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Be Your Selective Dog’s Best Advocate

Most of us have either owned a dog — or seen one on a walk — that reacts adversely to other dogs. Such a dog might snap at dogs while on a walk or get in scuffles at the dog park.

Dogs exist somewhere on a spectrum that ranges from being social butterflies to being so entirely dog aggressive they cannot come into contact with other dogs at all. The majority of dogs are somewhere in between, and we call them “selective.”

Dog-selective dogs like some dogs in some situations and dislike dogs in others. It is perfectly normal to have a dog that needs slow introductions. There is nothing wrong with a dog having social boundaries. I think that sometimes dogs become so anthropomorphized that their owners forget dogs are socially complex predatory animals who have natural limitations.

Dog selectivity does not come out of “nowhere,” and even the most social of puppies may begin to change between 1.5 and 3 years old, which is when puppies develop adult drives and temperaments.

Some signs that a dog that is uncomfortable in social settings are shying away, becoming agitated, yawning, whale eyeing, panting, and, of course, any reactive or aggressive behavior. The majority of dogs with some selectivity or aggression toward other dogs are insecure and may have felt that a handler has forced them into uncomfortable situations. For many dogs with fear issues around other dogs, forced interactions teach the dog not to trust the handler to keep him/her safe. Eventually, these dogs can become defensive, fear aggressive, and/or reactive. The first thing to remember if you own a selective dog is that you are, first and foremost, your dog’s advocate.

This means telling the person walking down the street that his or her dog straining at the end of the leash cannot meet your dog. It means being firm in asking people who are breaking the leash law to leash their dog. It means feeling confident enough to defend your dog by any means necessary from off-leash dogs not under voice control. In all other locations outside of dog parks, dog beaches, and dog-friendly hiking trails, leash laws apply. Know your rights and where liabilities are as well.

If you are walking your dog around one of the many leashed parks in the Bay Area and someone has an off-leash dog that runs up to yours, know you have the right to protect your dog, and also know that as long as you maintain physical control of your dog, you are not liable in the event of a physical altercation between the dogs. People who refuse to obey the leash laws should not prevent you from walking your dog and enjoying it.

Over the years, I have found the key to enjoying time with your dog selective dog is achieving something called dog tolerance. This involves tolerating the presence of other dogs nearby without play or interactions. These dogs and I come to a sort of understanding in that I will not tolerate any reactivity toward the other dogs; however, I will protect the dog at all costs and be that dog’s advocate.

It all comes down to trust. When you are ready to take your dog off a leash, I always strongly advise that clients have an impeccably reliable recall (come). I layer an electronic/remote collar into a dog’s existent recall command with fabulous results — and the ability to safely enjoy a dog off leash without stress (please do not use an e-collar without the assistance of a trainer experienced in its use).

As long as your dog has a reliable recall, you can safely go to off-leash areas that are less dense and have high areas of visibility, etc.

Many clients also choose to muzzle-train their dogs. This is a great option for dogs that are generally good with other dogs but can be unpredictable at times. Conditioning involves getting the dog acclimated to wearing a basket muzzle for extended periods, eventually working up to walking or hiking in one.

Owning a dog that is dog selective is completely normal. As long as your dog is obedient and under control, you and your dog have every right to enjoy the world together. Your dog’s best part of his or her day should be time spent interacting with you, not running around with unknown dogs at a dog park. In this way, you will enjoy a more engaged companion and an animal whose world revolves around you. Always remember to advocate for your dog above all else, and enjoy the relationship you cultivate.

Meryl Cohen is a trainer and behavior specialist working with Refined K9 and serving the San Francisco Bay Area. She owns a cane corso that is her working dog. They actively compete in IGP (schutzhund), dock diving, and some other sports. She also owns a pit bull and lab-mastiff mix that are both rescue dogs. Learn more at

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