dog in a different room while you eat. This is to reinforce the idea that the dog is not a preferred member of your family pack above any others, and that human food is inappropriate for him or her. It may potentially avoid a dangerous food interaction for your dog in the future. Always use caution when it comes to your dog and human food, as it can be very poisonous to their digestive systems.
Dogs are very intelligent creatures that have evolved to read our tone of voice and body language. They look to us for visual cues to reaffirm their behaviour. While humans have many instinctual reactions to animals and the things they do, it is important to know how to properly react to your dog in hopes to inspire the correct behaviour and to create a stable, cooperative relationship!
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.