Dog owners need to be open to change

Small dog’s possessiveness

A woman named Ellie wrote a comment on this blog where she explained how her Yorkie named Gemma was acting aggressive towards other dogs.

I wanted to share Ellie’s example because it tells a lot about the complex relationships we form with our dogs and how this is not necessarily good.

Ellie explained how every time she tries to pet another dog, Gemma growls and snaps at that dog. This is a problem because Ellie wants to get a second dog, and Gemma’s behavior would make that difficult.

She asked for advice on how to fix this problem.

I wrote back and told Ellie that it doesn’t sound like Gemma has an issue with other dogs. Instead, it sounds like Gemma has an issue with possessiveness. Gemma may be a bit insecure or fearful, but she feels secure and safe near Ellie. So, like many small dogs, she wants to guard her “power source.”

I told Ellie to take more control of the situation. She should learn to block Gemma from getting in between her and another dog by putting her arm out or giving a firm voice correction. I told her that she gets to decide which dogs she gets to  pet or hold. Gemma does not get to decide.

I told Ellie that she should consider putting a leash on Gemma, tethering her to a chair and ignoring her while she pets another dog. I told her to invite Gemma back once she is calm and quiet.

This is the kind of advice I give out all the time.

In these situations where a small dog has total control, the owners are usually offended by my suggestions and never visit my site again or they thank me for my tremendous help. It’s an even split.

Ellie did neither.

Here’s what she said (I edited her comment for grammar and length):

Thanks for your reply. Sounds like good advise, but don’t think I could do it. Gemma is a proper baby and absolutely adorable. Everyone loves her. I’m worried that with this method she will feel pushed out. She’s like that with my hubby as well, but not so nasty. I may just have to resign myself to just her. I can’t have her upset. Thanks so much again. 

You can read the whole conversation here.

It’s too bad, really. Gemma would probably feel much better if her owner would take more control. And it’s a shame if Ellie can’t get another dog.

But I don’t see this kind of honesty often, and it was a nice surprise.

I appreciate when someone admits she is the only one standing in the way of change. This is rare.

I also appreciate when someone disagrees with me but delivers her argument with genuine kindness. Also rare.

Most people choose to blame others – in this case, it would be the dog. Or, they get angry and deny the problem exists (forgetting they found my blog while searching for advice).

I get to hear about people’s “dog problems” all the time.

These problems are rarely “dog” problems at all. They are almost always human problems.

23 thoughts on “Dog owners need to be open to change”

  1. it’s funny you should post about this, because we had a similar problem with our dog, desmond. he is totally fine with me and my husband giving affection to other dogs–either dogs of our friends (that desmond knows) or dogs at the dog run. however, when we were taking him with us to volunteer at a shelter to walk dogs, he went totally nuts whenever one of us was with another dog (even though he was with the other one of us). we could not walk together, me, desmond, my husband, and a shelter dog. this is what we really wanted to do, thinking it would be good for everyone involved, but it didn’t work out. desmond actually tried to bite ME one of those days and got aggressive with the dogs as well. he was ok with the dogs if another shelter volunteer was walking them. we, too, would like to get another dog one day, but don’t know how to make it work.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I wonder if the leash was causing him extra stress. Some dogs become frustrated when they are excited and the leash is preventing them from getting access to greeting another dog. When you are with your friends and their dogs or when you are at the dog park, is Desmond usually off leash? It’s common for dogs to behave totally differently when on the leash vs. off.

      Obedience classes might be a good start. You and your husband should both go. That way your dog will have to practice self control training around other dogs and owners and naturally he will have to accept you or your husband acknowledging other dogs in a controlled setting. If you address this issue specifically with the instructor, he or she may offer some additional ideas.

    2. my dog tiny is four and she is a small pom mix, we moved to my aunts house where now she nips at them if they come near me, and I realize that this is my fault and I wanted to know if there is any other advise you can give for this situation

  2. It’s great that she understood it was her issue and not her dog’s. As a certified dog trainer, I find it difficult dealing with those few people who want to shift blame. This one dog owner has a dog who is completely out of control. She is very friendly but she gets into everything, jumps on people, jumps the fence, doesn’t come when called, etc. The owner attributes the behavior to the fact that the dog is a Lab and very energetic. Well, my dog Maya is a Lab too and also very energetic. She has issues from time to time but she knows the rules about not getting into trash, coming when called, and sitting nicely for pets. I attribute the owner’s problem to lack of leadership rather than on the dog. When trying to explain it in a kind way, it went in one ear out the other. Shortly thereafter, they got rid of the dog instead!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I didn’t know you were a certified dog trainer. I’m sure you come across difficult people all the time. I also hear from many people who are almost proud that their dogs are so energetic and out of control because it’s part of the dog’s “personality” or the dog’s “breed.” No, you just need to train and exercise your dog! But I notice some people will complain about a behavior but they don’t want to do anything to change it. I think that deep down they kind of like having a dog that is bouncing off the walls because they mistake the dog’s excitement for happiness.

