Petting Wars

Q: My dogs have a tenuous relationship that can erupt into violence, keeping everyone in my home on edge. One of the triggers is when I'm paying attention to one dog and the other comes over. What can I do to help them get along and create harmony in my home?

A: You, my friend, are a valuable resource! You have managed to be so amazing that each of your dogs wants you all to himself. While that might be flattering, it is also no fun for anyone. I feel your pain because I actually had the same problem myself when we first adopted my second dog. I had to come up with solutions for this, two of which I cover in the “Petting Wars” chapter of my new book, Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home. Read on for an excerpt outlining one of these very effective techniques, which I call “You Guard It, You Lose It.” I hope you will find it helpful.

When a dog guards his owner and another dog backs down, the guarder is inherently being rewarded. Why would he ever stop the behaviour when it works so well? But what if, instead, the valuable resource were to disappear when he tried to guard it? To put it in a human context, imagine that you love pizza. You certainly do not want anyone coming near your very own yummy slice of heaven, so whenever someone approaches, you tell them to back off. But what if every time you warned someone away, the pizza vanished? How many more times would you say something when someone approached? In no time at all, you would learn that quietly enjoying your pizza even if someone was close by was the best way to keep the prize to yourself.


Here’s how to apply the principle to your dogs: At the exact moment your dog pulls the “She’s mine!” routine, say in a light voice “Too bad!” and immediately stand up and walk away. There is no need to reprimand your dog or to use a stern voice. The phrase is merely a verbal marker that lets your dog know that was the exact moment he was doing the thing that resulted in the consequence of losing his valuable resource—you. If your dog follows you, ignore him. You are effectively giving him a time out, so you need not ignore him for longer than a minute or two. No talking to, looking at, or interacting with him while he’s being ignored!

If necessary because of your home’s layout or for convenience sake, you can instead tether your dog (assuming your dog has been conditioned to a tether ahead of time) to the leg of the couch near you. Pet your dog as you normally would. If another dog approaches and the tethered dog shows guarding behaviours, when you move away, he will be unable to follow. You could even move to the opposite end of the couch out of his reach and give the other dog attention. Imagine the guarder’s surprise! 

The “You Guard It, You Lose It” technique offers a very clear, easy lesson for dogs to learn, and it is very effective. Think of scenarios in which one of your dogs guards you or your other family members, and formulate a plan. Choose a marker word that everyone will use, and make sure it is used at the exact moment your dog begins to show any guarding behaviour. Be sure everyone knows to stand up and walk away immediately after the word or phrase is spoken. Plan ahead of time where they will move to and for how long. If everyone in the family is on the same page, your dogs will learn much more quickly. As with all behaviour modification, consistency is key.

All the Reasons Your Dog Barks

I recently saw two German Shepherds at a dog park who were running the fence with two little terriers who were on the other side. Then I noticed that the Shepherds were both wearing shock collars. When I politely asked their owner why, she replied, “Because they bark when they run, and it bothers people.” Talk about shock—I was flabbergasted. Dogs bark; that’s what they do. Expecting a dog not to bark while he’s playing is tantamount to expecting young children to keep quiet while they’re racing around with their friends: it just ain’t gonna happen! That said, there are times when barking can be problematic. 

Most dogs will bark when someone is at the front door. This is called alert barking and is a normal behaviour. Most of us want our dogs to let us know when someone is outside anyways; however, we would also like them to stop barking when asked! This is where the problem often arises.

Let’s break those who approach your door into two categories: delivery workers and visitors. For deliveries, a quick, easy solution is to teach your dogs that after a few barks their job is to run to a designated area away from the door. You can easily train this behaviour by using a word such as “Cookies!” and then running to the fridge or cabinet where the cookies are kept. Of course, you’ll want to practice initially with no distractions such as an actual delivery or doorbell ringing. Once the behaviour is ingrained, when the delivery person shows up, allow a few barks and then use the magic word. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your dogs race away from the door!

Visitors are a different story, as their entering the home can cause even more arousal. Teach your dogs to go to their beds, lay down, and stay when the doorbell rings or someone knocks. In a nutshell, teaching this “go to bed” behaviour involves repeatedly getting your dog to go to his bed by tossing a treat. Once you can predict that he will go to the bed, add the verbal cue right before tossing the treat. When he’s mastered that, add lying down and staying. Praise and reward. Once your dog gets it, the trick is to add the doorbell as an environmental cue. That means ringing the doorbell and then telling your dogs to go to bed. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Your dogs will soon come to anticipate that when the doorbell rings, the next thing that happens is that they’re asked to go to bed, and they will actually go to bed upon hearing the doorbell, in anticipation of a treat. Since they’ll be lying down, chances are they will not be barking. Either way, once they’ve been lying quietly for a few minutes, either allow the guest to approach them or release them to go greet the guest. Have a friend or family member play the part of the guest during the training period, and don’t forget to reward your dog for staying in place!

