fluent enough in dog?
January 5, 2022 12:05 PM   Subscribe

I want to feel that my pup's safe while playing with a huge dog friend. I have been, and I always supervise; should I worry more than I do?

Here are these two nonsense animals. My pup is the little dachshund, five months old; the big dog is almost a senior, and he's probably a flat-coated lab mix. He has been getting to know her very gradually after a lifetime of never meeting other dogs and being furious when they came close. Now he seems to consider her "family." (Which she is. We'll be staying about another week.)

He is often excited to see her and play-bows, dancing and running away. If not, he is lying down and laid back. Either way, she is an absolute pistol and runs and jumps all over him. Often he tries to put a paw over her body, but she runs away from this as part of the game. He takes away things he didn't otherwise care about as if to say "this is mine," and that becomes part of the game too.

When he towers over her or puts his mouth on her neck, she will roll over. This is always quiet and lazily done, never looking angry. But it's what worries me sometimes, purely because I don't know that he knows his own strength, and he could easily kill a raccoon of her size. When he pins her throat down with his mouth, I get worried, but then when he stops, she will often paw at him to do it again! When she is tired of being rolled over, she seems to have no trouble getting away.

Is it safe for me to keep reading these two and closely supervising from a foot away? Today he snarled and barked at her for no reason I could see -- I could understand him doing it over a Milk Bone, as he has in the past, but I worried because I hadn't seen why. It made me wonder if I was reading the behavior correctly. Of course I took her right away, as I have in the past if she crossed his boundaries, and I didn't see that he wanted to bite her at all. But does it seem like I'm doing the right things?
posted by Countess Elena to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have a reactive dog; the dog body language I'm seeing in the photos you posted gives me pause, big dog looks on high alert, this would be my dog's body language before...reacting. How is big dog doing with distraction? Can you easily lure him away when he's in that stance? How well trained is he other than not meeting other dogs well in the past?
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 12:11 PM on January 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, I can distract him if he is not mad already. IIRC, he was looking to me shortly after that picture for treats. And then shortly after that he play-bowed and they played, a definitely friendly interaction.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Also, not to threadsit, but I'm afraid he's not well trained except for housetraining and a general kindness.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:14 PM on January 5, 2022

He snarled and barked because he was getting tired of her. I might have let that play out a bit instead of taking her away, because your pup also needs to learn not to push boundaries. My dog can sound ferocious to puppies that irritate him because puppies can be super annoying! He's not actually going to eat them (if if he had teeth).

Supervising from a foot away is more than adequate. I would let some of the boundary setting play out instead of intervening. I know it's difficult and stressful, but have you spent much time with your pup around other dogs? It's great for her to be around lots of different dogs. This is how dogs learn to interact with other dogs, you know?

Might also be good for you to go to a busy dog park without your dogs and watch happy dog park dogs at plays. You'll see all these behaviors and more.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:21 PM on January 5, 2022 [13 favorites]

Also, I've had reactive dogs, and I note that the hackles aren't up on the bigger dog. Not that hackles up are always a problem: dogs often have hackles up pretty quickly. And yes, they can react even without hackles. But, you could ask the person who knows the dog best about their proclivity for hackles, I guess?
posted by bluedaisy at 12:36 PM on January 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

The play you describe sounds like the play between my 48kg Dogue De Bordeaux and my 12kg, medically fragile French Bulldog. Dogs play with their mouths. My mastiff can and has put my Frenchie's entire head in her mouth! Biteyface is their favourite game.

Growling and then barking is optimal. He's correcting her. The photos really seems okay to me.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:51 PM on January 5, 2022 [12 favorites]

Best answer: What you describe is all very normal and fine dog behavior. It's actually very much how older dogs often interact with puppies, which tells me that even though the older dog is not well-socialized, he understands how he's supposed to treat puppies: gently, but teaching them how to be dogs. Also, the fact that your dog comes back for more even with things that seem, to human eyes, aggressive is encouraging.

As long as someone is supervising them closely, I don't see a huge cause for concern other than the lack of socialization. One thing that might be good is for both dogs to have places they can retreat to if they get overwhelmed. I'd especially watch the older dog to see if he seems to be getting overly annoyed or seems threatened: snapping, hackles up, ears back. That's your cue to whisk the puppy away.

Having seen my share of dog fights at the dog park, etc, the worst fights happen either right when a reactive/aggressive dog gets to the park (which I think is a danger you've passed since the dogs have been coexisting for a bit) or when humans have ignored signs of the reactive/aggressive party feeling threatened or the targeted dog trying to get away but not being allowed to. Except for the former (aggressive dog starting a fight immediately on arrival), real dog fights (ie, not play) don't tend to happen out of nowhere.

