Ask the Trainer: Personal Space Issues


Debbie Bickford

Q: My dog Olive is friendly but timid, and doesn’t like when dogs she doesn’t know invade her space. Sometime she gets aggressive and growls or snaps. I’m worried for her safety and the safety of the dogs that come up to her. What should I do?

A: Picture this: You’re out walking in your neighborhood. Suddenly a stranger walks up to you, reaches out his hand, and touches you. Yikes! This stranger has invaded your personal space, your “bubble.”

Unfortunately, this kind of stressful event happens to dogs all the time. Many people believe that all dogs want to meet every dog they see. Some dogs do. Many do not.

Your dog might be offended by the rude antics of some dogs (especially young ones), or feel threatened by strange dogs encroaching on her territory or personal space. Her growl might be saying: “Please stop,” “You’re being rude,” or maybe, “I don’t like that. Back off!”

My advice to you is to recognize her behavior for what it is (she’s not being ‘bad’), respect what she is telling you (maybe she is not comfortable), and take steps to show her that you are in control of the situation and will keep her safe.

Don’t allow other dogs to rush into her space, and let people know that she doesn’t like it. You can step between the dogs to block access, and/or move her away from the other dog before she reacts.

You can also take steps to help her feel better about dogs in her personal space. After all, if she likes dog greetings, she won’t be motivated to stop them with aggressive displays.

One technique is called desensitization and counterconditioning (D&C). The goal of D&C is to help change the way a dog feels about whatever she doesn’t like. As with any behavior modification, the specifics need to be tailored to the individual dog, and it’s important that you work with a qualified trainer or behaviorist.

A professional will help you understand what’s going on and show you ways to manage your dog’s behavior effectively. They will also teach your dog how to cope with stress in different, less aggressive ways, and help eliminate or reduce her need to growl by helping her overcome her dislike of her triggers.

Above all, listen to what your dog is telling you. It will strengthen your relationship, and she will appreciate you for it!

Trainer April 2Debbie Bickford has been training dogs in Chicago since 1999. She is an honors graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers. Debbie currently offers group classes at Tucker Pups Dog Activity Center and private lessons for dogs with issues such as aggression and separation anxiety. To contact Debbie, visit DebbiesDogs.net.

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