“Be NICE!”

from buzzfeed.com
from buzzfeed.com

If I’m a dog, and I’m on a leash, and another dog invades my space, I’m gonna growl. That’s just how I feel. Back the heck off, pal! I can’t get away from you, on account of I’m on a leash! That means you need to get away from me. Please and thank you. Plain and simple. So how come my person chides me and snaps, “Be NICE!” What?! I am nice. I just don’t want this guy all up in my business. How about my person could be nice and get me away from him?!

As a human, I’ve been on both sides of this thing. I’ve snapped “be nice!” to my own dog for grumbling at a would-be new friend who came on too strong. And this clashes with my iron clad conviction that she has every right to growl, to tell another dog–and me–how she feels and what she needs: more space. But I do try to refrain from this gratuitous scolding, and I cringe when I hear someone else demand “niceness” of their dog.

Why are we so offended by our dogs’ growls in this context?

I haven’t polled the masses, so I invite readers to weigh in with their own observations. But here’s my guess. I think we reprimand our dogs for what we perceive as rudeness for two main reasons:

from rover.com

1) We feel our dogs’ behavior reflects on us personally. If they comport themselves with grace, it makes us look good. If they act like jerks (in our view), it looks like we’re not very good at this dog stuff.

2) We’ve absorbed a widespread societal maxim that says all dogs should want to play with all other dogs, all the time, and if they don’t, they’re not being nice.

This isn’t fair, and it isn’t reasonable.

First of all, let’s stop taking our dogs’ “misbehavior” so personally. They’re dogs. They have dog ways. They do dog things–including growl when they need to. Your dog would tell you, get over yourself–it’s not about you. And, dogs being dogs, they’re going to growl when circumstances warrant it. To you, it may seem obnoxious, but to dogs, it’s a legitimate part of their behavioral repertoire.

from rover.com
from pawnation.com

As for universal love among dogs? Forget about it. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, can we just accept that dogs can be choosy about the company they keep? Sure, some are social butterflies, the life of the party. But others are more selective, and some are shy, and some like their people better than their own kind–and it’s all normal.

A lot of dog owners overlook two basic truths that would help them understand their dog’s snarking–and prevent it in the future:

1) The leash can make dogs feel trapped and put them on the defensive.

2) Consequently, putting some distance between the growling dog and the dog who’s irking him can quickly  restore peace.


People often don’t realize how being leashed impedes their dog’s social communication with other dogs. An unleashed dog can choose to approach another dog on his own terms, or ignore it, or walk away–or run. Unfettered and unencumbered, he can express his full range of subtle signals that tell other dogs about his emotional state and interest in meeting them.

from pawzforhealth.net
from pawzforhealth.net

On leash, body language can be suppressed or distorted–unseen or misread by other dogs. And on leash, our dogs’ behavioral options are limited. Yes, if my dog wants to meet the other dog, she could try pulling me there. But what if she doesn’t want to interact? Or what if she’s afraid of the other dog? If the other dog muscles in anyway, mine is stuck. All she has is her growl–because that’ll tell the other dog loud and clear to go away.

That growl is a message for me, too. To hear it, and act on it, I need to understand it. It means my dog is uncomfortable and getting overwhelmed, so I need to figure out a way to give her the space she needs to feel calm and safe.

from vetstreet.com

We need to take growling at face value, without judgment. It’s communication. It’s information. It’s an alarm telling you to intervene and defuse the tension. Let’s stop insisting our dogs “be nice” and instead be on their side, come to their aid, have their back. How nice is that?


About Karen Baragona

I'm a dog trainer (CPDT-KA) with a soft spot for shelter and rescue dogs who are a little rough around the edges. My own rescue dog Huckleberry, an exuberant hound mix, gave me a run for my money with her reactivity, resource guarding, squirrel chasing, fear of car rides, and unapologetic boisterousness. But she made me a better, more empathetic trainer. As a group class training instructor, private in-home trainer, and animal shelter behavior counselor, I've worked with hundreds of dogs and their people to help them understand and learn from each other. I have a special interest in interactions between dogs and kids, and dogs and other household pets. I also have a master's degree in environmental science and in a past life worked in international wildlife conservation for 15 years.


