Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dog Gone Problems,
I have two dogs — a mother (Penny, 4) and son (Ryder, 2) — who I rescued a couple of years ago when the puppy was just 7 weeks old. As Ryder grew, Penny became increasingly protective over him. She's not protective towards people but other dogs.
The worst problem we have with them is that Penny will become extremely agitated when Ryder is interested in another dog and plays with him or her. It's gotten to a point where she can't be let off her leash when Ryder plays with other dogs because she is almost certain to be aggressive.
Ryder also has a strange fear of bigger dogs and high-energy dogs. He doesn't like to be sniffed by them if he hasn't approached and sniffed them first. He will cower, nip or make a whining noise at them, which will set Penny on a rampage even if she has not yet met the dog. I often wonder if she would be this way if she was an only dog and wasn't worried about protecting her puppy (even if he doesn't need it). I do feel the need to point out that Penny has never wounded another dog.
Please help! I love them so much and they are very sweet with people but unpredictable with other dogs. I want to enjoy my time with my dogs without fearing a fight.
The problems you are experiencing are not uncommon. Mothers are naturally protective of their offspring, but this isn’t very notable in mature offspring — as most puppies go on to live in a separate home and develop independent of their mother.
I'd suggest some counter-conditioning to address the issue of Penny’s protectiveness. Get some high-value meat treats and arrange a play date with a dog whose size will not distress Ryder. You can set Penny up for success by taking her out for a 20 minute walk before you start the process.
Start out with Ryder inside or away from the area. Get a clicker and have Penny and the new dog in the yard but about 15 feet apart. You want to get as close as you can without Penny reacting. If she barks, protests or lunges, increase the distance between them until she is able to see the dog without reacting.
Once Penny can be around the dog without reacting, pull out a clicker and click each time Penny looks at the other dog. Don’t direct or try to influence her. Just wait. Try to get in a good 15 to 30 clicks for looking at the other dog. After your 30 or so clicks, take Penny and the guest dog for a short walk around the block. Don’t have them together, though. Have one dog on your right and one on your left so neither is in front.
After walking around the block, let Penny and the new dog play in your yard without Ryder present. Give them a good 10 to 20 minutes of play time and then have the visiting dog’s guardian put their dog on the leash and act like they are leaving. Once they have vacated the yard, take Penny inside and wait a few minutes before taking her into another room so she can't see the backyard.
Bring out Ryder and let him meet and play with the visiting dog for 5 to 15 minutes. You want them to get out the big energy surge that will happen when they first meet. Once the dogs have settled down, bring Penny to the window or the far side of the yard on a leash so she can see the dogs together. If she is reactive, you need to add in more room until you find the right distance so Penny isn’t reacting.
Each time Penny looks at the dogs playing without reacting, click, then pop a treat into her mouth and say “playtime” or another command word that means to play. Keep doing this until she is totally relaxed and looking away often and easily but without direction. Once she is almost disinterested in the play — this may take a few minutes or longer — take one step closer to Ryder and his play mate, then repeat the process.
Eventually, you should be able to have Penny in the area watching the dogs play without reacting.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.