Follow that thought process with me, will you? Imagine one of your relatives adopted a two-year-old, uncoordinated toddler three times your size who gets a kick out of pulling your hair or ears, and likes nothing more than to use you as a trampoline. The new parents, who never asked if it was okay for them to visit, don’t interfere cause he’s just such an adorable young child. How would you feel? And what would you do?
That was the position a recent client’s dog found himself in when he, a small-medium size adult, was expected to accept, and be nice to, his new canine cousin - a klutzy puppy of a very exuberant and much larger breed.
The older dog was overwhelmed, growled and snapped without prevail, from an increasingly farther distance, was subsequently labeled aggressive and that’s when I was called to help.
Turid Rugaas, the amazing and world-renowned Norwegian behavior expert, said at a seminar I attended, that if dogs raise dogs they get it right. And that is true in a world where dogs are similar in size, not stressed and anxious, not manipulated by people, and where litters always stay together for 10-12 weeks amidst a bunch of older dogs, so that in the end everyone is fluent in doggish; speak the same “language”.
That world exists with feral dogs, the ones not owned by humans.
The dogs we live with in our homes and communities come in all shapes, sizes and backgrounds. Not all have good dog-communication skills and their humans have I different expectations, knowledge and tolerance levels - and dogs raising dogs becomes much more complicated.
I am all for allowing an older dog to correct a puppy or rude juvenile. In fact, in my opinion ideally every puppy socializing class should include a couple of older dogs that mingle during free play to split, or correct a pup that’s out of line. But it takes a special dog who is able to do that right.
For starters, he has to like the puppies and dogs he is with – the ones he cohabitates with in an intimate social group, and the ones he is presented with regularly or occasionally at day care, the training facility or dog park. Being confronted with incompatible dog(s), yet expected to control and educate, creates stress.
If a dog feels overwhelmed by others in his proximity, the intent changes. An appropriate dog-dog correction is meant to teach rude Rover manners. If the corrector is anxious beyond momentary annoyance, the motivation switches from teaching a lesson to wanting to get rid of the dog – in distance or altogether. That’s not something I want my dog to have an opportunity to practice. Every dog has the right to personal space, but that doesn’t mean that I want him to take matters into his own paws. If a dog experiences that he can control his environment successfully with aggression, that is what he will do in the future.
If the perceived opponent doesn’t back off, the corrector is ineffective and that increases frustration. He might turn it up a notch and a fight could ensue.
And some dogs are hard to impress. That boisterous pup mentioned in the beginning of this post accidentally had his tail stepped on, for a few seconds before the person realized why he was squealing. It really must have hurt. Yet, the moment the foot was off the tail he was right back to his bouncy little self. It’d be difficult for a dog to correct a pup who shrugs off pain like that. It’ll be difficult for the owner also to bring about a lasting effect using corrections, and I hope he will opt for positive reinforcement training.
There is more to dogs correcting properly than the popular belief that they’ll work it out just because they belong to the same species. The correcting dog has to know when to correct and with what intensity. A pup corrected too harshly will become fearful and/or aggressive. And if the adult is too lenient he’s as ineffective as an old nag. The corrector has to be able to adjust corrections to each pup and situation. It is a big job and dogs that can do it good, without getting stressed themselves, are not many. If there is one who’s skilled, my advice is to trust him in his judgment and execution, even if the pup he corrects yelps.
Still, always observe both the corrector and correctee. A correction is warranted when the pup or adolescent is space rude, or too aroused and out of control. A correction is successful when the corrected dog backs off and calms down, but is still interested to interact and approaches in a more polite, self-restrained fashion. If the pup fearfully stays away for good, or continues to pester, it is time for the humans to take charge in a way that is in the interest of both dogs. That can mean to leash the obnoxious one, create distance, remove one dog or the other, and create a bonding, cooperative relationship if the dogs are expected to live in the same environment.
Adult dogs can be great helpers, but the responsibility to create a stress-free environment and raise a well-behaved pooch is always the person's. It is false to assume that dogs, just by virtue of being dogs, wish to interfere or even like to be around their own kind. Some have great social skills with other dogs, and some are edgy and intolerant and prefer human companionship.
Dogs often don’t get corrections right, and humans typically mess it up even more. That’s why my advice always is to manage and redirect instead - and to keep an astute eye on dog-dog interactions and interfere when necessary.