Taming the Canine Tarzan

Earlier this week, we wrote about “canine Tarzans,” those dogs who lack the necessary social skills to relate to other dogs calmly and politely. Often mistaken by their owners as innocent victims, these dogs are at risk from their own species due to their pushy and downright obnoxious behavior.

Photo by Dave Walker

Just as you may feel justified in kneeing a strange man in the groin if he tried to kiss you in an elevator, most well-socialized adult dogs feel that the use of teeth is perfectly reasonable when faced with canine Tarzans. Even if another dog doesn’t decide to tell your canine Tarzan off quite so plainly, it’s a rare dog who actually enjoys being pounced on or barked at by an unfamiliar pooch.

If you have a canine Tarzan, you know that you don’t have a bad dog. You have a good dog. You just have a very excited dog. Still, it’s your responsibility to help your dog learn to fit politely into canine society. Here’s how.

Just as human children don’t come into this world understanding how to sit quietly or use their manners, neither do dogs. It’s completely unfair to become frustrated with your dog for rude behavior, or worse yet to punish him for it.

That said, it’s important not to mistake positive training with permissiveness. Letting your dog mug other dogs in excitement is downright irresponsible (not to mention rude to the other dog and that dog’s owner).  Just as with any training problem, the solution here is a combination of clever management and teaching your dog what you want him to do.

Management refers to controlling your dog’s environment to prevent him from making poor choices. This could include keeping your dog on a leash to prevent him from plowing into or jumping all over every dog he passes on a walk, using a Gentle Leader to prevent him from pulling you all over the place, or covering your windows so that he can’t bark at passing dogs during the day while you’re gone.

Remember, “practice makes perfect.” If you allow your dog to engage in the behavior you’re trying to solve, you’re never going to be able to completely fix it. This is why my golden rule for canine Tarzans is absolutely set in stone: excited dogs don’t get to say hi. Period, end of story. If your dog cannot control himself, he cannot under any circumstances greet or interact with other dogs.

Following this simple rule will actually solve much of the canine Tarzan’s problem. As he learns that other dogs are off limits (at least temporarily), the sight of them becomes less exciting. His arousal level lowers, and he can start to learn how to control himself.

Helping your dog learn self control is one of the best gifts that a responsible owner can bestow on their furry best friend. I teach my dogs a variety of impulse control exercises, including automatic check-ins, the “It’s Your Choice” game, doggy zen, and various leave it exercises. All of these are easy to teach using positive reinforcement, so if you’re not sure how, look up your nearest Certified Professional Dog Trainer and get some quality guidance.

Once my canine Tarzan has learned to control himself, including learning how to walk nicely on a leash and to touch base with me when he sees something that interests him, it’s time to start teaching him some appropriate social skills.

I often start this by “parallel walking,” where two leashed dogs walk in the same direction as one another. We ensure that there’s enough space in between the two dogs that both can walk calmly and accept treats from their owners with soft mouths. Over time, as the dogs exhibit calm and relaxed behavior, they’re moved closer to one another, until eventually they are walking side by side. Low key introductions like this are key for recovering Tarzans. If either dog becomes too excited, the handlers just veer away from one another slightly, giving the excited dog more distance until he can calm himself again. Dogs are smart, and they quickly figure out that calm behavior brings their friend closer while excited behavior makes the other dog go away.

Once your recovering Tarzan can walk calmly side-by-side with other dogs and greet them politely on a leash, it’s time for him to learn appropriate off-leash manners. I often start this in a small space, with the recovering Tarzan dog dragging a light line attached to a harness. Large spaces can be problematic as your dog is probably faster than you, and may be too difficult to catch if needed. Larger spaces can also encourage out-of-control chases, where a pack of dogs gain up on a single runner.

After a calm and relaxed side-by-side walk with two or three other friendly adult dogs, I’ll allow the recovering Tarzan to interact freely with his new friends in the enclosed space. Let the other dogs off leash, and drop your Tarzan’s line. I provide lots of verbal feedback to Tarzan, praising him calmly for polite doggy choices. If he becomes too pushy or rude, I allow the other dogs to tell him off appropriately (this often involves lots of scary noise, but a well-socialized dog won’t actually injure him). If he responds nicely to their correction, I praise him for making a good choice and allow him to continue interacting. If he doesn’t respond by backing off, or if the other dog is not comfortable telling him off, I quietly remove him from the play area until he can calm himself down.

These initial off-leash play sessions are incredibly valuable for teaching a canine Tarzan how to interact appropriately with his own species. Make sure to keep them short (most of my initial sessions last about 3-5 minutes). Remember that self control is difficult for your dog, and the longer he has to control himself the more likely he is to make a mistake. End on success, with lots of treats and praise for being so polite to his new doggy friends!

