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City Dog: Dog-run dominance, corrections, cell phones

BY LYNN PACIFICO | There has been a change in dog runs in the last two decades. Before cell phones, dog owners were much more “present” in the run. We either trained or played with our dogs or socialized with other humans while watching our dogs play. We were a community, sharing the lives of our dogs. Most of what I know about dogs I learned at a run from other dog owners.

Like children, dogs, especially adolescent dogs, experiment with behaviors, like mounting. Back then we didn’t immediately interfere since we wanted our dogs to learn how to handle an offending dog by giving an appropriate correction. If a dog was constantly mounting other dogs (a dominance drive) the owner would pull them off. But we watched and assessed before interfering since ideally the dogs worked it out themselves.

How to give and receive appropriate correction is taught by a puppy’s mother when the puppy is allowed to stay with the mother at least until they are 8 to 10 weeks old. When a dog abruptly growls and/or nips an offending dog without breaking skin, or pins it on the ground — this is an appropriate correction. This is how dogs stick up for themselves and train their pups to behave appropriately around other dogs. It is how dogs say, “Stop doing that! It’s annoying!” Many aggressive dogs are aggressive because they were taken from their mother too early and, never learning to accept corrections, they instead mistake corrections for aggression.

Gate guarding is another dominance game. I am not talking about a dog who runs to the gate to greet a friend who is entering, but dogs who station themselves at the gate. This behavior is usually territorial/confrontational, and common in guarding breeds and mixes. (This is why it is also important not to stand with your dog right in front of an elevator since dogs getting off the elevator see your dog standing there as a confrontation. It is better to stand off to the side.)

My Beenie (short for “Been There” as I got her from the Staten Island pound) was a 35-pound, sweet busybody who wanted to let other dogs know, as they entered the run, that she was the boss. One day a large female came in and Beenie ran to the gate. The entering female dropped her ball, pinned Beenie by the neck to the ground and held her there for a moment. The larger female, a good, well-adjusted dog, then picked up her ball and went about her business. She gave an appropriate correction without hurting Been, and Been learned a lesson and stopped gate guarding.

Recently, at a Downtown East Side run, a man’s dog was gate guarding and an entering dog responded by viciously attacking his dog. Not every dog is socialized and well-adjusted, so it is best to redirect your dog away from the gate when it experiments with this dominance behavior.

Behaviorist and trainer Sharon Mear, from Training Cats and Dogs, adds: “It is best to keep your dog from engaging in dominance games but arguments are bound to happen. Give the mounter or gate guarder a time-out to calm down. Fights can be diminished or redirected if you pay attention and remember why you are at the run — to exercise and socialize your dog.”

It helps to be aware of breed-specific drives in order to understand what your dog is doing and watch for problem behaviors. Socialization and training make a big difference. Ideally, study canine behavior, and training methods to see what works best for you and your dog. Attend training classes, and/or hire a trainer. Diligence in dedicating regular one-on-one time with your dog, especially when you first get one, no matter its age, makes life easier and better. For you and your dog’s sake, when in a dog run, put your cell phone away.

Pacifico is a fourth-generation Villager who loves dogs, nature and New York City.


  1. Carol Frances Yost Carol Frances Yost May 8, 2024

    Wonderful advice, although I’ve never owned a dog (my family owned a dog when I was little, and my mother owned dogs). Question: Why should you put your cell phone away when in a dog run?

    • lynn pacifico lynn pacifico May 16, 2024

      Thank you Carol. You put your cellphone away in order to concentrate on your dog, to either monitor or interact with them. Same thing as a parent when at a playground, to concentrate on your child.

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