Monday, August 1, 2011

Sensible Refeering

Follow that thought process with me, will you? Imagine one of your relatives adopted an uncoordinated human toddler three times your size. I know, hard to imagine, but go with it anyway. The giant darling, cause he’s young and hasn’t learned manners yet, bounces on you nonstop, and gets a kick out of pulling your hair and ears. Furthermore, the proud new parents didn’t ask you if it was okay to visit, and don’t interfere when their new addition uses you as a trampoline, cause he’s just so adorable. How would you feel? And what would you do?
That was the position a client’s small terrier found himself in recently when he was presented with his person brother’s eight-week-old, and very exuberant, Labrador retriever. The adult pooch, cause he is the adult, was expected to accept and be nice to his lively new canine cousin, but naturally felt overwhelmed and besieged, and growled in hopes the youngster would keep a polite distance and tone down a bit. Didn’t work, so he growled more intensely, and barked and air snapped, and when that didn’t work, he offensively lunged forward from an increasingly greater distance, was subsequently labeled aggressive and that’s when I was called to help.

That dogs sort their quarrels out for themselves is a common believe the owners of the terrier and Lab shared, but I don't. I mean, I am all for allowing an older dog to correct a puppy or rude juvenile. In fact, in my opinion ideally every puppy socialization class should include a couple of savvy canine overseers that mingle during free play, and split too over-the-top interactions or lecture a pup that’s out of line, but only, in fairness to the adult, if he is not overwhelmed with the task. And a big job it is, because the puppies in our society come in all shapes, sizes and with various breed specific behaviors and backgrounds. Not too long ago I met a brawny pup whose tail was accidentally stepped on. The person moved as soon as he realized why the babe was squealing, but it took a few seconds. It really must have hurt, yet the moment the foot was off the tail he was right back to his obnoxious little self. It’d be difficult for a dog, or human for that matter, to successfully correct a pup with such a high pain threshold.
Our puppies are selectively bred and manipulated by people and have a wide range of personalities. Not all stayed with their mothers and littermates long enough and hence missed early, but crucial, lessons. Some dogs, even young ones, are hard to impress. All of that makes dogs raising dogs more complicated than it would be in nature, where size, temperament and environment is fairly homogeneous.
A reprimand is warranted when the pup or adolescent is too boisterous or too determined, and successful when he settles some and approaches in a more polite, self-restrained fashion - immediately and in the future. When that doesn't happen, humans need to step up.
It is time to referee when the older dog gives back off signals to no avail; if he is tense, growls, darts a hard-eyed warning stare, exposes his pearly whites or air snaps, and the juvenile isn’t getting it but relentlessly continues to test boundaries, doesn’t tone it down and continues to space-pushily demand interaction. You should also intervene when you get a pleading look for help, when one dog physically tries to get away, or mentally shuts down.
Just to clarify, we are not talking about aggression here, but incompatibilities in energy or size that makes it impossible for the teacher to reign in the student. Don’t wait for a bloodbath and keep an astute eye on dog-dog interactions until you know for certain that everyone is comfortable and appropriate with one another.
Refereeing doesn't mean correcting or punishing, but ensuring that fair play rules are followed. Keep that in mind when you take charge. It is important that the person doesn’t take sides, but acts in a way that is in all dogs’ interest. Simplified, it is creating distance. Applied, that can mean leashing the obnoxious one; temporarily removing one dog or the other, or redirecting both into doing something else, for example chewing a stuffed Kong or going for a walk together, which is one of my favorite activities to settle things and form a bond.
Expecting our dogs to always harmonize with one another, or settle their disputes peacefully, is expecting something we intelligent humans often have trouble with. Dogs do to, especially the ones that live in our midst. Sometimes they will work things out, and sometimes they won’t, or at least not in a way that is acceptable for people, and then they need help.
The responsibility to create a stress-free environment and raise a well-behaved pooch always lies with the people. The right dog can be a great helper, but it is false to assume that dogs, just because they are dogs, wish to interfere. When one is bullied and becomes anxious and reactive, or retreats from where the action is, and the humans are but useless bystanders, one dog becomes increasingly more frustrated and the other increasingly more intrepid. So don’t be an onlooker, but a leader and set the rules for appropriate interactions for all dogs, and then enforce them. Not by punishing, but by creating space and refuge zones for one, and by managing and redirecting the other.


  1. Great post! Thanks for all the helpful reminders--
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