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Aggressive in the Dog Park (Australian Cattle Dog)

Dog Socialization in the Dog Park

Dear John,

I have a 2-year-old Australian Cattle Dog. She is great, obedient, smart, etc. I have had a problem with her dominance/aggression since I’ve had her as a six-week-old pup. She still gets into frequent altercations with other dogs when she is off a lead. Can you help?

When I take her to the dog park she often challenges other dogs. A typical interaction will start with her approaching a dog, then getting in its face. If the dog doesn’t submit or back down then she snaps at them. The other day that behavior escalated (as it often does) to the point where she was in a scrum with a lab cross and when that dog had enough of it and tried to get away, she grabbed its hind leg and dragged it back for more. I don’t know how she picks them and many times if I see her head drop like she’s getting ready for an encounter I can head her off with a “be nice” command but every once in a while she ignores me and things escalate quickly.


Dear Brent,

I’m reasonably sure there isn’t anything “wrong” with your dog. The issue is more likely being considered an issue because of a common erroneous expectation that dog owners have of their dogs in what they expect of their (and other) dogs from a sociability perspective. It’s a common problem in dog parks and a source of frustration for many.

When considering the extent to which they should encourage their dog to socially interact at a dog park or on the street or elsewhere with strange dogs, dog owners should give some thought as to which of four sociability categories their dog might fall into.

There is the “Party or Disney Dog” category of dogs. These are the dogs that welcome social interaction with other dogs whether they have prior contact or not.

There is the “Who’s In Charge?” category, which are dogs that can interact with unfamiliar dogs but will at some point feel the need to establish hierarchy.Aggression in Dog Park

The third group is the “Masters of the Universe” category. These are dogs that for genetic reasons (usually), perceive other dogs as subjects or threats.

The fourth group is “The Pre-Teens” which are all of the above before they reach adulthood – typically 18 months of age or younger. (Dogs that have not achieved adulthood, even those in the “Masters of the Universe” category are almost always wired to be less confrontational until they have better developed an adult’s physical resources. This is one of the reasons so many people with dogs in the “Masters of the Universe” categories find themselves in trouble at the dog park. Their dogs have for an extended period of time behaved quite sociable, but then hit adulthood and become too assertive for the environment of a dog park.)

With the exception of the “Pre-teens”, which category a dog finds itself in can be influenced by two main factors. One of which a dog owner has control and one which they do not.

The first and likely the most powerful is the dog’s breed genetics. If you look at dogs that return to the dog park day after day because they always “get along” you’ll see a pattern. Labrador and Golden Retrievers would be two likely candidates for this group. Whereas in the “Masters of the Universe” group (unless they are under the age of 18 months) you are highly unlikely to encounter them in a dog park setting. These are dogs genetically inclined for dog-to-dog aggression or for guarding characteristics.

The second influential factor is a dog’s individual temperament which is itself influenced to some extent by genetics but also by what happened during its critical socialization period (3-12 weeks of age) inside and outside of its litter experience. The second and third main factors influencing temperament are the environmental stimulation the owner subjects the dog to when it is unsupervised and a dog’s perception of its relationship with its owner.

If during its critical socialization period (particularly between approximately 8 – 10 weeks) a pup has a negative experience with another dog that is not counterbalanced with many positive experiences there is the significant possibility that it will make a lasting impression and later in life exposure to unfamiliar dogs will trigger apprehension if not all out fear.

