You're at the park with your dog as he finds another four-legged buddy to play with. The two dogs seem to be having fun, but something feels amiss. Your dog is extra rambunctious and is really pushing the other dog around. Maybe the other dog is handling your dog's overly rough-and-tumble attitude with patience. Or perhaps the other dog begins to hide behind or between his owner's legs, looking for a break from your bossy dog.
Been in this situation? You just might have a bully on your hands.
Bullying behavior is a bigger problem than simply having a rude dog. In the immediate situation, it can lead to an attack or a fight, and in the long run it can cause the dog's unappreciative play partner to become fear-aggressive, thinking all dogs are bullies. That's why it's important to stop bullying behavior the second you see it and train your dog to play appropriately.
Signs of bullying behavior include:
- Being overly demanding about getting a toy, attention from people, or other resources
- Continually standing over or pinning another dog to the ground
- Ignoring signals from a play partner that the play is too rough or unwanted
- An escalating intensity when the other dog pushes back or tries to leave
If you have a dog that behaves like a bully on the playground, there are steps you can take to fix the situation, which will benefit both your dog an all the other dogs he wants to play with.
What causes bullying behavior?
"Over-stimulation often leads to bossy behavior," says Erin Kramer, an expert dog trainer who specializes in rehabilitating fearful, anxious and aggressive dogs. "This means that as the energy level rises, such as during chasing games, tug of war, or even just enthusiastic wrestling, dogs often become too stimulated and start to ignore signals from other dogs that they are playing too rough or that their interaction is not welcome. Dogs also feed off of each others' energy, so a group of playing dogs can escalate into over stimulation and bullying behavior faster than a dog would with just one play partner."
Kramer adds that simply watching how another dog is responding to your dog can tell you if your dog is being a bully. "If the other dogs are attempting to move and stay away, overly submitting by rolling on their backs, or are showing signs of stress or avoidance, that is a good indication your dog may be getting too rough."
If you aren't certain if your dog is bullying or if that's just the play style of the two dogs, Kramer suggests getting a hold of your dog and seeing what happens when you make him take a break from play. If the other dog runs to your dog for more, then the two are getting along fine. But if the other dog maintains space, then the other dog is likely not really enjoying your dog's rough play behavior and your dog needs to tone it down.
What to do if your dog is the bully
The old advice of letting dogs "work it out themselves" is the source of many problematic behaviors that can take years of training to overcome. Bullies will simply get better at bullying, and the dogs being picked on will likely develop increasingly intense fears about your dog and other dogs. Humans need to step in immediately to break up play that isn't fun for both dogs, and prevent a bad situation — and bad behavior — from getting worse.
Once you've identified that your dog is being unappreciatively assertive with other dogs, it's important to interrupt the behavior in the moment, then begin training to end the behavior in the long run.
In the moment, call your dog away and have him sit or lie down until he calms down. This can take a long time for a dog easily aroused in a dog park. Your dog is not calm until he can look away from other dogs playing, focus on you and exhibit relaxed body language. If after several minutes, your dog can't seem to take his eyes off the other dogs and just wants to dive back in, then it's time to leave the play area as it's likely your dog won't be able to tone down his play style.
The next thing is to begin setting your dog up for successful play sessions in such a way that you can easily step in to interrupt bullying behavior the moment it happens.
"If your dog does not have the advanced obedience it takes to perform an off leash 'come' out of play — and let's face it, that's a really challenging time to respond — then you need to set up your dog to deal with their bullying issues," advises Kramer. "Have the dog wear a long leash, select a small play area where it's easy to get control, and practice your obedience training so you are prepared to handle your dog correctly."
During play, look for the timing of your dog's bullying behavior and see if there are patterns. Kramer notes to watch if it's a certain type of play partner, such as a high-energy or confident dog, that brings out the bully in your dog, or perhaps it's simply that your dog bullies more when he hasn't had as much exercise or training practice.