Oh also, it sounds like the older dog learned about "soft biting" somewhere along the way, which is great. This is something most dogs learn as young puppies, either from humans or from the other members of their litter. It's what dogs will usually use in play. A dog that doesn't understand soft biting is a real danger, but it doesn't sound like that's a worry you need to have.
posted by lunasol at 12:54 PM on January 5, 2022 [9 favorites]

Normally when dogs have already progressed to the level of acquaintanceship that you're describing here, the danger of serious aggression is past. The incidents I know about where two dog "friends" had incidents of serious aggression all featured an element of predatory staring. For instance (not to scare you, but since you ask) I know of a stalky Border Collie who coexisted warily with a Sheltie for a couple of years who then killed it when they were both left unattended. It didn't just come out of nowhere; it had always been spooky around the Sheltie and obviously the BC was not right in the head as that is very aberrant behavior for the breed. What you're describing sounds like good healthy behavior to me. I would be more concerned about the little dog's back getting accidentally hurt when he pins her down with his paw.
posted by HotToddy at 1:06 PM on January 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

I have a teeny tiny toy poodle and a great dane. I have a lot of friends who also have great danes. They really rolled the little guy around at first but he learned fast to read the 'go-away' signs and he's a better dog for it.
posted by coldbabyshrimp at 6:29 PM on January 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

I have a bigger dog and agree, those pictures look fine to me. Big guy is alert but not stiff, his tail is up, no hackles raised. The barking by itself in the absence of any other warning signs or reactivity isn't too concerning because as others have noted, that's how adult dogs teach puppies to play nicely and accept boundaries. I'd keep observing them, only partly because the older guy doesn't have a lot of socialization but mostly because that's a good dog owner habit no matter what, but it sounds like the situation is a good one and I wouldn't worry more about it!
posted by superfluousm at 5:24 AM on January 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

Sounds like you're managing this situation really well! My (late) dog, who was very reactive and very intolerant of other adult dogs (like, I've broken up multiple dog fights intolerant), was surprisingly patient and generous with puppies, as it sounds like this older fellow is. My dog ended up raising three puppies in my immediate family and they were really her only dog friends. I wouldn't worry too much about a single incident of growling/barking, but do keep your eye out for when the older dog is maybe getting a bit tired of puppy enthusiasm or if it becomes a pattern (especially since a behavior change like that could signal a medical problem for the older dog).

The only other thing is you might expect to see the dogs renegotiate their relationship once your puppy grows up (in a year or so). The "puppy pass" does expire, but the good relationship they're developing now should help to ease that transition.
posted by radiogreentea at 11:03 AM on January 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, guys! I did think I might be overthinking it, but I love these dogs both so much that I wanted to be very, very careful. Here is an extra picture from last night of him doing the big chomp (without incident of course) and a later picture of her playing with her kitty friend. There's no wondering if he's had enough.

The big dog was "raised by" small dogs who were his size when he was a puppy, and they bossed him around, and still do. They do not like my pup, which is fair; they're old girls. I keep them separated.

In the future we will be able to visit dog parks and make dog friends, but it's been tough up to now, mostly but not totally because of the pandemic. It'll get better.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:01 PM on January 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Ok, the Big Chomp photo gives me pause even though it didn't result in an incident (thank God.) I don't have a resolution to offer, but I think your spidey sense telling you to keep an eye on them whenever they're together is a good call.
posted by The Adventure Begins at 1:07 PM on January 6, 2022

Best answer: "Is it safe for me to keep reading these two and closely supervising from a foot away?"

It's only safe if you are fairly good at interpreting what you see. You sound very caring, attentive, and sensible. What worries me, though, is that you did not mention any of the many cues to look out for that precede growling and barking. Do you know what Calming Signals are? I would watch a lot of videos about those, if I were you. Turid Rugaas is the name you want to look for, she's the expert. Ideally, you might consider sending a video of these dogs playing to a professional. You want to look for a progressive dog trainer, so if you do this, ask them what their influences are. Patricia McConnell, Emily Larlham, Karen Pryor, Kathy Sdao, Victoria Stilwell, Ian Dunbar, Karen Overall, Leslie McDevitt? Great!

"Today he snarled and barked at her for no reason I could see -- I could understand him doing it over a Milk Bone, as he has in the past, but I worried because I hadn't seen why. It made me wonder if I was reading the behavior correctly."

Well, there's just so many reasons outside of resource guarding situations. In fact, I would very much remove all bones and food bowls. And then, there will still be times of conflict and it's important to interrupt when you see either dog getting overwhelmed. With the size discrepancy and the older dog's unstable history/lack of socialization, you do not want this adult dog to teach your little one manners. She needs a gentle and calm teacher; a dog who is bomb-proof. Relieve the adult dog of needing to teach lessons by setting strict boundaries for the little one and removing resources.

"Of course I took her right away, as I have in the past if she crossed his boundaries, and I didn't see that he wanted to bite her at all. But does it seem like I'm doing the right things?"

That is great practice, and if all dog owners did this we would have far fewer dog fights and many more well-adjusted dogs. Push back against anyone telling you to let them "work it out". Would you rely on unstable adults to teach your little kid what relationships are supposed to look like? What if they became violent? Your young charge is canine, but she's still learning about the world in a very similar way. You're absolutely doing the right thing by being alert in this situation. Super quick rule-of-thumb: allow crazy running and wrestling games for no more than three or four minutes. Allow games where they're both lying down and using their muzzles carefully for longer, because these are the safest (read up on "muzzle tenderness" and don't worry about the big chomp).

Re: puppy pass...when my first puppy was six months old, we visited the home of a huge, shaggy, very peaceful adult dog. My pup, having no clue (as puppies do) growled at the big dog, protecting an empty food bowl. Oh, wow. A terrible fight ensued, and the adult dog was bitten on the nose. He tore a hole in my puppy's throat, and finally let her go. During all this, his owner was calmy assuring me that there would be no wounds, because of "the puppy pass". So just a reminder: there is no puppy pass. With well-adjusted adults, pups often get a pass because they work so hard at appearing cute and non-threatening. When they forget or panic, they can be hurt quite badly.
posted by toucan at 3:33 PM on January 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

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