  1. Interesting article and very informative. I have a ACD who loves meeting people but hates meeting dogs. She used to be fine until the old dog next door used to bite her feet under the gate and bark angrily at her through the fence. now as soon as she sees another dog when out on a walk she gets her back up. When I walk her now if I see a dog coming I walk the other way or have her sit calmly until it and its owner pass. If I take her to an off lead park I take her when it’s empty because all she wants to do there is chase a ball anyway. However those who choose to walk their dog off the lead when not in an off lead area really annoy me, they make it difficult for owners trying to do the responsible thing.

    1. It’s great that you’ve worked out some effective strategies to help your dog feel safe. It IS hard when not all dogs are leashed–especially because many owners seem believe that as long as their own dog is “friendly”, there won’t be a problem. If they’ve never had a dog who, when leashed, isn’t uncomfortable with other dogs approaching, they may just not realize what it’s like to be on the other end of that interaction.

  2. Thank you for this great article. I am the proud Mom of a reactive rescue dog that we adopted 5 months ago. I must admit that I have recently been using the “Be Nice” method when she reacts to people and other dogs. But after reading your dog’s eye view of it I will make sure that I am listening and respecting my girls space by moving her away. I have also had success being able to redirect her by playing ball. I am in the process of scheduling a consultation with a behaviorist for guidance. However this will be extremely helpful during the interim.

  3. Thanks for article and thoughtful replies. I appreciate there is a spectrum of experience and perspective on these issues. In a perfect world no dog would have aggression or rescue issues and all would have outdoor space to run and greet freely and naturally. Alas, I live in reality, USA. Here is a practice that developed nicely in my old neighborhood where there were leash walkers and an unofficial off leash park: THE Owner/Walker would ask – at a distance (say, across a street) “Does your dog want to say hi?” This would prompt more info: Not today; not good with strange dogs; not on the street; not on the leash; not with big/little/young dogs etc. OR – “We are learning appropriate greeting – my dog can be moody/unpredictable” OR – SURE!!
    In the first instance, neighbors could move along without feeling slighted and give the NO person enough space to manage the situation – which included leashing up the unleashed dog to allow appropriate management. In the second instance, the neighbor could evaluate whether they wanted to participate in the LEARNING EXPERIMENT – usually if their dog is “always friendly” or “can hold his own” or “is very balanced” at which point we would move OFF THE STREET to a yard/driveway, park and approach slowly, eventually dropping the leash to the ground to allow retrieval if necessary and space if necessary. This kind of exchange was prompted when a previously happy, friendly dog had surgery and couldn’t play/walk freely while in recovery. Out of respect, we began asking each other who was ready to greet and play. We found it became a very useful tool as new dogs, rescues, schedules changed. I miss that neighborhood and my happy balanced dog!! Now I have a former street dog rescue and need that kind of cooperation even more. I am waiting in Urgent Care as I write this to get stitches on my hand from breaking up a dog -on -dog attack in which my dog was the victim. The other dog’s leash broke. All the management and training I had invested in my dog helped to save him but not me. Sigh.

    1. Oh my gosh, Kacey, I’m so sorry to hear about your bite. Your old neighborhood sounds utopian–too bad that isn’t the norm. Where I work, we have a workshop called “Meet & Greet” but it should probably be called “Not Meet and Not Greet” because we mostly work on helping dogs stay focused on their owner in the presence of other dogs. At the end we do some carefully managed greetings and show people how to keep it short & sweet.

  4. I have just read your article and I have to give my view. I have a beautiful rescue (one of two) who are both leashed for their safety. My abused rescue has an issue with big dogs or anything that is in his face. As his mummy i am aware of his body language and that of the other dogs and will move us out of the equation. I am also not shy in asking the other owner to come and get their dog. If all dogs read body language it would be a diff matter but certain breeds dont and will always be in my dog’s face. My little boy is sometimes reactive and if he was off lead he would go for the other dog, i just diffuse the siutation by walking away with him. Both my babies (dogs) have been attacked and i keep them on lead for their safety and protection. One would fight and get hurt and i dont want him hurting another dog and my other dog would take flight and would prob cross lanes of traffic in flight mode also where she would get hurt or killed. I keep them on lead for their safety if that makes me wrong i can live with it

    1. Hi, Claire! Sounds like you’ve got a safe and effective system to keep your dogs out of harm’s way. Where I live, dogs HAVE to be on leash in public spaces. It’s the law. So no, you’re not wrong in my view! Dogs can be off leash on private property and in off-leash dog parks, and that’s where you’re most likely to see friendly behavior (though of course there can also be dangerous behavior–but that’s a subject for another post!) My point was, given that our dogs are usually on leash when we’re out & about, we should recognize that they may feel uncomfortable if another dog gets too close, and they may growl, and we should heed that growl and give them more distance–not scold them for not being “nice” as people often do.

