Understanding Dog-Dog Sociability

Recently, my young dog, Pan, snarked at another young dog at a playgroup event. It was entirely my fault: I didn’t set Pan up for success. [It was also absolutely embarrassing, since I was wearing my Paws Abilities polo shirt (“seriously, she’s a dog trainer?”).]

Dog-dog relationships are one of my specialties, but I make mistakes too. As much as I’d like to be a superhero, I’m only human. My dogs, too, are not perfect. They’re only canine, and their social behaviors with other dogs are entirely normal and manageable.

Pan and his housemate Trout. Photo by Grape Soda Photography.

Pan and his housemate Trout. Photo by Grape Soda Photography.

We humans get into a lot of trouble with dog-dog relationships in our society. We expect our adult dogs to act like puppies forever, and we expect every dog to love every other dog. We judge and label dogs who display entirely normal, species-appropriate behaviors as “bad dogs” because they dared to growl or show teeth, and think that dogs who jump all over other dogs wildly are displaying entirely sweet and benign behaviors.

The truth is that dog tolerance levels are variable, and will change with both age and experiences (good or bad). There is also a genetic component to most dogs’ sociability with others of their own species, so all of the appropriate socialization in the world will not necessarily make every dog socially adept and friendly.

So, what does “normal” dog-dog behavior look like? Think of dog sociability as a bell-curve.

Normal dog sociability levels change as a dog matures.

Normal dog sociability levels change as a dog matures.

Dog Social: most puppies start here. They generally enjoy and seek out other dogs, and tolerate (or sometimes even encourage) rude behaviors from other dogs like humping or barking in their face. As dogs mature, almost all of them will move to the right of this trait. Truly Dog Social adult dogs (those who really appreciate the company of almost every other dog) are quite rare. Unfortunately for the species, this is the trait we expect all dogs to exhibit, even though it’s a fairly abnormal occurrence in the vast majority of mature dogs.

Dog Tolerant: slightly to the right of Dog Social dogs are those who are Dog Tolerant. Many puppies who will grow up to become Dog Selective or Dog Aggressive start here, before sliding to the right as they mature. This is also an incredibly common place for adult dogs to end up after maturity. Dog Tolerant dogs get along with most other dogs. They may be playful or neutral, but they generally have a pretty long fuse and good communication skills. Dog Tolerant dogs also tend to do well on leash around other dogs. They require normal supervision and limited direction from their human guardians.

Dog Selective: just as common as the Dog Tolerant adult is the Dog Selective one. While a rare and concerning trait in well-socialized puppies who have not had bad dog-dog experiences, this is a very normal place for an adult dog to end up at maturity. Dog selective dogs will often have a circle of “approved” dogs or types of dog that they do well with. Scuffles may break out quickly, and these dogs often have very short fuses. They may dislike certain play styles or types of dog on sight, and may be less than stellar on leash with other dogs. These dogs often dictate the rules while playing and may seem like the “fun police” or the “instigator” in group situations. They require a lot of supervision and positive direction from their owners to succeed with others of their species.

Dog Aggressive: this trait is highly abnormal in puppies, and fairly uncommon in adult dogs. In fact, it’s about as uncommon as truly Dog Social adult dogs. Dog Aggressive dogs often have a very limited circle of dog friends (perhaps only one or two housemate dogs), or may have no dog friends at all. They have quite poor social skills and can be quick to spark up on leash. Dog Aggressive dogs need additional support, patience, and direction from their guardians to succeed in dog-dog interactions.

So, where does Pan fall? As an eighteen-month-old intact male terrier cross, he’s matured into a very normal and manageable Dog Selective boy. He can be rude and pushy with other dogs, and is frequently inappropriate about intrusively sniffing or licking new dogs’ genitals if not redirected. He is also highly aroused by both meeting and playing with other dogs. He most enjoys interacting with opposite-sex partners under thirty pounds, but has dog friends of both genders and of various sizes. He does well with other dogs on leash when he is in “working mode” and generally handles on-leash greetings appropriately. Pan currently takes corrections from other dogs well if he meatballs into their space, but I suspect that he will become less willing to cede space as he continues to mature.

