Ask the Dogfather: What to do about dog park bullies and a greedy food hound

Monte got bullied at the dog park. — Courtesy Danielle Zerbonne.

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the owners of a small dog who was bullied at the dog park and a golden retriever who likes to steal food from guests and.

Hi Tom,

When two standard poodles chased down and bit my 15-pound pup at a Land Bank property a few years ago, the ensuing confrontation with the owner was terribly upsetting.

She left in a huff, and it was only after she drove away I realized her dogs had drawn blood.  Being so upset in the moment, I never thought to get her name or information. Luckily the local animal officer figured out who it was from my description. Recently a friend had an experience of a loose dog attacking her dog, which was tied in the backyard, and she tracked down and confronted those owners, with a similarly frustrating and fruitless confrontation. Do you have advice for dealing with the aftermath of this kind of event? Dealing with the offender/s as well as the frightened or injured animal?



Dear Danielle,

This is a tough one. Tough because my expertise is training dogs, and half this question has to do with the training of people. If a dog presents unwanted or intolerable behavior — anything from peeing on your carpet to biting your elderly mother — the behavior of the dog has to be modified through training. I can get you set up properly and give you the do’s and dont’s to housebreak the dog, and help you manage the dog’s unwanted aggression, if not eliminate it.

This is America, land of litigation. I’ve testified as an expert witness in dog-related cases many times — in court, and in both condo and co-op tenant and landlord-tenant arbitrations. Sometimes it’s bad blood between neighbors and the dog has nothing to do with it. I had a client in one of the premier Manhattan skyscrapers get a notice from management that basically said, “Your dog’s barking has received complaints; either get the dog to stop barking, or get rid of the dog, or get out.” Thanks to modern technology I had the owner record the dog’s silence for 36 hours, a period during which the neighbor complained of the barking. The result of which left the neighbor embarrassed, which turned to anger, and the last I heard was he was suing management for one thing or another.

I’ve done many lessons at dog parks, and at Kakiak State Park dog run, near where I used to live in New York, there was a guy with a large dog with a history of attacking dogs in the run. The aggressive dog owner ended up in a brawl with the owner of a golden retriever.

Here’s a case where no “human training” is needed. Your puppy gets attacked and bitten by another dog and that dog’s owner apologizes, gives you his name and number and tells you he will reimburse you for any expenses incurred. Wouldn’t that be great? And Danielle, it does happen sometimes.

Unfortunately, it’s not been your experience. Best advice, if an aggressive dog owner is not civil and is in need of “human training,” use your phone. Take pictures of him, his dog, his car with license plate, along with any injuries to your dog.

First and foremost, however, is attending to the immediate health and safety of your injured dog. Next, police, dog warden, and court if you’re so inclined.

As for your injured puppy, if it needs mouth to nose resuscitation, obviously get it to a vet ASAP. If it’s a lot more frightened than injured, comfort it without smothering it in pity. Then, ASAP, get it together with known, friendly, mellow dogs. Try not to inadvertently reward a fear response, meaning petting him and telling him it’s okay when he shows fear at the sight of a strange dog. Rather, talk to him so happily that you get his tail wagging and are giving him treats, and all this happiness has to do with the new friend he’s about to make.

I prefer training dogs. As Mark Twain said, “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. That is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”    Good luck and may your future dog encounters be enjoyable ones,

The Dogfather

For the Dogfather-

My one-year-old golden retriever is a food hound. She constantly tries to steal food, particularly when we have guests.  I have tried locking her away, but she just cries and fusses, making entertaining a chore. Please help so we can enjoy having company again!


Dear Jennifer,

Dogs go from puppy to punk to young adult to adult adult to senior adult. Congratulations; it may have started around six months of age, but for a golden you’re right in the heart of punk-dom. It’s when they’re seriously into playing “no speaka English.” When I started in the business the common thought was, “Don’t start training until the dog is six months old.” The fallacy of this was obvious to me the first time I worked with a puppy. I start laying a foundation of doing things correctly when a puppy is about eight weeks old. Unwanted behavior: boy, is it easier to prevent than to correct.

I learned early on that the best way to really help people harmonize with their dogs was to go into their homes because the truth is, 95 percent of the time you’re hanging out with your dog, it’s in the house.

I have a thousand stories because I’ve been in so many homes I have no idea what the word normal means. The lady who burst into tears when I said, “You don’t have a lot of company, do you?” This was just after I entered the home and she let the English Bulldog out of the bedroom to greet me. He was so happy to meet me that he went airborne and hit me in the gut knocking me onto the couch behind me. Then all 65 pounds jumped on my lap and proceeded to lick, snort, and fart in all his joy.

Jennifer, locking her away actually exacerbates the problem. Dogs are social animals, separating her is like a “time out” for a kid. It’s a punishment. She just needs to learn her manners.

All you mentioned is stealing food. I don’t know if that means grabbing food from the counter or table when you’re not paying attention, or actually going for it in front of you, or ripping it out of your guest’s hands.

At age one a golden is a large dog and I’d suggest you get a pro to help you. If you live in N.Y.C. I can give you a number of a pro who will transform your girl in one or two lessons. In the meantime I’d suggest a “place” command for golden girl. Pick a spot in the loop of activity, out of a traffic pattern that enables her to see what’s going on. Put something on the floor that she likes to lie on and set up a piece of leash that you can affix to a heavy piece of furniture or an eye hook on a floor molding. When company comes bring her to that spot and attach the leash, making sure it’s long enough for her to lie down on her bed, but no longer. Then give her a frozen kong with peanut butter, or a hollow marrow bone with a piece of meat wedged in the middle.

If she still fusses, once again I’d suggest the help of a pro. What method I’d use to teach her to be “quiet” and stop fussing really depends on several variables, including her intensity and perseverance.

Jennifer, I understand that you know where I live. When you get the chance, please come around and it will be my pleasure to help you.

Good luck,

The Dogfather

P.S.: Love those questions — keep ‘em coming! Write to