      1. Thanks for your response, i quite agree I never tell my kids off for growling i always look to see what is causing the growl. I am moving back to the UK where it ISNT law for dogs to be on lead and that is my big worry. In theory there are never bad dogs it is bad and ignorant owners.

        1. Best of luck with the move. Yes, it can be tricky in places where there’s no leash law and some dogs are leashed and some not. How can we help more dog owners understand these basic but hidden truths about keeping distance between dogs?

  5. I love this article, so much of which I’ve had recent problems with my little dog to which the vet suggested I see a dog behaviourist to stop lead aggression !! Mine reacts so badly to other dogs even along way away but quite happily plays with those dogs off lead in the park but realising this is just natural behaviour makes it so much easier as a dog owner knowing that my dog is just being a dog and I’m not a bad owner !!

    1. OF course you’re not a bad owner–look how much you love your dog and have invested in him (or her?)! I don’t like the widely used but misleading term “lead/leash aggression”. There are many definitions of aggression but I believe to most people it connotes “intent to harm”. For your dog, who plays so nicely off leash, it’s unlikely that he (she?) has violence in mind–it’s just a reaction. So I like the term “leash reactivity” much better, because it just describes the behavior without presuming to know what the dog is thinking. We just know the reactivity means the dog is upset and over threshold, and that we need to take action to help them feel calm.

    1. Great! It’s so fundamental but just not intuitive–so many people just don’t realize until they hear it from us.

  6. so if the location would allow, if an on-leash dog may growl for feeling trapped, do you think the situation would be helped if the growling dog is allowed off-leash? They can then choose their distance or to retreat? Or could it make things worse because they’ve already decided they don’t like a particular dog?

  7. I know, the reason I try to stop it is because if I don’t put an end to the growl it ends up as a full blown fit, with leaping, barking and snarling. I can’t have that with an 80 pound dog. However we do walk away from the “threat” so that calmness can be restored.
    I totally understand that he feels trapped and wants to let the other dog know that he doesn’t want his space invaded and that he isn’t afraid one bit. (I know he is terrified he won’t be able to get away). I just wish everyone would understand it’s ok not to greet other dogs.

    1. I agree. So many people want to do nose greetings on leash and it would be easier for everyone if nobody did! And clients often complain that their dogs go nuts trying to meet other dogs, and sometimes they let them and sometimes they don’t, not realizing the intermittent reinforcement is going to make them bark and lunge and pull even harder in their effort to get to their friends! A guy in my neighborhood once walked his dog right up to my dog even though I said it probably wasn’t going to go well, and then HE scolded MY dog when she growled at his dog and told HER to be nice. Argh!

  8. Karen,
    THANK YOU! Great post and one of my pet peeves. I intend to share it widely because you offer the dog’s point of view, which humans rarely consider. You covered so much so well in this column. Terrific job!
    P.S. Love the fact that your house includes two free-range bunnies. I work at a shelter as a trainer but also care for our rabbits and have four house rabbits myself.

    1. Thanks, Cathy. And wow, you have quite a herd of rabbits–that’s great. I didn’t want to go off on too many tangents in this post, but as I was writing, I was thinking how natural it is for us to correct a child for being rude to another child because we expect kids to learn polite behavior through training, observation, and natural consequences. The kid learns stuff like “mom will be proud of me if I’m nice (or won’t scold), my parents are nice to people so that’s what I should do, other kids will play with me if I’m nice, etc. But I think in the case of the growling dog, it’s more like telling a shy kid to be friendly. And the shy kid can’t be friendly until she feels comfortable and confident in the situation. Until then she’s going to want to keep her distance. It’s not rudeness, it’s anxiety. Anyway, thanks for your comment!

      1. Hi again,
        I noticed in your bio that you volunteer at the Animal Welfare League. I was wondering if by chance you know my friend and fellow trainer Pen Brown (Phi Beta K-9 ) who lives in the DC area.

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