If you have a canine Tarzan, it can be helpful to get an expert in canine body language to observe you and your dog. Some dogs just like to wrestle, and as long as they only do so with other dogs who have similar play styles (and can control themselves around dogs who do not wish to be body-slammed), this is not a problem.

Later we’ll write about how to help young dogs grow up with appropriate social skills, so that your excitable puppy doesn’t become a canine Tarzan. In the meantime, what questions do you have about dog-dog sociability? Have you ever had a “canine Tarzan” of your own, and if so, how did you handle your dog’s inappropriate behavior? Please share your questions and stories in the comments section!

3 responses to “Taming the Canine Tarzan

  1. Extremely helpful article. I’ve been looking forward to it all week, because I have a canine Tarzan (Jackrat). I live in an apartment community, so walking my dog several times a day is a necessity. As such we run into other dogs frequently.

    My dog has always been excitable around other people’s dogs and I’ve allowed her to approach because I wanted her to be well socialized to other dogs. She’s just so overwhelming to the other dogs though unless the other dog knows how to correct her. I watch her interactions closely, ready to pull her away at a moment’s notice. Pretty much every dog in my neighborhood doesn’t know how to correct though (most are timid and small), so they’ve allowed her to jump all over them and I have to pull her away then. So now I’ve made the situation worse by not allowing her to approach at all. She’s started in with the lunging and barking and throwing herself around tactic you noted in your article. It’s scary for me even though I know she’s not doing it cause she intend to hurt the other dog, but out of frustration. If it’s scary for me I can just imagine how much more scary it is for the owner of the other dog and their dog. She charges animals on the TV too, barking at the TV and making a general nuisance of herself. Who knew that some dogs actually like watching TV. I also live next to a wetland park. So five feet from my back windows are squirrels, raccoons, nutria, ducks and other birds, etc.. all of which she charges/barks at.. until she reaches the window that is.

    Interestingly enough, she seems to do well at dog parks, though I rarely take her to one. I put her in with the big dogs, even though she’s little, because the big ones seem to be the only ones that can really handle her. Her pattern seems to be to run around approaching various dogs. Most will ignore her and she moves along, running all over the place. Eventually she finds a dog that fits her energy level and they play together for a while.

    I can tell I’m going to need help now. I can’t imagine being able to train her to be calm by myself, but unfortunately I’m not in a position where I can hire professional help. Given stuff I’ve said, is there anything you can tell me that I can start with until I have the resources to take her to a professional? Something I can do on my own?

    • Hi Michelle,

      It’s not ethical for me to give you anything other than very general advice without seeing your dog in person, but I agree that it sounds like a professional’s guidance would be helpful in your situation. In the meantime, you may want to pay attention to your dog’s general arousal level (see https://paws4udogs.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/too-much-of-a-good-thing/ for more information on this) and manage her to prevent some of the things that currently cause her to go over the top. Covering or preventing access to windows, putting her in her crate with a Kong toy when you watch tv, and other similar management techniques may go a long way towards lowering her excitement level.

      Feel free to email me with your zip code if you would like help finding a qualified professional in your area. Many good trainers book out several weeks, so even if you feel like you may need a few weeks to save up or prepare for a consult, it’s probably worth touching base with someone sooner rather than later.

      I hope this helps! Your dog sounds like just the sort of girl I adore working with, and I bet there’s a lot you can do to help her learn to control herself around exciting things.

      Kindest regards,
      – Sara Reusche, Paws Abilities

  2. I have a year old medium-sized dog who likes to jump on other dogs’ heads (especially large dogs) as if to give a bear hug in an attempt to play. He is not a canine Tarzan as described in this article. After attending 2 puppy kindergartens and 3 basic obedience classes, he can, for the mot part, calmly pass by another dog and do obedience training in the proximity of other dogs as long as I have treats in my hand. Even then, he sometimes casually tries to jump on other dogs without being overly excited. If other dog owners ask if their dogs can greet with my dog while on a walk, I let him meet with them after explaining my dog’s unfortunate tendency for this rude behavior. (No one ever backed down from their initial request for a meet-and-greet after I told them my dog might jump on theirs in an attempt to play). He can even calmly and politely greet with them and everything looks great, but after several seconds of sniffing, he just casually jumps on them. Most dogs try to move away, some growl a bit, others start to play with him, while a few goes ballistic by barking, snarling and lunging.

    I take him to the dog park and a doggy daycare regularly, and he always plays nicely with other dogs. He is not overly excitable, dominant, bullish, or rough by any means. As a matter of fact, when other dogs get too rough with him, he rolls over on his back to calm them down. And yet, on initial encounters with other dogs, especially large unfamiliar dogs, he just can’t help himself but jump on them. Because of this, he sometimes gets growled at in the dog park, and he’s been snapped at a few times. Why does he keep doing this despite the negative reaction he’s received from other dogs? Is he going to grow out of this as he becomes more mature? Is there anything I can do to teach him not to jump?

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