Puppy license and adult behavior–STOP SEPARATING PLAY.

I’ve got a bunch of posts waiting in my brain–there are some good conversations going on. Unfortunately I can’t post front pictures, since Clue is still wonky in front and my camera is not functional. I’ll probably try to revive the topic when and if I can ever get a good picture of her again–she’s got a good front that has gotten WAY better with age, and I would love to know if other people have noticed that certain Cardi fronts age well and others of them age badly. But without pics I can’t really demonstrate what I’m talking about.

So, while I’m thinking about pack behavior and what dogs do, I wanted to talk a little bit about what is normal and acceptable dog behavior and what is concerning.

My general rule when the dogs are sane is that if blood isn’t flowing, I don’t interfere. This is because of the following great truth:

When we interfere, we screw up a lot more dog interaction than we ever fix.

Humans are REALLY bad at reading what’s happening with dogs. We ignore really bad stuff and we stop, even punish, perfectly normal behavior. This is true even when you’re really experienced; I have spent thousands of hours studying this stuff and I am more convinced that I am an idiot when it comes to dog behavior than I was when I began. Maybe when I’m sixty I’ll start interfering, but right now I know perfectly well how dumb I am.

One of the reasons we screw up interactions has to do with the fact that, just like we humans do, dogs have communications that have beginnings, middles, and ends. The beginning is the series of behaviors that initiate the interaction, the middle is the interaction itself, and the end is when the dogs resolve or end the interaction and move back away from each other.

That entire cycle is VERY important. If it is not completed, the next time the dog or dogs tries to interact the “transaction” won’t go as smoothly. Some of the social lubrication will have been lost.

If interactions are routinely truncated, two bad things happen: First, the dogs involved don’t get to finish the conversation, so they get out of practice in how to finish interactions. This is a lot more dangerous than it sounds–every dog interaction is a finely honed and subtle meeting of two animals perfectly prepared to kill each other. Predator-to-predator transactions are not exactly natural, and dogs have evolved an incredibly complex series of behaviors to keep things from escalating into an attempt to physically harm. If they are bad at those behaviors–if instead of suave and smooth talkers they’ve become awkward and tend to say the wrong thing–they are in genuine danger of falling from normal transaction into a situation where one or the other of them will make a move toward a killing attempt.

The second bad thing that happens is along the same line, but it involves those two dogs in particular. If they cannot finish the conversation they began, they do not have a chance to do all the appeasement/backing up behaviors that they would normally do. The conversation is cut off just when things are getting tense. So when the dogs see each other again, they will be more heightened in their interaction than they would have been if they’d been allowed to complete the cycle. This makes them even more likely to need to have a conversation that gets tense, and when they are again separated the stakes get even higher.

The above is kind of brainy, so let me put it in terms of a typical situation with a puppy and an adult dog (this is the most common time when humans interfere; the second is when a new adult is being introduced; I’ll address that below).

New puppy arrives and is cute and wonderful. For a few days or weeks she toddles around and falls over adorably and snoozes everywhere and plays her funny little puppy games and everyone, including all the adult dogs in the house, smiles indulgently and allows her many liberties that they would never allow an adult dog.

This is normal and good; it’s how the pack bonds with and learns to protect the puppies that come into it.

But then at some point, say at twelve or sixteen weeks, even earlier for the quick maturers, the little soft fuzzy schnookums-wookums becomes a growing dog, and her little games start to involve using her teeth in a real and deliberate way. And instead of bumbling into the adult dogs’ heads and falling over, she’s lying in wait and then barreling over and jumping on their heads.

The adult dogs decide they’ve had enough, and they begin to punish her for this rude behavior. If she jumps on them they roar, they knock her with their mouths, they send her ki-yi-yi-ing into the next room. When she has play interactions with them they don’t hold back anymore; they pin her and knock her over and she yelps and rolls away.

The human says “Oh no! Poor Gladys! They’re being rough with her!” and they begin to supervise the play. Every time the adult dogs get “rough” they are stopped or disciplined. If they continue to “victimize” the puppy they are totally separated; she plays alone and they play alone.


Puppies learn from adult dogs. A vital and absolutely incontrovertible role of a healthy adult dog is to teach the puppy how to be a good and polite dog. The adult teaches–yes, by physical punishment, though that punishment is not cruel–how to interact with other dogs, how to live in a pack, how to ask permission, how to back off, etc. If you stop that from happening, not only does the puppy grow up with SERIOUS issues that will hurt her chances of being a normal dog who can get along with other dogs, you build resentment between the two dogs. If the adult dog is never allowed to complete a lesson, he will try harder and sooner the next time. If he’s stopped again and again, pretty soon he will decide that the only way to deal with this is to remove the puppy from the picture entirely.

This is why you end up with separated packs, and the owners say “From the very beginning, they just couldn’t get along.” The vast majority of the time, it was the humans who doomed the relationship because they misinterpreted a set of actions that is not only normal but ESSENTIAL, and they “broke” the ability of the dogs to interact normally.

You MUST understand this: DOGS DO NOT MISS. There’s no such thing as “If I hadn’t been fast enough, he would have hurt her.” Trust me, that dog is WAY faster than you. There’s no “Another inch and he would have hurt her eye.” If he had wanted to hurt her eye, he would have hurt her eye. You did not rescue her and you did not stop him. What he did was exactly what he intended to do, no more and no less.

