When Good Play Goes Bad:
Dog Tolerance Changes in Adolescent/Adult Dogs

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Renowned veterinarian and trainer Ian Dunbar once noted, “Behavior is always changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.”  This is especially important to consider as your puppy enters adolescence.  Young puppies (under five months) typically enjoy playing with other puppies, and may not exhibit problem behaviors toward any dog.  Your dog’s way of relating to other dogs, however, will change as he goes through adolescence:  how much it changes will depend on his early socialization, his genetic makeup and the training and supervision he receives.

In order to understand our dogs’ behavior toward other dogs, certain explanations are needed.  One is that dog behavior is highly situational:  it will change depending on the circumstances and the individuals involved.  Furthermore, the world is not divided into dogs who are “good with dogs” and “not good with dogs”:  any dog can react aggressively if certain triggers are present, just as any human can use verbal or physical aggression if sufficiently stressed.  Dog-to-dog interactions are determined by factors such as the number of dogs involved, the location, the level of stimulation, the presence or absence of valued resources and the ages of the dogs.  Of course, the behavior of each dog has an impact on all the others.

So what dog tolerance changes might be observed in play situations?  Every dog is different, but here are some common trends:

  • Working breeds, such as herding dogs or those traditionally bred for hunting or fighting, may exhibit high arousal in excitable environments like play groups, and arousal in any form can lead to aggressive behavior.  Such dogs may “tip over” from excited play to fighting, or team up with other dogs to torment a “victim” dog.
  • Dogs who previously enjoyed rowdy play might begin to exhibit irritable behavior instead, “snarking” at dogs who attempt to engage them in play.  Such dogs might also gravitate more toward human contact in a play setting rather than engaging other dogs.  This is particularly common among mature females.  We humans are not so different:  when was the last time you saw an adult (without a child) playing in a playground?
  • Timid dogs might develop reactive behavior, hiding from boisterous young dogs and snapping at them whenever they approach.  In a playgroup setting, they may go from hiding under a chair to rushing other dogs, barking and snapping, in an attempt to chase them away.  If they learn this behavior is successful, it may become more entrenched as the dog ages further.
  • Confident dogs with rough-and-tumble play styles might bully more timid dogs.  Such dogs continue playing despite cut-off signals from the “victim” dog (such as flattened ears and tail, lowered body, lip-licking and frightened yipping) and may appear to enjoy such interactions.  This is frequently upsetting for owners of both dogs to watch; it bears repeating that dogs lack human concepts of morality, so this doesn’t mean such rough players are “bad” dogs.  It does mean, however, that such play requires intervention…read on!

What, then, can dog owners do to help their adolescent/adult dogs through this period of change?  Here are some guidelines:

  1. Avoid overly-aroused play situations.  It is the rare adolescent dog who can remain calm and play appropriately when surrounded by other young, excited dogs.  If your dog plays too roughly in these situations, remove him:  choose quieter, less stressful venues for him.  Visit the dog park when fewer dogs are present, making sure that at least some of them are mature adults.  Well-socialized adult dogs are valuable park-mates for “teen” dogs, as they can teach them appropriate behavior without causing harm.
  2. Reinforce calm behavior.  If you and your dog are approaching a dog park or playgroup and your dog begins barking excitedly, turn around and walk him away.  Leave the building or return to your car and wait until Rover is calm again.  If he simply cannot calm down, take him home.  This may seem mean, but allowing him to rehearse overexcited behavior will not do him any favors!
  3. Continue introducing your adolescent to well-behaved adult dogs.  “Well behaved” means the dog interacts well with young dogs but will interrupt inappropriate/rough behavior.  Adult dogs typically use eye contact and tall, still postures to discourage unwanted contact.  Interruptions normally consist of a quick, deep sound (sometimes called a “snark”), not a confrontation lasting several seconds.  If the adult dog pursues the adolescent, this is inappropriate and must be interrupted.
  4. Allow your dog to rehearse only desirable behavior.  Remember that any behavior will strengthen with practice, so – in a famous trainer’s words – “Don’t let them practice it wrong, because they get really good at it!”  Whatever the activity, ask yourself:  “Is this making Rover’s behavior better or worse?”  Maybe going to the dog park is resulting in enjoyable romps and a pleasantly tired dog…or maybe it’s teaching Rover to chase and bully every dog he sees.  Maybe leaving Rover in the backyard is allowing him to bark and lunge at dogs and people passing by.  Don’t be afraid to choose new activities for your dog if his current ones are reinforcing bad habits.
  5. Teach your dog to calm himself down.  Put Rover on leash while you watch TV and ignore him.  If he climbs in your lap, gently move him away from you with the leash.  If he barks, ignore him.  Wait until he settles quietly on the floor, then quietly praise him.  If he jumps up again, start over.  Practicing this “Settle” exercise regularly will teach your dog that calm behavior is the way to get your attention.

The bottom line is that your adolescent dog needs your attention and supervision now more than ever!  Contact Behavior and Training at 763-489-2217 for more information or if you’d like to set up a private session for your dog.