I could sense the woman’s exasperation over the phone. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “Max* used to LOVE doggy daycare. He’s been going to daycare three days a week since he was a puppy. Now, within the last few weeks, he’s been in several scuffles, and today, he got in a big fight where he bit the other dog. The manager says he can’t come back to doggy daycare: he’s expelled. I don’t know what to do! I can’t think of anything that has changed about his life that would make him act this way.” I can almost her grinding her teeth. “What am I supposed to do now? Why is this happening? Can you fix Max so he can go back to daycare?”
This is a call that I have received regularly over the years since I have become a professional dog trainer. What can cause a dog who was formerly the life of the party to start having problems at doggy daycare or the dog park?
*Names and sexes have been changed to protect privacy.
First things first: understanding doggy development
To answer this question, we first must explore the topics of dog development and sociability.
For the sake of this article, I will define “dog sociability” as a dog’s willingness and ability to interact appropriately with other dogs.
While there is no universally accepted sociability scale in the field of dog behavior, I find this graphic by Lili Chin to be extremely helpful, and you can find more dog behavior posters by the fantastic Lili Chin here. A summary of dog sociability terms can be found below.
Dog social dogs truly enjoy interacting with other dogs. These dogs enjoy places like doggy daycare or the dog park. They’ve never met a stranger: they’re true social butterflies, and they love to meet and play with other pups at almost every opportunity. Their lives are greatly enriched by having regular doggy interactions.
Dog tolerant dogs generally enjoy interacting with other dogs, and are up for trips to the dog park or other doggy interactions. They don’t enjoy extremely rude or pushy dogs. They may not truly enjoy daycare and find it to be “a bit much” or even “a lot.” However, they are generally able to put up with a fairly large amount of obnoxious behavior.
Dog selective dogs don’t really take any nonsense from other dogs. They have a low tolerance for annoying behavior. They may be OK with calm and appropriate dogs, and likely have some doggy friends. However, they may be growly or aggressive with dogs that are rude, inappropriate, or scary. Dog selective dogs are not a good fit for dog parks or doggy daycare environments. It is inevitable that they will run into dogs in those spaces that are pushy or impolite, and they can easily become overwhelmed in this sort of environment. This can result in growls, bites, or fights.
Dog aggressive dogs truly do not want to interact with other dogs, at all, period. Maybe they have learned to get along with one or two other dogs they grew up with, or they make a friend after a very long introductory process under the supervision of a trainer, but that’s it. It is a myth that “dogs are pack animals” and therefore “all dogs need to hang out around other dogs.” There is a small percentage of dogs that, for various reasons, absolutely do not want to interact with other dogs for any reason (they may find them unpleasant, stressful, or scary). Very rarely, some dogs find fighting itself to be reinforcing. In a nutshell, it is not safe for dogs in this category to be interacting with other dogs.
Dog selective and dog aggressive dogs are not a good fit for dog parks or dog daycare environments. It does not benefit them to be there or help them become more social. They find these environments stressful and as a result may practice undesirable or dangerous behaviors, which can become more difficult to modify the more they are practiced. They can also be unsafe to other dogs and humans in these settings because dogs that are uncomfortable are more likely to bite or fight.
This video by Badrap.org also does a great job of explaining the spectrum of dog sociability, and how sociability changes with age.
The dog sociability does not necessarily equate to human sociability. In other words, a dog may be dog aggressive, but highly sociable with humans.
This fact may surprise you: the majority of dogs are *not* dog social. It might seem like everyone else’s dog you see on the street is polite and sociable and that your dog is the problem child, but this is actually a sampling error: we simply SEE highly sociable dogs more because they are the dogs that are capable of going everywhere successfully. Since these are the dogs you always see at the park, on restaurant patios, and otherwise trotting around town, it’s easy to assume that this is what most “normal” dogs are like. However, that’s not true: the majority of adult dogs are dog tolerant or dog selective. Since dog selective dogs are not able to hang out in as many public places, we see them less often, and therefore many people do not realize that this sociability level is as common as it actually is.
It is extremely important to understand that dog sociability naturally and normally changes with a dog’s age.
The majority of puppies are dog social or dog tolerant. As a general rule, they are interested in interacting with other puppies and dogs. It’s rare to see true, significant aggression in young puppies (when this does happen, it should be considered an emergency, and the puppy’s guardians should consult with a qualified behavior professional immediately).
