PetLvr Mailbag: Teaching Gentleness

Dear Petlvr Mailbag …

I have 2 rescue poodles, both males.  Buddy is a 3-year-old Standard and Troy is a 3-year-old Toy. 

Buddy wants to play with little Troy.  It’s the 65 lbs. vs. the 8 lbs. is what I worry about. 

How do you teach gentleness to Buddy?

Poodle Problems


Dear Poodle Problems,

First, it sounds like you’re not leaving the dogs together unsupervised. Excellent decision. Even if the dogs begin to play gently together, please do not presume they can be safely left together when you leave the house. A small dog is always vulnerable to injury by a larger dog. In fact, many vet hospitals see so many injuries from mismatched dogs that a code sometimes used on veterinary charts is “BDLD,” which stands for Big Dog Little Dog.

Now, about teaching gentleness. I’m presuming the dogs are friendly with one another and do not show any signs of fighting. If, in fact, they do fight, remember that priority number one is your safety. However, as long as they interact only in an amicable way,  the most effective consequence for over-exuberant play is the end of a play session and a very brief time-out.

Begin with your larger dog, Buddy, leashed, and Troy off the leash or on leash but being held by a friend who’s willing to spend some time helping you with the dogs. Ask Buddy for a loose leash walk and approach Troy together. First, you’ll practice approaching and retreating without initiating a play session. Click Buddy for sniffing Troy, but silently turn and walk away if he tries to initiate play by play-bowing or pawing Troy. Practice this until the dogs can reliably greet one another and have a mutual sniff without playing together.

It may take several sessions to reliably produce this behavior, but when it is established, put it on a cue, for example, “Say hello!” As a fringe benefit, this cue can then be used at the dog park and on walks. However, the real key is that you’ve built the foundation for your dogs to listen and exert self-control when they want to play. Now, you can train a release cue, like, “At ease,” or “Go play!”

When you use your release cue, give Buddy slack in his leash or drop the leash (don’t take it off yet). There’s no need to encourage play here– the dogs will play if they want to do so. Allow them to interact freely with your supervision, but have a set of rules in mind that apply to the play session. For example, if Troy vocalizes due to discomfort, the play session is over. If Buddy paws Troy’s back, the play session is over. If Buddy excessively mouths Troy’s neck, the play session is over.

If and when the prohibited behaviors occur, take Buddy and silently walk him to a quiet, dark room like a bathroom and shut him inside for no more than 30 to 90 seconds. Make yourself scarce in a third room, so you are not rewarding Troy with your presence while Buddy gets a time out. When you release Buddy from time out, start over again with a greeting and then a release cue.

You’ll need to repeat this many times in order to teach gentle play to an exuberant young dog with a new playmate, but if you are consistent with your rules and remove Buddy instantly as soon as a prohibited behavior occurs, he will understand what is and is not permitted. After this is established and you rarely have to give Buddy a time out, you can replace the time out sessions with a “break it up” cue like a loud clap of your hands or a sharp “Ah, ah, ah, gentle!” Start by pairing a time out with the audible reminder to behave. Then, when the dogs start to understand when they hear your cue that they will be separated, you can call Buddy to you and reward both dogs for sitting calmly for 30 to 90 seconds, rather than completely separating them. Then, give your release cue, and let them play again.

A final note: Once all cues are established and you have no need for leashes during the dogs’ play sessions, please remove both dogs’ collars before allowing play. Collars and tags present a serious hazard during play between two dogs, and the risk is substantial enough that collars should only be left on for play if you are also leaving the leash attached in order to gain control of the dog quickly.

Have fun, and thank you for rescuing your pups!


If you have a pet related question that you would like Jelena Woehr to answer here in our “PetLvr Mailbag” series … send your question to jelena (at) PetLvr (dot) com

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