  3. I’m generally the first to tell people that any behavioral issues my dog has, they’re totally my fault. We are far from being the perfect pet owners, but we do our best to learn from our mistakes and do better with.
    At the same time, I recognize that there will be some things I just don’t care strongly enough about to spend the time training them, so I have to accept the consequences.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh, gosh. All of my dog’s behavioral “problems” are my fault. Definitely. And there are definitely some bad habits of his that I allow just because I don’t care enough to do anything about them.

  4. Great post. I stumbled on your blog by accident one day (yes, Googling for advice of some sort), but the reason I keep coming back is that you have a balanced view of dog ownership and are honest (but kind!). And you’re right that most problems have much more to do with the human than the dog. This is for me the best thing that I’ve discovered about dogs — they teach you so much about yourself, and all the while with the furriest, cutest smile.

    A bit off topic, but I’ll share it here since you talk about “rare” things, and getting unsolicited compliments is sometimes too rare in our world…

    I remember when I first read that you sometimes get frustrated with Ace and have to be careful of that because he’s submissive and sensitive (like Tarski) — I breathed this huge sigh of relief that even “dog people” get frustrated and angry. You have several posts in fact that describe how difficult it is to actually implement what you know to be the right way to do things, and this has been my lifesaver.

    I didn’t grow up with dogs, and so when he started misbehaving after the “honeymoon” phase, I found myself wondering how I was going to handle it. Googling for advice only made it worse because you either get the “stay calm and assertive” Millan approach (very good advice, but *very* hard to heed), or the “be positive and ignore bad behaviour”, and the last thing I felt like doing was “being positive” when my dog was driving me crazy! And if anyone ever talks about how their dog drives them crazy, it’s always couched in terms of “but he’s the cutest so how can I be mad?” Well, I felt like I must be a bad dog person, because Tarski really is the cutest, but I can definitely be mad!

    But as soon as I started reading your blog, I’ve found it easier and easier to get less frustrated with my dog, put that “calm and assertive” energy into practice, be more introspective about my role in his bad behaviour, and in general, be a better, calmer and more positive dog owner. So even before you started responding to my questions about how to train Tarski, you’d had a great influence on my relationship with my dog, and continue to do so. Thank you for that. So please, don’t stop being honest or giving the advice that you give, regardless of how it’s received. For some of us, your advice has been just pure gold. 🙂

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thank you so much for reading my blog and always taking the time to comment. I am so glad I’ve been able to help you and your dog!

      1. Hear Hear Christina! My thoughts exactly. Thank you Lindsay for being honest and generous with your advice. I have felt like a failure so many times but I know I am not alone, and the key is perseverance despite difficulties 🙂

  5. Your last two sentences really sum it up well. I agree, generally the problem lies with the owners. It’s always easier to blame something or someone else. I bet you’ve seen and heard it all, never a dull moment in your work!

  6. I would agree that most of my dogs issues are because I have been too lazy to work on fixing them. I know she doesn’t get enough steady walking so that we can work on our leash manners. However she never ceases to amaze me sometimes.

    Last night I made a shooing motion with my hands and she moved back and sat down. I was schocked that it actually worked. Sometimes I think I have to realize that I train every moment of the day with her. Wether its telling her to lie down, sit, stay, paw. She is always training and teaching me new things.

    I think the nice thing, and I think you see this more with dogs who have not had the best past, is their ability to change and become part of your family. Belle has come such a long way in two years and I am so blessed to have her in my life. And if she has her faults we all do. Most of them are from my own laziness but I am certainly amazed at how far she has become to being a good doggy citizen.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Very good points! Our dogs are always looking to us for information. They are always learning from us and we are always learning from them.