As a puppy starts maturing into a teen (starting around 4-5 months of age) and later becomes an adult, many pups will become less tolerant of other dogs as they age.
For example, a small puppy who used to enjoy playing with all the puppies in puppy class may now only like playing with other small, polite dogs now that he’s an adult, and he may show growly behavior with larger or pushy dogs (dog selective).
Dogs typically reach social maturity between 1 and 3 years of age, with small breeds maturing faster than larger breeds. The most common time frame where I receive the “scuffles have started” sorts of calls is when the dog is between 9 months and 2.5 years of age. As the dog reaches social maturity, his sociability has changed places on the spectrum, and he is no longer enjoying the same environments he used to. The same doggy daycare that used to be his favorite place may now feel stressful and overwhelming to him. Since dogs can’t speak words to tell us how they are feeling, it’s often only a matter of time before a dog shows growly or aggressive behavior to communicate their discomfort.
But my dog NEEDS to go to the dog park/to daycare/etc.
Actually, they don’t.
First of all, let’s revisit the myth that all dogs are “pack animals” that need to hang out with other dogs all the time.
While it’s true that wild wolves are animals that live in packs, these packs could be more appropriately described as family groups. An adult wolf couple lives with some of their grown or maturing pups. Sometimes, at certain points, some of their offspring may move off to form their own pack.
These wolves are not associating with strange wolves from other packs: in fact, if a wolf from another pack strays on to their territory, they will most likely chase it off or kill it. So, while it would be correct to say that wolves often live with conspecifics instead of living alone, they are interacting with a very specific type of other wolves: family members.
A large number of today’s domesticated dogs actually live as village dogs or street dogs. While these dogs interact with people and may be fed by people, they are typically free roaming with little human control over their behavior for much of their day. If you find this topic to be interesting, check out the documentary Stray, which follows a group of Turkish street dogs and the humans that are a part of their lives.
Street and village dogs are probably a better model than wolves for studying our pets’ immediate evolutionary ancestors. Observations of village dogs indicate that their behavior is quite a bit more flexible than that of wolves. However, interacting with other adult dogs poses a risk of conflict, as another dog may seek to guard valuable resources, territory, etc. Meeting a strange dog carries a risk of aggression or injury, so many adult dogs would prefer not to expend that energy and take that risk. In terms of survival, it is advantageous for them to be cautious around other dogs outside their immediate group.
If you take anything away from this article so far, I hope it’s understanding this: domesticated dogs fall on a spectrum as far as how much they want to interact with other dogs (and how much they can safely do so). The idea that dogs are missing out on something if they do not have interactions with other new dogs does not have a sound basis in biology. While having “doggy friends” is important to the happiness and well-being of some dogs, it is not necessary for all dogs.
Accepting your dog
So, a puppy who used to love daycare but no longer enjoys it as an adult does not necessarily have a behavior problem: she is normal. An adolescent who used to play nicely at the dog park but is now getting into scuffles with dogs who play too rough does not necessarily have a behavior problem: he is normal. The problem here is not the dog: it’s that the dog is being placed in an environment that is no longer appropriate for them, and conflict is the result.
This phenomenon is common enough in the doggy daycare industry that behavior-savvy daycares even have a term for it: they call it “aging out” of daycare, and it is a common phenomenon. I have the deepest respect for ethical doggy daycare operations who frequently have to explain to clients that their 9 month old dog is no longer enjoying daycare like he used to when he was 5 months old, and he’d do best in another setting. Sometimes people take this news personally and are unhappy, even though the daycare is actually losing money by being truthful about what is the best fit for that dog. Ethical daycares like this deserve our gratitude, because they give dogs a chance to find a more appropriate setting before serious behavior problems take root.
Still, accepting change can be hard. Sometimes I find it easiest to frame the situation in a human analogy. If we traveled back in time to when I was in college, and you asked me: “Would you like to go to a big rave this weekend?” my answer would have been “Sure!” without hesitation. The more people, excitement, and loud music, the better!
These days, I’m close to 40 years old. Ask me now what I’d like to do this weekend? I’d rather grab a bite to eat with a couple of friends, or maybe have a few people over for a game night (as long as they are people I think will go home by 11pm). Big party or noisy bar? No thank you. If you’re younger than 30, you’re probably laughing at me, but if you’re around my age or older, you’re probably laughing with me in solidarity. Our sociability levels as humans change as we age, too.
