Understanding dog tolerance

Two dogs sniff in greeting

Many dog owners have a vision of their dog frolicking happily among a group of other dogs, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, grinning from ear to ear. The reality isn't always so picture perfect, though — leaving many canine owners wondering how they can ensure their puppy grows into a social dog, or what they did in the past to cause their adult dog to be unsocial or dog reactive.

To help better understand dog tolerance and how it can change throughout a dog's lifetime, our trainers shared answers to some common questions and misperceptions.

Frequently asked questions on dog tolerance and reactivity 

Q: “I thought socialization would prevent my puppy from becoming reactive or aggressive toward other dogs?”

A: Socialization — exposing a puppy or young dog to unfamiliar people, places and things — is indispensable in creating good canine citizens, yet it may not be enough to prevent dog reactivity. It's important to realize that dog-directed aggression is a behavior and not a personality trait. It emerges from a combination of genetics and environmental factors, like socialization, in response to a situation.

Q: “But my four-month-old puppy loves everyone, people and dogs.”

A: Most puppies are what we call “dog social,” meaning they truly enjoy the company of other dogs. However, most dogs’ social skills change as they mature. Some are “dog tolerant” (indifferent or friendly) while others are “dog selective” (liking some dogs but not others) or “dog reactive” (needing close supervision and safe management).

Q: “What will my dog’s tolerance level be?”

A: A dog’s tolerance level depends on both environmental factors (how the dog was trained, handled, and socialized) as well as his/her genetics. It’s also important to understand dog tolerance levels can change based on individual circumstances, like whether they dog is feeling ill or in pain, or if the surrounding environment is stressful. The key to success is reading your dog’s body language and comfort level in all situations and reacting accordingly.

Q: “How do I know if my dog is feeling comfortable around another dog?”

A: Look for a relaxed body, relaxed face (squinty eyes, “smiley” mouth), loosely wagging tail or “wagging butt,” and smooth movements. Be on the watch for stiffly-held bodies, “whipping” tails (vertically-held tails wagging forcefully over the dog’s back), hard stares with closed mouths, and high-pitched, aroused whining. If your dog isn’t displaying relaxed body language, it’s best not to engage in dog-to-dog interactions — it takes only seconds for a tense situation to become a confrontation.

Q: “Does this mean my dog will never like other dogs?”

A: Not necessarily. Some dogs’ tolerance improves dramatically with behavior modification (a specific kind of training), responsible handling, and/or slow, careful introductions to appropriate dogs. Since dog-directed aggression does not correlate to human-directed aggression, dog-reactive dogs can still be great pets for owners owners willing to manage their pet’s behavior for life (leashes at all times, no dog parks, and careful management on walks).

Need help managing dog reactivity? 

AHS Reactive Rover classes, taught by our expert trainers, are designed to help dogs feel comfortable and confident around other dogs. Learn more.