A dog’s day to day unsupervised environment can (and often does) unnecessarily negatively impact its sociability with unfamiliar dogs. Dogs that are allowed to spend unsupervised time in yards and at windows that allow a street view often don’t start out displaying overt agitation when dogs are walked past their owner’s property but over time develop increasingly aggressive responses until the trespasser dog is out of sight (in their minds due their diligence and aggression display). This can greatly influence their ability to exert self-control around other dogs whether walked around the neighborhood or at the local dog park.

spoiled_dogAnother factor that can have a negative impact is when a dog perceives their ‘at home’ relationship with their owners from more of a “great roommate” perspective as opposed to teacher/student relationship. As a result, when their owner attempts to temper behavior that is growing overly rough in the dog park setting they do not respond. Dogs that know each other well can generally be relied on to work things out however in situations where the dogs are unfamiliar with each other and they are not of the “Party/Disney” or “Pre-Teen” categories there is a greater onus on the dog’s owner to supervise and guide their dog’s behavior. Otherwise, the dog is subjected to the coarse behavior may, depending on its own sociability respond by replying in kind or submit to the bullying; either response sending a message to the socially inexperienced or inept dog. Typically the longer it takes for a dog’s owner to intercede or another dog to discipline the bullying dog the more likely that when the dog finally meets its match there will be a much more serious outcome.

I suspect your dog falls into the “Who’s in Charge” category. If their owners are diligent in their supervision and the dogs have a clear understanding that when their owner speaks, they must listen, for dogs in this category, a dog park is one possible setting for them to get their exercise. If not it’s best to not stress them, you, other dogs and dog owners out and find other ways to exercise them.

– John Wade

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3 thoughts on “Aggressive in the Dog Park (Australian Cattle Dog)”

  1. I too have an Australian Cattle dog, (aka Heeler) my second one, my first “Jake” I got as s puppy when I was 14, and we did everything together, but I was 14 and full of energy, so Jake was fully drained of energy daily, pulled me on skateboard, went to the beach, park, he was literally by my side non stop unless I was at school and he was a very calm dog because of it, this is what heelers need daily.

    My second “Jeep” I got at 2 years old, already well trained with awesome recall. He’s now 2 1/2 and beginning to display bully behavior at the dog park, up until now he was what you call teenager and playfully pushed but if another dog barked he ran away fast…. not anymore though, certain breeds just seem to irritate him, Huskies are number one he doesn’t like them, most dogs don’t like Huskies have bad dog manners. Pit bulls are next but what most people don’t know about Heelers is that they are extremely quick, very strong, and feel less pain than other breeds.

    My first heeler “Jake” was 100% alpha and ignored most dogs (but not between 1-4years he tested often).

    Jake was blindsided and attacked at the beach by a King Doberman, I was surfing, and Jake was under the big umbrella waiting for me, just so happens I was coming in and saw the Dobbie charge, next thing I saw was Jake darting outstanding ready, the Dobbie attacked and bit sand, Jake was so quick he’d positioned himself behind the Dobbie while he was striking….Jake grabbed his back leg and played tug of war with it dragging him to the water the whole time the owner of the Dobbie was kicking Jake, I arrived thrusting my surfboard into the owners stomach, grabbed his Dobbie by the scruff and swung him into the ocean and Jake stopped but was growling at the owner. The owner started cursing at me when it was his dog that had been the problem, the Dobbie came out of the water then attempted to lunge at me but was met by Jakes’ teeth around his neck, Jake pinned the Dobbie to the ground and was close to killing it, I told Jake “no more” he stopped and the Dobbie ran full speed back to the owners beach site leaving his owner.

    I worked for a vet back then, my girlfriend was a vet tech also and told the guy if his dog is hurt we can go right now and have him checked, but he was a jerk and said I was lucky his dog didn’t kill us both.

    The Australian Cattle Dog was bred from the Dingo, an extremely intelligent fierce predator and the heeler retains these strengths, also the heeler was bred to withstand pain (probably from cow kicks) and the heeler is the only dog that sleeps/rests only 12 hours on average compared to 18 hours for other breeds.

    Please don’t buy, adopt or own an Australian cattle dog unless you can dedicate 4-6 hours a day doing vigorous exercise these dogs are bred to run after cattle from morning until night so draining their energy is key to their mental stability.


    1. We have 2 heelers in our family and they are aggressive and high energy. I dont believe anyone should leave them unattended and expect good results.

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