I think the hardest part is for people to accept their dog’s sociability level.
So often, after I explain dog sociability to people, their next question is: “So we can fix him, right?”
Most people don’t like my answer.
Your dog’s sociability isn’t something we can “fix” by waving a magic wand…and you should be extremely suspicious of any trainer who claims they can do so. We cannot do training for three sessions, and then BOOM! Your dog is cured and will not have any more fights at the dog park. I wish it worked that way…but it doesn’t. Just as there is no magic wand you can wave that will make me suddenly excited to go to an enormous college party at my age, there is no magic wand that automatically changes your dog’s tolerance levels.
OK, well if we can’t completely change a dog’s sociability level, can we adjust it a bit?
Sometimes! There is behavior modification we can do to help a dog become less fearful and increase their confidence. We may be able to help build positive experiences for an undersocialized dog so they can see that other dogs are not so bad. We can sometimes help dogs who have maybe had a bad experience move past their trauma and hopefully feel safe meeting other dogs again. In the very least, we can help dogs who tend to lunge and bark at other dogs learn to be less reactive (though they still may not want to meet those dogs up close).
However, behavior modification is not any sort of a guarantee that a dog will be ready to safely and happily go back to a dog park or daycare setting.
This does not mean that the dog is doomed to a bland life of isolation. It simply means that a different setting would be best for them. Instead of a dog park, they might be much happier with doggy play dates with a few chosen friends. Instead of doggy daycare, they might feel much less stressed having a walker come visit them and take them out once a day.
My own dog is an example of changing sociability in action. When we adopted Ada at 6 months of age from a shelter, she was reactive on leash and growly with other dogs. Pretty much all other dogs. With lots of behavior modification and choosing some appropriate friends for her to meet to build her confidence, Ada gradually became what I’d call dog tolerant. She went hiking with my dog group regularly and even went to dog parks and did well. I successfully taught her to move away from dogs she didn’t care for rather than growling, built a rock solid recall to call her to me if I sensed trouble brewing, and monitored her carefully so I could intervene before any minor conflicts escalated.
I still don’t think she would have done well in a dog daycare setting in an enclosed space where she couldn’t get away from dogs she didn’t like, and she did not enjoy tiny dog parks. But she did very well with other dogs in settings with plenty of space, and I was very happy with her progress towards being a more sociable dog.
Unfortunately, about a year ago, Ada was attacked by an off-leash dog in my neighborhood, and she had some significant injuries to recover from. (Please, keep your dog on a leash unless you are in a permitted off-leash area: so many dogs I work with have had big setbacks due to being rushed by an off-leash dog, even if that dog is trying to be friendly).
Since this traumatic event, Ada became reactive again and selective towards other dogs again. Who could blame her? She was frightened, and wanted to tell them all to go away. While we helped her overcome the reactivity in short order, she has no interest in meeting new dogs anymore. When I have tried to take her back to the dog park, she sits at the entrance, giving me a very clear signal that she’d rather not go in. She very much enjoys hiking and playing with her long-time dog friends. But she’d rather not risk meeting anyone new. We’ll keep working together, but I’m not sure whether Ada will ever go back to being as sociable as she used to be now that she knows that some big dogs might try to bite her. Ada is both a happy and sad example of how things like training and experiences can shift a dog’s location on the sociability spectrum.
Though I really do miss the days where Ada was willing to go to the dog park with me, I’ve learned to respect her choice. At the end of the day, things like doggy daycare and dog parks are for dog enjoyment: and if your dog isn’t enjoying them, then what’s the point?
So, what happened to Max, the dog who was expelled from daycare?
His owner thought about trying other daycares, but decided not to: it seemed too risky. She hired a walker to take Max out three days a week instead, and made a point to take him on longer walks the other days of the week. Some cameras she had set up in her home showed her that Max was happily sleeping the day away while she was at work. “I guess he didn’t like daycare that much anymore, and he seems happy being a couch potato while I’m at the office,” she told me, shrugging. Max still had fun getting together with the neighbor’s dog around once a week, and did just fine when family members with other dogs visited his home (with the exception of one very pushy poodle he didn’t care for). His social life, though different, was still enriching and full. Max didn’t really need daycare after all.
Acceptance can be hard, when it comes to humans, and when it comes to dogs. But the most inspiring relationships happen when we understand what we can change about our dogs, and then learn to also accept the parts of them we cannot change with an open heart.