Dog sociability is not a fixed trait. As a dog matures, he or she will often quite naturally become less social and tolerant. There are many developmental changes that happen between sexual and social maturity, and most dogs will continue to display these changes until two to three years of age. Proper facilitation of dog-dog introductions and friendships can change your dog’s sociability for the better over time, and bad experiences can quickly make things worse. Good leadership and direction is important to set your dog up for success with their species.

As Pan’s handler, I failed to set him up for success when I allowed him to continue an aroused interaction with a male hound puppy who was larger than him. When the puppy jumped on and mouthed him too hard, he responded appropriately by correcting this behavior… then continued to go after the puppy [quite inappropriately!] until he was physically removed. Once on leash, he immediately calmed down and was able to focus on me, even with the puppy mere feet away. While this incident was over within seconds, it’s the sort of thing that, when allowed to happen repeatedly, will continue to shift Pan further towards the Dog Aggressive end of the spectrum. In fact, many of my clients could tell similar stories of how their dog initially enjoyed playgroups, the dog park, or doggy daycare, then became pickier and more likely to scuffle as adolescents, only to end up with a more serious incident as a young adult prompting them to call me.

Regardless of where your dog falls on the sociability spectrum, it’s your responsibility as their guardian to set them up for success. Remember that these traits are flexible, and that thoughtful management and slow introductions can shift your dog further to the left of the spectrum. Just as I have zero interest in frat parties, my adult terrier crosses are less than enthusiastic about the idea of a free-for-all play environment… and that’s entirely normal and okay.

Where does your dog fall on the sociability spectrum?

28 responses to “Understanding Dog-Dog Sociability

  1. Thank you for this arrival. You mentioned Pan is 18 months old and not nuetered: Do you believe that also played a role in his behavior?

  2. Pingback: Normal Dog Sociability Levels | Paws Abilities

  3. These dogs often dictate the rules while playing and may seem like the “fun police” or the “instigator” in group situations.

    This describes greyhound Emmie to a ‘t’. She’s highly intelligent, naturally a bit anxious, and has a strong need to be in control. Thankfully she’s also highly food motivated!

  4. I have 3 Staffordshire Bull Terriers. My intact 7-yr-old male is exceptionally dog tolerant. My 11-yr-old spayed bitch is very dog selective (fine with her family and with respectful dogs when she’s off leash in an open area. Snarky with any other dog.). My 2-yr-old intact bitch is somewhere in the murky midrange between tolerant and selective. I expect her to end up somewhat selective.

    • If you spayed/neutered Your dogs you would decrease aggressive behavior, as well as decrease overpopulation 🐾❤️

      • My dogs do not breed indiscriminately. Since the intact male is the least aggressive, and the spayed bitch the most aggressive, I’d have to disagree with your suggestion. (this doesn’t mean the younger bitch won’t eventually be spayed. She will, but I don’t anticipate much effect on her behavior.)

      • Sarah, you have it a bit backwards, probably based on your anecdotal experiences.

        You may have had fine experiences with intact males, but they are statistically more likely than neutered males to have aggression based behavioral problems, and neutering sometimes helps with that.

        On the flip side, spayed females often have the WORST problems interacting with each other (supposedly due to less hormonal regulation), and these issues often can’t be fixed (at least with any ease).

        Granted, every animal is an individual, and there are plenty of well behaved intact males and plenty of aggressive neutered males, but the overall trend supports neutering males.

      • Matt, I am not sure what your problem is here. Sarah wasn’t making any generalizations nor was she giving advice. She was talking about her specific dogs. I happen to know Sarah and her dogs, and she knows them very well. She has been in this breed for decades and she does a ton of stuff with her dogs, so she has a great idea of how they are with other dogs, other people, in public, and so on. You know *only* some (questionable) stats. The individual case always trumps the statistical prediction. How can you even argue with her about this? I will say – this is a classic example of mansplaining… And you owe Sarah an apology.