No matter how noisy and scary and huge the interaction is, if the puppy is not hurt (and tiny scores or puncture wounds don’t count–both of them mean that the adult dog was holding his mouth open and not biting down) they should be allowed to finish it. The puppy can get VERY scared. The puppy can scream bloody murder and run. The puppy can get knocked completely over. No blood flowing means it was a normal conversation. If the adult dog tries to pick the puppy up, or begins to shake the puppy, that’s bad and wrong and you need to separate them and go find a behaviorist who knows what he or she is doing to supervise their interactions for a while. But that almost never happens in our breed; it’s something you need to consider in the breeds that have had some of that bite inhibition dampened through deliberate breeding (any breed that was expected to not just attack but physically damage or kill other dogs on a regular basis would qualify), and in those breeds any introduction of any new dog is something you supervise VERY carefully, but Cardigans are not one of those. In our breed adults almost never inappropriately move from normal punishment to a predation (biting down with the intent of harming) bite.

What you want to see is the interaction move to completion. The adult should be fully relaxed and the puppy should either be showing proper submissive behaviors like mouth-licking or cringing and creeping or should have left the room entirely. THEN you can move in and interact with the dogs again. But do not punish the adult and do not comfort the puppy–the puppy was being a brat and got what she deserved; she does not need your comforting and you risk reinforcing her brattiness.

One very important caveat: When this kind of thing is at its height–when the puppy is getting disciplined on a regular basis–make sure that you are not accidentally or deliberately confining the dogs together. The ability to get away is essential to completing the behavior. If the dog at fault can’t move away from the interaction, the interaction has a hard time ending, which can escalate the tension and make the mild punishment far worse. So don’t force the dogs next to each other in a hallway; if they’re standing together at the bathroom door, don’t walk into them and inadvertently herd them both into the small room. This becomes second nature quickly, but if you’re not used to thinking that way you’ll need to be very aware of how you are moving the dogs both deliberately (on leashes or while playing) and unconsciously (with your body language).

Similarly, don’t invite interactions over food. Food always escalates tension. Keep in mind that this isn’t just about the food bowl. Don’t have the puppy and the adult dogs running around the dining room when the whole family is eating. Don’t let them be unsupervised at parties or get-togethers if there’s food outside. Better to crate them and avoid a situation where a transaction needs to begin.

My advice for introducing a second adult to the family is similar, but you need to keep in mind that they both need a lot more physical space to get away from each other. The great thing about introducing adults is that if both are good at talking “dog” they don’t need to keep repeating the same conversations the way puppies and adults do. They can be secure and calm very quickly. The bad thing is that they are peers, so there won’t be an automatic “you back down; I am in charge” order. So they will have a bit more initial tension as they figure each other out.

I think Cesar Millan’s method of first going for a very long, brisk, controlled walk with both dogs (so you are walking one and the other is being walked as well, and then you meet and continue walking, with no sniffing allowed) is very, very good. It channels the tension of meeting into physical activity and means that when you do let them get together they’re both relaxed and tired. I’d add to that advice that when you feel both dogs relax enough that you would like to let them touch noses, the best place is a large fenced area that is neutral to both dogs. A fenced field or empty dog park or something similar would be ideal. If that is absolutely not an option, you can use your own fenced yard, but don’t bring the dogs inside first. No collars, no leashes, and don’t be alarmed if big noises happen, as long as the dogs are able to get away from each other. Again, no blood means it’s all OK. The keep-tension-low rules apply for several weeks–no small areas, no food, etc. In my house we also don’t let strange dogs be with the existing dogs if there are little kids playing near them, even if I’m right there. I know the existing dogs will begin to feel protective and that noise and chaos raises tension, so I put the dogs behind baby dgates.

I know this is hard, especially if you’ve never heard this before, but you really need to let puppies get spanked. And you need to let older dogs figure out what roles they will fulfil in your combined pack. Think very hard before you step in and interfere with a conversation, and consider the implications of any kind of separation.


6 thoughts on “Puppy license and adult behavior–STOP SEPARATING PLAY.

  1. I am printing this and posting it in my house for my husband and son. They have such a hard time letting my older dogs discipline the pups. Maybe this will help them understand. Thank you!

  2. Joanna, should size ever be taken into consideration? We’re currently “fostering” my ILs 7 month old female cockapoo. She’s spayed and about 10 lbs.

    Keira, our 50lb-ish herding mix (also spayed, about 2 years old). Really whomped on her from the start. We mostly let them sort it out in the front yard, but we did call Keira when she started to dig at the new dog. Was that wrong? I’ve never seen dogs dig at each other and I was worried about her accidentally hurting the new dog. She also seemed like she was getting more excited and amped up and I wanted to stop that.

    Now they’re doing well. The puppy is very submissive to Keira, and Keira is being more gentle. Though she will still pin the puppy and “nibble” on her.

    Did we mess up?

  3. Great post! I love the fact that dogs teach each other, makes our lives so much easier! We’ve also enjoyed watching the youngers teach our oldest, who was pretty dog-speak-retarded (rescue, poorly socialized). Our first “baby” taught her basic manners and self-control, and our youngest has taught her proper play etiquette…talk about a role-reversal! Very cool and rewarding to watch.

  4. Pingback: The dog word I HATE: Aggression « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

  5. Pingback: Ruffly Speaking = Blacksheep Cardigans » The dog word I HATE: Aggression

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