Welcome to Pet Detective, a new column where The Globe's Amberly McAteer will find answers to the health and behaviour problems of our four-legged friends. Send your questions to email@example.com (All questions will be published anonymously.)
The question: My four-year-old boxer named Lennon loves most other dogs at the park and the feeling is mutual. When certain tiny, smaller dogs show up, he turns on his alpha-dog ways. As soon as they challenge him, all hell breaks loose. Sure, he never actually hurts the little dogs, but he leaves plenty of scared dogs – and owners – in his wake. Sometimes this makes dog-park visits awkward: I feel the blow-ups are the fault of the other owners, but it gets put on him always. How can I get him to ignore the small, mean dogs?
The answer: "That's like asking me to ignore the guy who's grabbing my butt on the subway," says professional dog trainer Caryn Liles. Your job as a good dog owner, she says, is to prevent those circumstances, where he feels stressed, to ever occur.
I've learned the hard way: I used to let my boxer Ruby off leash as soon we arrived at the dog park. She was always wonderful to begin with and greeted the vast majority of pooches with a friendly paw in the face and a bum wiggle. I saw other people mindlessly letting their dogs loose at the entry, and as a new dog owner, just figured that's what you do – dogs work out their own issues.
She was very much an alpha-female, I tell Liles, who owns Whatta Pup! dog training in Toronto. Ruby was establishing her place as big-boss lady around those with "little-dog syndrome."
Like your Lennon – who I'm sure, deep down, wants to give peace a chance – Ruby never actually hurt a dog, but I developed a shortlist of pups we just couldn't be around. The second they started yipping at her, it was game on. She would stand over them and make an awful, terrifying noise that caused no harm but, in my mind, scared the doggie pants off them.
I tell Liles, all proud of myself, that I recognized I had a dominant dog who didn't like specific others. And the more she encountered jerk dogs, the more she became a jerk dog, seeking top-dog status. I started avoiding the park altogether when the attendees were largely pint-sized, or I'd leave at the first sighting of a yapper. Two years later, Ruby's park-fighting days are a distant memory.
But dominance, Liles insists, is a social relationship between two specific dogs and not a personality trait. "If only we could have that on one giant, flashing, neon sign," she says.
Wait, what? There's no such thing as an alpha-dog/pack leader? "You just fell off your chair, didn't you?" she says with a laughs. Alpha, in dog terms, actually just refers to a breeding pair – so mom and dad naturally become alpha to their pups – but that's the extent of intense social hierarchy in dogs, she says.
"I know, I know, you hear 'alpha' 17 times in five minutes watching the Dog Whisperer."
So the first step is for you recognize that each doggie relationship your big guy has is unique, just like your relationships with humans.
And it's natural, she says, that some dogs just won't care about others with little-dog syndrome: Take the puggle at my dog park, for instance, who we call Switzerland because she's so neutral. At the first sign of tension, the little diplomat is flat on her back, legs in the air.
But your canine can't let mean dogs be tolerated. Owners of purse-sized breeds, she says, are more likely not to discipline their dog, excusing the bad behaviour because the bark is so tiny.
You and I can blame owners of little dogs. Liles says "you have to be proactive and not put your dog through that stress."
Ultimately, don't be hesitate to leash Lennon and leave at the first sign of a problem pooch. War is over if you want it.
"Bottom line," Liles says, "we've got to set up our dogs for success."
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org (All questions will be published anonymously.)