  7. On the subject of change, I wanted to get your thoughts about crate-training a dog I’ve had for about two months now. Arlo is a rescue who is just over a year old. He was in a shelter for a long time and I don’t think he was every properly housebroken. I intended to start him with crate training, but he would cry and whine when left in the crate, so I did exactly what I now know I’m not supposed to do and stopped crating him. Now I have some time off of work and would like to properly house train him with a crate. I’ve purchased a crate of appropriate size and placed his bedding in there. For about the past week now he’s been in and out of the crate of his own accord, sleeping in there, and generally seems to think of it as his “den,” which is what I want. My question is when I can I start leaving him alone in there with the door closed? When I did this before (to run errands, go to work, etc) he would bark and cry during the day, but I think it was because I never introduced the crate properly and he viewed it as punishment (i.e. mom’s gone, and I’m stuck here). Now I think he views the crate more positively, but I left him in there today to go to the grocery and came home to him barking. This may have been because of something else (another dog on the street barking, not being able to greet me at the door, or not having a Kong to play with because mom left it in the freezer), but I just want to make sure I’m pacing this right and not forcing him to adapt to the crate too quickly. My plan over the Christmas holidays is to gradually leave him in the crate while I’m gone for longer and longer increments, but if he’s feeling at all unsafe about being in there I don’t want to rush him.

    Any thoughts you might have on this would be greatly appreciated! He’s sleeping soundly in the crate now so I feel like we’re on the right track, but I’m no expert.



    1. It sounds like you are doing everything right. These things take time. I’m so glad to hear you are being so patient with your dog. I’ve written a few posts on crate training and separation anxiety if you’d like to check those out. I don’t know if your dog has separation anxiety or if he just doesn’t like the crate. Sounds like his issue is the crate.

      1. Thanks for the encouragement. We’ve been going at it this week with mixed success. He had two accidents in the crate, which I cleaned. And he seemed relatively calm the first couple times when I returned home, but layely when I come home he seems panicked (panting, nervous, and with the tray pushed out all the way). He still goes in there on his own and naps, but I’m wondering if I rushed things this week with the crate. Do you have any thoughts?

        1. Does he act so stressed when he is alone without being in the crate? Is being in the crate the problem, or is being alone in general the problem?

          To me, it sounds like you are dealing with some separation anxiety. Since he is willing to take naps in the crate voluntarily while you are home, but he panics in the crate when you leave, I think the issue here is your dog’s anxiety when left alone. Am I understanding this right?

          Here is an additional post I’ve written on dog separation anxiety:

          1. Yea that’s my suspicion too. Though when he was given run of the house I didn’t notice many other SA symptoms. I think I’m going to try and desensitize him to my comings and goings as much as possible. Will crating help or hurt the situation?

            Thanks for your help,


          2. Lindsay Stordahl

            Well, with the crate, he will cause less damage to your property and will be less likely to hurt himself. So I am always in favor of desensitizing the dog to being left alone in the crate. The only time I wouldn’t use a crate is if the dog seems to be fine when left alone without a crate. In those cases, the problem is usually a fear of the crate, not a fear of being alone.

  8. I think many people are afraid of hurting their dog’s feelings by being assertive, stern, or even giving a quick yank on the leash. Dogs are very forgiving!!! Abused, neglected and mistreated shelter dogs are so sweet and loving – it’s proof-positive that your dog will forgive you for merely enforcing commands.

    Dogs DO pick up on your mood. If my dog disobeys (like not coming when called, ie Doggie Cardinal Sin!), she KNOWS I’m angry, I don’t have to say anything or even change the expression on my face, she KNOWS I mean business. I don’t punish her, I give her one “BAD DOG!”, snap the leash back on and walkies are over. She’ll be 3 come April and she is learning that not coming when called is absolutely verboten, so I’m beginning to trust her a bit more and giving her more liberties off the leash. I think she realizes disobedient doggies get their privileges revoked!

    I’ve never been one to fall under the spell of the “overwhelming cuteness charm” in any of my dogs (and of course, every parent thinks their child is cute) but with Esme… it’s easy to let her get away with things… even when she’s being bad, she’s still cute. (‘cept running away when I tell her to come back… thankfully, hopefully, those days are gone).

    Dogs are much smarter than we give them credit for. Look how many of them have their owners perfectly trained!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yes. People are definitely afraid of hurting their dogs’ feelings. My dog is good at looking so hurt and sad when he feels bad. And then I feel so guilty. Still, I’m stern with him when I need to be. And, I’ll have to admit he gets away with quite a bit, too. But I accept the consequences, and I know it’s my fault.

  9. Ha ha, you should have told her the “Ruffles and Muffles” story written by James Herriot. Nobody really likes a spoiled rotten dog, not even the owners!

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