Dog Behavior and When the Problem is You

My dog Garth is a wonderful and extremely well-behaved 5-year-old lab. He’s a Canine Good Citizen, certified Therapy Dog, and a delight to be around – I couldn’t ask for a better dog. But he has one habit I find troubling, and it took me a long time to realize that I was the problem.

When we’re in a group of people and dogs and Garth is on leash, and another dog approaches him face-to-face and gets too close, Garth snaps at the other dog. It’s a quick, silent snapping of his jaws, with no contact made. I’ve read and been told by trainers that many dogs don’t like face-to-face greetings (most prefer face-to-butt), and that snapping is normal dog behavior in response to getting too close – like a human saying “back off, dude.” (Check out for more information on this topic.)

Although I understand that snapping is simply Garth’s way of communicating with other dogs in a language they understand, it disturbs and frightens me because I’m afraid someday it might escalate. Consequently, I try my best to keep other dogs from approaching Garth. This is much easier said than done. At a dog event, I find myself constantly maneuvering to avoid the other dogs. It’s easy if people ask if it’s okay for the dogs to meet and I can just say no, but most people don’t ask. Often people aren’t paying attention to their dogs, or they’re paying attention and let their dog walk right up to another dog anyway.

The more Garth snapped at other dogs, the more it freaked me out when other dogs approached him. I would become stressed and anxious when we were around other dogs, and would tense up when a dog approached Garth and I was unable to get away or get his owner to stop him. And Garth began to snap at other dogs more and more. Interestingly, Garth never snapped when we were out hiking with a bunch of our dog friends, even though at times there were lots of dogs in close proximity.

It took me a long time to realize what was really happening. Garth was sensing my stress and irritation at the dog approaching him, so he reacted by snapping, telling the other dog to back off. While I was trying to protect Garth by keeping other dogs from getting too close, he was trying to protect me. Based upon my reaction, Garth saw the other dog as a threat. He didn’t snap at other dogs when we were hiking because when we were hiking, I was relaxed and not concerned about any dog altercations.

Now that I realize I’m causing or contributing to Garth’s behavior, I’m working to change my behavior. I continue to try to avoid situations that make Garth uncomfortable like face-to-face greetings, but I’m trying to be more relaxed about it.

If your dog is having issues, look first at what you’re doing. Are you doing anything to cause or exacerbate the problem? Ask a trainer or friend to observe you when your dog is engaging in the behavior – they may be able to see things you can’t. I’ve spent a lot of time training Garth and a lot of time around dogs, yet it took me a long time to realize that my behavior was causing Garth to see other dogs as a threat.

Rebecca Randolph is a blogger, writer, artist, and attorney, but most importantly, a dog mom. You can read about her lab Garth and their adventures at The World According to Garth Riley (

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