Reality Bites

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.

 -Winston Churchill


Clockwise from the munchkin: Orion, Sparta and Cody

Clockwise from the munchkin: Orion, Sparta and Cody

Orion bit Cody (the dog I’m boarding) today.  Orion started with a low growl, worked up to baring of teeth, and then, for the grand finale, bit Cody square on the nose.  And what did I do during this entire engagement?

I watched.  It wasn’t my place to intervene at that moment.  Cody was actually being a twerp, and totally deserved that bite.  Orion had a Kong and was engaged with the peanut butter inside.  Cody came bounding up to Orion, stuck his nose right between the Kong and Orion, and proceeded to just be an absolute pest.  Orion gave him ample warning before finally resorting to “violence”, if that’s the correct word for a 7 lb dog defending his toy from 40 lbs. of annoying, 8-month old, Labradoodle.


Now that’s not to say that in my pack my dogs are allowed to just “have at”, snarling and fighting over anything they think belongs to them.  I will have peace in my house.  But just like any other family, frequently there are misunderstandings.  And let’s face it: it does take a village, and Cody had not been part of a healthy village when I met him. He would invade your personal space, jump on you, grab other dog’s toys from under them, etc.  He’s a wonderfully sweet dog, but he was like a child who had never heard the word “no” before: in other words, a total brat.  His owner had a serious injury just a few months after she got him, and he had been boarded at a regular doggie daycare for weeks before he met me, as she was essentially bedridden and unable to care for her beloved puppy.  Daycare is fine and wonderful for exercise, but not so good for Piloting your dog, as she realized, which was why she called me.   So, how do you un-brat an 8-month old puppy?

Well, if it were indeed just me, that would require my having to answer every one of his questions, which is the basis of Piloting.  Any behavior that was unacceptable, well, that was up to me to address. That can be a bit of an overwhelming job.  So I farmed out some of the work to Orion, and eventually to Sparta.

To make these types of situations work safely,  I need to be Pilot over both Sparta and Orion completely. In other words, they need to check with me frequently to make sure that whatever type of “answer” they are offering Cody is acceptable to me.  So when Orion first growled at Cody over the Kong, Orion frequently looked at me to make sure this was acceptable for him to do this.

Mom, can I handle this problem?

I neglected to answer Orion’s question (and remember, the absence of “no” is “yes”), so Orion continued.  Unfortunately, Cody didn’t catch the drift, so Orion had to escalate to a snarl (Cody is kinda dense sometimes).  Yes, Orion continued to keep an eye on me in case I had an answer different than the one I had previously given.  Nope. I didn’t.  Cody still didn’t get the idea that this behavior was unsavory.  So Orion leaped 1.5 feet in the air and nipped Cody squarely on the nose.  Cody caught on.  Finally. No blood, no mark, not even a scratch.  Problem handled – safely.

Now, letting Orion help me “raise” Cody for a few weeks is a lot different than letting Sparta do the same thing.  I work with Orion in a work setting very frequently.  I know how far Orion is willing to go to make his point, and exactly what means he will utilize to get that point across.  Orion is tremendously professional.  He never overdoes it, but he is willing to get his point across.  Sparta, on the other hand, is a bit totalitarian.  It also took a lot longer for her to accept Cody as Pack. She required frequent reminders.  That’s not to say she isn’t well behaved.  My girl will accept an answer to one of her questions instantly.  She’s freakishly well-behaved in that regard.  One just needs to bear in mind that, as a Shepherd, she was bred to protect the Pack (be it humans, sheep, etc.) from other predators.  Meaning I needed to be on top of all of Sparta’s questions as soon as she asked them. It took about a week before she was able to instantly identify Cody as Pack rather than something to annihilate.  But finally she accepted him and stopped asking questions.  And, of course, Cody decided to test his bounds with her as well.

When Sparta were first allowed run of the house together, it was for short, heavily monitored amounts of time.  I watched them like a lion eyeing a wounded gazelle, my gaze never lifted from them, all the while appearing “normal”.  Sitting on the couch, reading a book.  On my computer, all the while stealthily running surveillance.  Cody decided to try to trample Sparta while Sparta was calmly resting in her favorite spot  Not a bright thing to do.

Now, thus far, Sparta had shown a remarkable amount of patience with Cody, putting up with him crashing into her, getting underfoot, and even jumping off the back steps and landing on her.  Honestly, she had more patience than I can muster sometimes.  But there’s an end to patience, and a time when questions need to be answered with a “no”.

