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.
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!