      • Is there any credible evidence for the idea that intact males are more prone to aggression than neutered males? Free ranging dogs are promiscuous – many males breed the same females, and it is normal for litters to have multiple fathers. Village dog males are more inclined to line up than fight for a female in heat – sex motivated fights do happen but are rare, and rarely end well for the fighters if they get wounded – because there isn’t much vet assistance availability for street dogs! and the litters they sire still have other fathers too anyway. Pet dogs don’t need to fight for females either, since their reproduction is normally controlled by human breeders. So there isn’t and probably hasn’t really been much if any evolutionary pressure on dogs for male aggression/fighting for mates. That is different from many other species, where intact males do fight for females and can indeed be very dangerous – eg boars, bulls, and stallions (and humans? ;-)

    • Matt, YOU have it backwards. I did not state anything about dogs in general. I restated the fact that of my 3 dogs, the intact male is the least aggressive and the spayed bitch the most aggressive, so Maggie’s suggestion of spaying/neutering them to reduce aggression was not applicable.

      The other day, the boy ran his heart out in agility league in anticipation of his favorite tug toy, which was waiting on the ground outside the ring. Came out, lunged for his toy, a nearby border collie (male, neutered) yelled at him, so my male said ‘oh, I guess no toy for me then” and kept going. I had to pick it up and give it to him. His toy. His favorite toy.

      He doesn’t HAVE any aggressive behavior to reduce. Maggie’s suggestion did not apply to my situation.

      • “this doesn’t mean the younger bitch won’t eventually be spayed. She will, but I don’t anticipate much effect on her behavior.”

        Statistically you should anticipate that. Again every dog is an individual (as I said, plenty of well behaved, well socialized intact males, plenty of neutered dogs with issues).

        I don’t know you, I don’t know your dogs, but if you just wanted to make a random observation about your specific dogs, I guess congratulations? It doesn’t really add any value to the discussion other than to pat yourself on the back.

      • Not saying your dog is aggressive but his intrusive behavior as an unaltered male makes other dogs uncomfortable.

    • Initially, I was merely responding to the question at the end of the blog post. Perhaps it was intended rhetorically, in which case I suppose I should apologize to the blogger (which is not you, Matt). I do find it interesting that my most dog tolerant one is the intact male, so it’s a thing I like to share. Since some random person named Maggie, who for some reason gets a pass in your mind on adding to the discussion, wanted to comment on my dog’s reproductive statuses, I felt I needed to reiterate my earlier comment.

      Then you inserted yourself, for whatever reason, I do not know. And again, got the wrong end of the stick. As you still are. I don’t know why you’re so determined to prove you know more about dogs than I do, and don’t really want to argue that. Go ahead, have a cookie.

      If you insist on me getting specific, the primary reason I don’t expect spaying the younger bitch to have much overall effect on her behavior is that statistically, spaying bitches can make them a little more aggressive (though it didn’t have that effect on my older bitch, she’s been dog selective a lot longer than she’s been spayed). However, the younger bitch has already shown that she can be a bit of a pill during the phase of her cycle where she would be whelping if she’d been bred. She walks around trying to start something with the old bitch, who avoids her. When she’s spayed, she won’t go through the hormonal cycles anymore, so that won’t be happening, but as a spayed bitch, she might statistically be expected to be a little more aggressive all the time, so I would expect the net effect to be negligible. There is no reason to expect her temperament to have a dramatic swing. (IME, while the stats do show that spayed bitches can be more aggressive, I do not see that very often being a dramatic change.)

      That’s all a bunch of very specific detail, far more than anybody needs though, and I didn’t feel it was relevant when I was explaining to Maggie why I disagree about spaying/neutering my dogs. I didn’t even need to mention that the youngest one would eventually be spayed, I only did that to make Maggie a little happier in her life, since the reproductive statuses of my dogs was important to her. (please note that she also chose to comment on the blogger’s dog’s reproductive status. I didn’t reply to that, because it’s not my business, but if you want to insert yourself on the topic of reproductive status, perhaps you could talk to Maggie about it there?)