And that’s just what she did.  Obviously the game dynamics change when the dog answering the question is 100 lbs. instead of 7 lbs., but the rules are still the same.  Sparta jumped up, nipped Cody, who immediately backed off. Sparta went right back to sleep.  Question answered.  No blood – not even a scratch.  Merely a question that has been answered, in a dog-appropriate fashion.

Now there are some situations where it would probably be safe to let Sparta answer Cody’s question, but I’m not going to chance it. Instances where both dogs are exhibiting energy (even positive) or if it involves food.  There’s no reason to take a chance, as minute as it may be.  I’m a perfectionist: I’ll only allow my dogs to answer another dog’s question under perfect circumstances.  That’s why it’s always very anti-climatic when they finally get to answer.  That’s also why my pack is calm.  If things ever escalate (which they did when I first added Orion to my pack), then I answer everyone’s question.

Dogs are like children in that you can rely on them to set up their own little social regime.  If they have a kind, benevolent leader who answers questions (such as a parent), then children’s social interactions will be handled in a healthy, appropriate manner among themselves.  I see this with my own children.  Yes, they have disagreements, but they understand the rules I have set forth for them to manage these disagreements on their own.  Occasionally they have difficulty, so I step in.

A lot of people are quick to blame a dog who bites or nips another dog, especially if they’re larger.  I see this a lot.  A typically normal “argument” among dogs blown way out of proportion.  Before deciding if your dog is being aggressive, ask yourself a few questions:

What was the fight about?

If the fight appeared completely unprovoked, or with very slight provocation (i.e., one dog just entered the room and the other dog attacked), then there is a problem.  But if, like in Cody’s case, the dog was being a dofus, well, then…perhaps it was justified.

How long did the fight last, and how severe was the fight?

A nip on the nose?  That is how one dog tells another dog “no”.  Stitches and medical treatment?  You have a problem.  Also, bear in mind how easily the fight was broken up.  A few days ago Sparta started to answer one of Cody’s questions, but I didn’t want her to. I gave her a negative and she instantly backed off.  In other words, she was still being Piloted by me, not answering her own questions.  I will never allow things to escalate to where my dogs are on auto-Pilot.  I won’t even toe the line and let them co-Pilot.

Was there a change in circumstances beyond your control?

Darwin bit Sparta once, and had escalated to a very dangerous point.  No, still no blood involved, but it took me a moment to Pilot him.  He went to the vet that same day.  Sparta had been acting normally (she was 6 mos old at the time, Darwin was about 12).  So she was being annoying as a young dog will be.  Darwin had never shown her anything but patience, and was smart enough to remove himself from a situation if it got out of control or to “ask” me for assistance by placing me between him and Sparta.  So the intensity of the disagreement merited a vet trip.  Yes, there was a problem. Darwin had been battling some health issues, and they had increased in size. That was the start of his declination, and it wasn’t too long afterwards that we had to say goodbye to him.  Any behavior that is out of the ordinary is grounds for a vet trip.  Because we went early, we were able to give him relative comfort for the last six months of his life.


 I’d like to continue this blog post, but Cody is asking Orion a question about who has rights to the bed Orion is currently occupying, and considering how much help the little guy has been to me today, I’ll let him take a pass on answering it.  Cody could use another walk after I answer the question, anyway.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

2 thoughts on “Reality Bites

  1. This is a bit similar to the mindset we were taught about at a training for Dogs Playing For Life. Shelter dogs form play groups in an effort to get them out of a kennel for longer amounts of time (or daily when otherwise impossible). We learned about play styles and how to be the referee (closest thing to pilot in your terms). BUT when you found what they called the “rock star” you had an assistant of sorts who could do what Orion did. Obviously these people are trainers and pick up on things most people wouldn’t even see. But they teach you the cues and how to choose which tool (spray bottle, shake can, air can) to use to help keep play in check. Not exactly how you may typically do it because they’re working with dogs that they have little relationship with (who don’t look to them for an answer) but the similarities in letting another balanced dog sometimes answer the questions of a roudy pup who plays too rough is what I thought of when’s read your blog. Yes, I can be dangerous. Yes there will eventually be a fight that may need minor medical attention (we were also taught how to evaluate the possibility of a dog getting along with a particular group before entering the play area). But for many of these shelter dogs, it saved lives. Dogs who were thought to be unsocialized or aggressive proved everyone wrong. Very amazing to watch her do her work to form playgroups at this high kill shelter. Before watching her, I would’ve NEVER let my more balanced dog at home handle occasional things on his own. I thought I had to be 100% in charge. But in letting him (during similar instances like you noted), I’ve noticed annoying behaviors stop more quickly. Like you said, I never allow this when food is involved, etc. I know my dog and his limits so it makes it easier to choose those times to let it ride out. Thanks for this blog. Good read.

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