Q&A: How to get my dog to play nice with other dogs?

A few months ago my dog ( 2 years old in May ) started acting territorial and nervous around dogs she’s not familiar with. She was always quite a timid dog so we socialized her when she was young. She has a couple dog friends which she doesn’t growl at but I’m starting to get worried because she even growled at a puppy (2-3 months all) which didn’t do anything to her. Usually she would sniff the other dog as normal then lie down ( I think this is a submissive thing ) but then If the dog gets too close and for too long she starts growling at them and sometimes even lunges at them! She also seems possessive over her food and toys with other dogs. She’s not territorial with food or toys with humans, it’s just other dogs… What is this? How do I solve it?  Thank you so much, Mica

Hello, and thank you for your question,
Most puppies and young adolescent dogs get along pretty much with any dogs they meet. This is up to generally about 12-18 months. Things can change a lot after this time frame. At 2 years old, most dogs reach the social maturity stage and this is a time when they are prone to changes in social settings. While they were friends with all puppies and dogs earlier, now is the time they get more selective and may no longer accept certain behaviors from other dogs. Your description isn’t unusual at all, countless dog owners experience this with their dogs. The dog who used to go to the dog park now no longer wants to be friends with all dogs, the dog who wanted to meet every dog on the street, now ignores other dogs, the dog who eagerly played with ANY dog know is selective. It’s a time of social maturity, where they start seeing things differently and may no longer be eager to engage in rowdy play with a group of other dogs. This is not at all abnormal.

Something to consider though is also the possible impact of some negative experience. It could be your dog one day felt uncomfortable in an interaction with another dog and this has made her more selective on who to “befriend”. The growling and lunging is reinforcing as it likely sends the other dog away (or you intervene to remove your dog or the other dog from the situation), so it soon becomes the default method to tell other dogs to back off, the moment she’s uneasy in a social situation. Soon, a new behavior pattern puts roots.

Also, it never hurts to see the vet, especially if the behavior is uncharacteristic or started out of the blue. Sometimes underlying medical conditions can lower a dog’s tolerance threshold making dogs react in uncharacteristic ways. Ear problems, low thyroid levels or any form of pain can make a dog a bit more grouchy than usual.

The growling towards the puppy isn’t unusual either. Puppies often engage in boisterous behaviors that can trigger a warning growl in a grown-up dog. It may look like the puppy didn’t do anything other than just acting “puppyish,” but from your dog’s perspective, the puppy likely got into your dog’s space or didn’t pay attention to your dog’s previous “leave me alone” signals. We often think of a growl as something bad, but we often forget that it’s a form of communication. Dogs tell each other “please, leave me alone” just as grown up may tell a child “I have had enough, please give me a break.” While it’s not unusual for an older, well-socialized dog to growl at a hyper puppy, you must also consider though if your dog was socialized with puppies in the past. If your dog hasn’t been around puppies much, there may also have been an element of fear.

Social greetings should be brief and up to the point. Dogs sniff each others’ rears for a few seconds and then one dog may decide to leave, one may invite the other to play or both dogs may initiate play. It’s rude behavior to stick around for too long, and some dogs will growl to tell the dog “off” if the inspection is getting too long or out of hand. Additionally, if your dog lies down, this is a vulnerable position and she may feel uncomfortable with anther dog “standing over.” I am not sure if you are taking your dog to a dog park, but if you are, your dog may be happier playing just with the dogs she’s well acquainted with rather than a bunch of other dogs at the park. Take it as a time of maturity and changes.

Set your dog up for success may setting up only positive interactions with the dog she has chosen as playmates. By choosing appropriate play partners, you can up your chances for positive interactions. If you are going to a dog park, I would suggest to no longer go. You may be surprised to see that there are many articles written by professionals that explain why dog parks can cause more trouble than fun.

Food and toys should not be offered in a setting with several dogs. Several dog parks now do not allow toys to prevent squabbles. If one must give treats, they must be given when no other dogs are around. This is another good reason to avoid dog parks or other settings with several dogs, as these should not be offered due to safety concerns.

It sounds like your dog does well with a few selected play mates. This is quite normal considering her age. There are many dogs who grow up to become selective and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is common in many herding breeds, but is also seen in several other breeds and mixes. It’s a myth that all dogs must get along. I would consider encouraging positive social interactions with these selected dogs, always keeping a watchful eye for early signs of her getting tired to play and asking for a break. In a more controlled setting as such, you and the other owners can also practice important obedience skills such as calling your dogs, giving a distance down-stay or a distance sit -stay so at any first signs of conflict you can distract the dogs and give them something else to do. There are many other fun activities dogs can do with other dogs but in a more controlled, safer setting. You can enroll your dog in classes and find a good trainer who can evaluate your dog’s comfortable levels with other dogs and suggest other venues for fun activities. This makes for happier, more obedient dogs who enjoy the company of other dogs in a structured setting. A win-win situation for all!

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Adrienne Farricelle

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  • Alpha dogs often get to bully around other dogs as well. If they are into mating, some advice usually don’t work. I suspect having another female susceptible for mating is another cause. Thanks for posting this one by the way, really learn more from it.


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