Your Dog is a Lap Shark

If you try to get rid of fear and anger without knowing their meaning, they will grow stronger and return.

- Deepak Chopra
Dog sitting on lap

Many years (decades?) ago, I was speaking with a friend who happens to be a vet, and she gave me one of my favorite phrases of all time: Lap Shark.


Lap Shark: (n) a smallish dog who spends most of their time on their owner's lap, defending owner vigilantly from all threats, including other dogs, small children, the mailman, the wind, the tv, etc.

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Best. Phrase. Ever.


I'd have to say that about 25-40% of the dogs I work with have some type of aggression issue, with the lap sharks making up more than half of those numbers. Lap sharks aren't typically someone's dog as their co-dependent boyfriend/girlfriend. Their entire life and existence revolves around said owner.


I actually tend to think of the Lap Shark behavior as more of a resource guarding issue. A resource can be more than just food (although that's usually how it presents itself). It can be an object such as a bed, a sofa, or anything else that the dog has claimed as theirs, and they will defend it come hell or high water. A Lap Shark is just a small dog who has decided that their owner needs protecting at all costs.


What makes a Lap Shark different than other forms of aggression? Their size. A larger dog, say over 15lbs, starts to become a major problem, as a bite from them can be serious. Smaller dogs are dismissed as not as serious a threat because of their size. They are more easily managed, and typically spend a lot of their time in Air Jail.


Air Jail: (n) a place where small dogs end up when they are giving unsavory behaviors.

It is the antithesis of Piloting your dog. Piloting involves answering a dog's questions. Air Jail is simply picking up a dog and holding them in the air, and presumably out of trouble.


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The problem with Air Jail is that the there is no answer given to the dog's question: is this person/dog/tv a threat? Rather than communicating, you are manhandling. Just because you can pick up your dog in these situations doesn't mean you should.


Even better (or worse)...."Just let him smell you and then he'll be okay". Stop treating your dog like the gatekeeper in the house.


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Either you are protecting him and keeping him safe, or he's protecting you. You are literally telling your dog to let you know if he thinks the person is a threat. That's the exact opposite of Piloting. And if that person accidentally moves wrong, they get bit.


So how do you deal with a Lap Shark? The same way you'd deal with any dog who has some questions. By communicating, not manhandling. So let's start by troubleshooting what's happening.


You're Giving the Wrong Message


When a dog, or a human for that matter, is protecting something, whatever they are protecting is behind them. Whatever they are engaged with is directly in front of them. This is the same body language I describe so often whenever I mention Piloting body language (check out this link for a great video utilizing the body language while answering the door).


Now I want you to think about how you are placing your dog when you put them in "Air Jail". Your dog is close to your chest, typically with their body and face jutting out towards the threat (perhaps your kid's 4 year old friend). You have literally positioned your dog to protect you, so what do you expect them to do? Further, they are pushing their fight response hard core because they're trapped in the air, immobile. The only part that isn't being restrained is their business end: their head, neck and most important, their teeth.


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You aren't soothing your dog, and you definitely don't have your dog under control. What you have is a situation you are making worse, and turning into potentially a bite situation. When your dog gives you his "special smile", he's giving you a warning. He WILL bite.


Your dog needs to stay on the floor. But before you just chuck the snarling mess of mutt onto the floor and pray things to go Cujo real quick-like, let's review the mantra of Piloting your dog:


1) Control Yourself. Stop it with the childish shrieking. You are only adding to the stress. And no, you aren't helping by telling your little Chupacabra that "everything's okay... calm down". That's the lazy way to do things. You know very well it doesn't work, so stop it. Further, everything is not okay: your dog is overstimulated and overwhelmed. The best thing to do is to be silent and put on your Piloting uniform (see here for your wardrobe).

2) Control the Situation. You obviously don't have control of the situation when your dog is in Air Jail, but do you have control if you just leave him loose on the floor?

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Of course not. So what can you do? How about putting a leash on Cujo, and keeping it short. Having a leash on in the house is no different than training a dog to walk on a leash outside. A leash is there only to help you control the situation. There's no point in having him tethered to you with a leash that's long enough for him to still get into trouble (and still put himself in the guarding stance in front of you).


man with dog
Love Bowie, but OMFG that's about as wrong as it gets

Again, treat it like any other leash time should be treated: with calm control of the situation. Short leash. Gentle tugs on the leash, and above all, body language. Check out this link to learn how. Happy birthday - here's another link on leash walking.


Sometimes controlling the situation may mean removing your dog's proximity. Take a step back. Now another. Keep moving away from the source, Piloting the entire time, until your dog is far enough away from the stimuli (your guest) to feel safer. You can't decide where that place is, only your dog can. It's your job to read your dog and make sure you aren't adding too much stimuli. It's also your job to slowly start adding stimuli once your dog is calmer, but never more than they can handle.


In other words, if you had to move 10 feet away from your guest to find your dog's comfort space, don't immediately move forward 8 feet just because your dog calmed down. They calmed down because they felt safer. That's like throwing a drowning person back into the water after you've rescued them, because, well, they seemed to stop drowning once they got on land.


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Now your dog is in a calm(er) place. Don't start with the high-pitched baby talk of "who's a good little boy" (When you start with that, I want to bite you, too.) However, don't just ignore the behavior he's giving you now.


You didn't ignore the negative behavior, so don't ignore the positive behavior.

I frequently will ask my clients, "Is your dog doing a good job now?". They answer in the affirmative, that yes, he's doing much better!


"Does he know that?"


good dog chihuahua

Give your dog some calm, soft praise. FFS, chuck him a treat! He's earned it. He just went from an overstimulated snarling mess to, well, less of a mess, but still....it's progress, not perfection. Reward the progress.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It's simply a game of red light/green light. Give a positive to the behaviors you like, and a gentle negative to the behaviors you don't like. Learn more about how to give your dog effective positives in this link.


One final thought. A lot of my clients want to know when it's okay for their dog to meet their guest. I'm blunt: sometimes never. If your dog is overwhelmed the entire time, perhaps the only place he'll truly feel calmer is in his crate, or contained in a low-key room where he can be set up for success. Remember, success in this scenario isn't that he's sitting calmly on the floor, ignoring your guest. Certainly, that's one form. Success is simply him calming down.


"But my dog wants to meet my guest!"


Oh well, dear. I want a pony.

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What we want and what we need are two completely different things. Your dog does not need to meet your guest. They want to meet your guest. However, your guest doesn't want to keep all their fingers, they need to keep all their fingers.


Honestly, I know where y'all are coming from. You desperately want your dog to be liked and accepted. I know I felt the same way with my dogs. But your dog can be liked and admired from afar. They are loved and accepted by me. Regardless of who they meet (or don't meet). If your dog is truly happy engaging with others, then let them (politely) do so. If they aren't comfortable, don't force the issue.


Just remember, your dog is not entitled to tell you who you are allowed to engage with. He's your dog, stop forcing him be your toxic, co-dependent boyfriend. Love him enough to give him a negative when he's resource guarding you from others, and watch him turn from Lap Shark into the best Good Dog ever.



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And always remember to keep calm and Pilot on.


Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio




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