Sometimes dogs bark simply because they want something. Some dogs bark for attention; others, because they want to be fed, or to be taken for a walk. And it works! How do I know this with such certainty? Because dogs do what works. If something stops working, they stop doing it. What would be the point of barking and barking to be fed if nothing ever happened. The answer to this one is easy; stop giving in. Even if it’s feeding time, if your dog is barking, wait until he’s been quiet for a period of time and then feed him.

Another common complaint has to do with backyard barking. If your dog barks at squirrels, birds, passersby, and pretty much anything, the answer is to call your dog inside. Again, alert barking is fine, but going on and on is not. What’s that you say? He won’t come when you call? Then it’s time to brush up on the recall, gradually practicing around more challenging distractions.  And don’t forget to reward your dog when he does come. If your dog is barking when left alone, the solution is different. If you’re only gone for a few hours at a time, consider allowing your dog to be indoors instead, either crated, gated, or at liberty if he’s non-destructive and fully potty trained. If he must stay outdoors, figure out what he’s barking at. If it’s a dog on the other side of the fence, consider privacy fencing, which will block your dog’s view. If he’s barking at absolutely everything and you are in danger of losing your dog because he has been declared a nuisance, consider a kennel silencer. This is a sound-sensitive, electronic box that hangs on your fence. When your dog barks, it emits a very high-pitched sound that will startle your dog into silence. On most units, you can set the sound to be audible by human ears or you can choose ultrasonic mode, which only dogs can hear. This should not be confused with a bark collar that goes around a dog’s neck, and which I do not recommend.

The bottom line is, dogs bark. It’s the way they communicate, and a “barking problem” is really not a problem at all for dogs, but rather just for us. If your dog’s barking has become problematic for you, figure out exactly why your dog is barking and under what circumstances, and then approach the problem positively and humanely. Find out the tops 5 dog behavior problems and how to address them!

Counter Surfing

Q: Our yellow Lab Buddy isn’t a puppy anymore but he still steals food from our kitchen counters when we’re gone. He’ll even do it if we’re home but are in the other room too long! What can we do?

A: Dog trainers describe this behaviour as “counter surfing.” Somehow, for me it always conjures a vision of a dog wearing Hawaiian print shorts, hanging ten on a countertop! But the reality is not so amusing. Dogs have been known to steal and ingest things such as chocolate, which can be deadly. And on a less dramatic note, who wants a canine thief in the house?

Let’s break our strategy into two parts: when you’re away and when you’re home. The first part is easy, and I think you already know what I’m going to say. Don’t leave good stuff on the counter! I know, I know, it’s not so easy to remember and it is exponentially harder if you have kids in the house. But if you make it a practice to visually sweep the countertops every time you leave the house, it will soon become a habit.

We’ve covered simple management. Now let’s look at the training aspect. Dogs are opportunists, and Buddy simply doesn’t understand that it’s not okay to grab food. That’s not surprising, as the only consequence he’s experienced so far is being rewarded with yummies! Those tasty reinforcers only serve to make it more likely that the behaviour will happen again. You mentioned that Buddy will also counter surf if you’re out of the room too long. So, let’s make him believe that even if you’re out of sight, you have eyes everywhere! 

Here’s how: Leave something tempting on the countertop. Set it where Buddy is likely to investigate, but far enough from the edge that he can’t actually grab it. Now, for this next part, you can go high-tech or low-tech, your choice. For the high-tech version, aim a web cam at the scene. Alternately but still high-tech, point your laptop’s built-in camera at the area and use an app that lets you view it on your phone or another computer. Now leave the room. As soon as you see Buddy investigating, rush into the room and say, “Leave it!” That’s assuming Buddy already knows what “leave it” means. (If not, it’s easy to teach and there are lots of good articles to be found online.) If he doesn’t yet know leave it, a sharp “Eh-eh!” will still interrupt the behaviour and get your point across. 

The low-tech version of the Eyes Everywhere technique is to hide around a corner and use a hand mirror to observe. If it happens that there is a reflection from a television screen or something else in the area, that’s fine too. But in my twenty years as a trainer, I hid around many a corner holding a hand mirror and I can tell you it works very well. Proceed as above, using good timing to rush in and verbally interrupt the behaviour. If you do this enough at different times of day and you vary the amount of time you’re “away” before rushing in, eventually Buddy will believe you’re omnipotent. How cool is that? Just remember that since you’re not actually everywhere at once, use good management as well. Very soon Buddy’s career in canine larceny will come to an end. 

Nicole Wilde is an award-winning author of 10 books on canine behaviour. Her books, seminar DVDs, and Wilde About Dogs blog can be found at

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