"If you can find a pattern to what creates or worsens their bullying behavior, then you can take steps to reduce it from happening and set them up for success by choosing more appropriate play partners or getting them increased exercise before play," says Kramer.
Taking steps to train your dog to end bullying behavior is important, and Atlanta Humane Society has a great article outlining one way to interrupt and retrain your dog to end bullying over the course of many weeks. In addition to solid training addressing bullying during play, it's important to have other tools to help your dog take the lessons beyond the dog park.
One lesson that Kramer notes is essential for pushy dogs is concept "Nothing In Life Is Free." Teach your dog that he only gets the rewards he wants most in life when he thinks about what his human wants. Your dog will then continually check in with you, so he can earn what he wants.
"Demanding dogs are often dogs who need to know, 'what's in it for me?'" says Kramer. "Start making an asset list of all the things your dog sees as valuable. Remember that there are things that should go on the list outside of just treats and toys such as going through the front door, playing with friends, greeting strangers, even tummy rubs and snuggle time. Instead of giving away all those valuable rewards, ask your dog to earn them by performing commands like sit, down, stay, come, or doing a trick. Your dog will still get access to all of the things he likes, but he'll have to earn those things from humans and in doing so, he'll learn that pushy behavior doesn't get rewarded. Once they learn this skill, they will be less bully-ish in general, and much more willing to listen to people when you need to get their attention."
You can also implement a "no reward marker" or NRM, which works in the same way as clicker training, but rather than the marker indicating that a reward is coming, the marker indicates a loss of something is coming. Pat Miller writes in Whole Dog Journal, "My preferred NRM, the one I teach and use if/when necessary, is the word 'Oops!' [which] simply means, 'Make another behavior choice or there will be an immediate loss of good stuff.' An NRM is to be delivered in a non-punitive tone of voice ... Timing is just as important with your NRM as it is with your reward marker. You’ll use it the instant your dog’s bully behavior appears, and if the bullying continues for more than a second or two more, grasp his leash ... and remove him from play. Don’t repeat the NRM. Give him at least 20 seconds to calm down, more if he needs it, then release him to go play again."
What to do if your dog is being bullied
You may have an issue with a bullying dog, but it isn't your dog causing the strife. It's just as important to step in to interrupt your dog getting picked on. Again, letting dogs "work it out themselves" leads to significant behavioral problems, including a bullied dog becoming excessively fearful or reactive to other dogs because of the bad experience of being bullied.
"This mindset is just much too risky!" says Kramer. "We the humans very often do not know the social skill level of the other dogs involved nor can we successfully know exactly how stressed or scared our own dog is in that situation. I would much rather a dog learn that his humans step in when he is showing signs of discomfort rather than him learning he is forced to defend himself, and that being fear-aggressive is a good strategy to keep himself safe."
If you see that your dog is getting picked on or is uncomfortable in a play situation, calmly but confidently step in. You can leash your dog and leave, or step between your dog and the other dog to break up play. Staying calm but assertive is key, since your reaction sends a message to your dog. Screaming and yelling at the dogs to break it up tells your dog that this is a scary situation, where as firmly stepping in lets your dog knows that what happened was uncomfortable but nothing to be scared about.
"By demonstrating to your dog that you are responsible and actively engaged in keeping them safe, they will gain confidence in handling tricky social situations and will be less fearful and reactive when negative experiences arise," says Kramer.
"As a trainer who does a lot of aggression rehabilitation work with dogs who have been bullied or attacked by other dogs, there is a particular joy I get in watching fearful dogs learn that they are no longer responsible for protecting themselves, and that I as their human handler will observe the body language messages they send me and will then take the steps needed to alleviate their discomfort. There is a bond that comes with such a system of partnership that makes a dog a more confident, social, and happy being. Allowing your dog to bully or be bullied means that you are undermining that system, and teaching your dog that they are on their own in learning how to make successful social decisions. With just a bit of observation, intervention and repetition you can help your dog learn the boundaries of positive social interaction and you will not only have a dog who is a better playmate, you will also have a stronger relationship altogether."