  5. Interesting! As a side note I’m wondering why your dog is not neutered? That would certainly help curb his behavior.

    • As Matt said, spayed and neutered dogs are generally MORE aggressive, not less. The following links to a behavioral study of 10,839 dogs. The idea that spay/neuter “fixes” dog behavior is a myth promulgated by people who are usually well intentioned but generally misinformed, perhaps basing their information on a small sample – “this is what my dogs did”, but not on an adequately broad study.

      http://www.naiaonline.org/uploads/WhitePapers/SNBehaviorFarhoodyZink.pdf

  6. Hi! I am not sure where are dog falls. We rescued a one year old pibble three years ago. She is amazing to humans, cats and her dog housemates. She seems okay with most off leash dogs, but has shown nervous/aggressive behavior around leashed dogs. I find that engaging the owner of the other dog does help, but not enough. She also tends to follow the lead of our other female dog, who is somewhere between dog tolerant and dog selective.

  7. Holy moly! I think Sarah and Matt may need to be neutered. lol C’mon, you two. Stop being dog aggressive. This is a informational blog, not a venue for conversation domination. Chill out or move on, please. Shalom

  8. Patricia Racklyeft

    I have two questions. Will sociability change if the dogs are neutered and if I may ask, what are your reasons for not neutering Pan. No judgement, just curious.

  9. Dog aggressive :-(

  10. Hello!
    great article, thank you! many pet-blogs and other pet resources in Russian-speaking section of internet already translated it and even created an infographics.
    I have one question. Where did you get the statistics? I mean, what is the source of the % of dogs belonging to each group. Thank you!

  11. The way I see it it is similar to the behavior of the humans. As we age our behavior changes and matures, we become more wary of who we talk to and how. And if the person is annoying us we tend to explode more often in the later years than the early years.

    It is all about the experiences and the age. As we age we become more conscious of the situation we are in and we are more likely to be worried for our own safety as we are older because bad experiences are never forgotten.

    It is same with the dogs. While they are puppies they are worry free and don’t have any bad experiences to remember but as they age this changes and they are less and less forgiving, if the dog growls at an older dog he should expect a fiery response because the older dogs are more likely to have experience telling them that such situations are dangerous.

  12. My kelpie-pitt mix, at three years and three months, is strikingly dog tolerant, able to get along with almost any dog (including a friend’s dog-aggressive boy), though she has less patience with rudeness than she did as a puppy. This Sunday, though, she had an unusual aggressive reaction to another dog, which worried me. Both dogs were off leash, walking in opposite directions, when they met. I didn’t see how the incident started because the other owner was blocking my view, but he said his dog “felt intimidated” by mine, so I presume she snarked somehow. Instead of walking off, as she normally would, my dog responded by barking fiercely in the other dog’s face, driving forward as the other dog backed away several feet. It took me three commands to get her to stop and come back to me – probably only a few seconds, but plenty long enough to traumatize the other dog, I suspect.

    The only other time I’ve seen my dog do anything like that was when she was 18 months old, to a male adolescent who’d been ignoring her calming signals for several minutes and kept jumping on her as she tried to walk away. I figured he deserved it, and she came immediately when I called her off. This week’s incident seems more serious, and I’m wondering if I should just stop taking her to the dog park. This behavior is certainly not anything I want her to practice.

  13. Thank you, great insight.

  14. Amanda Taylor

    My female American Staffordshire Terrier is everything described in the dog-selective category and for us, excitement is the enemy. I only allow her to meet new dogs (that I have pre-approve based on several factors) at home because it’s where she’s the most calm and at ease. An unplanned meeting at the park is a crap-shoot and could go either way depending entirely on the actions of the other dog, so we avoid that at all costs. Once she has made a friend though, it’s for life and she will play with said friend non-freaking-stop once that rapport has been established. Great article. I see too many dog tolerant dogs exhibiting very rude behavior and the owners just dismiss it because the dog is “just being friendly,” while the dog-selective dogs get labeled an “instigator” because they can’t tolerate it.

    • Amanda Taylor

      I should also mention that as she gets older, new dog intros are getting easier. Presumably because her energy is waning a little, though I’d still consider her to be a very high energy dog. I started fostering puppies (typically under a year old) and that has seriously done wonders for her confidence (and mine!) in meeting new dogs. I highly recommend it for anyone looking to help their dog selective dogs move closer to the dog tolerant category.

  15. Pingback: Understanding Dog-Dog Sociability – Off-Leash K9 Training

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