Pack Politics

A good while back I wrote about some mild but undesirable behavior from Biggles. Specifically any time we tried to do something he didn’t like, he’d growl and even snap at us to make us back off and get his own way. All the advice we received on the dog forums and sites we frequented cautioned against direct confrontation, even though my gut instinct was that somehow we should teach him that his misbehavior just wasn’t acceptable. Still, the internet sources all warned that confronting him could aggravate the situation or even cause new problems, so instead we went for the following approach:

  • To deal with situations we’re he’d stolen something, we offered Biggles a treat in return for the stolen item. We associated the word “swapsy” with this and after a while a mention of the word “swapsy” was often enough to make him give up his prize, just so long as he got a treat soon afterwards.
  • To get him out of rooms he didn’t want to leave, we held impromptu training sessions which just happened to end up in the hall.
  • Whenever he seemed to be getting more stroppy, we cut back on his privileges a little.

All of this made his behavior much easier to manage, but it didn’t actually eliminate the behavior. As proof of this, we decided to see what would happen if we tried to get something off him without using the “swapsy” workaround. Here’s a clip of how it turned out. Needless to say I was volunteered for the role of hapless victim! My approach is all wrong, but still, Biggles shouldn’t be reacting the way he did.

He absolutely detested having his ears cleaned (an important part of regular Beagle maintenance) so we gave it up, and any trip to the vet was unnecessarily stressful because we didn’t know if he’d take a dislike to the examination or treatment. It was a shame because most of the time Biggles is a true sweetheart, and his enthusiasm and attention during training sessions is unmatched, even by much more cooperative breeds.

Eventually we decided we needed to tackle the problem another way, because the Biggly boy is approaching adulthood and growling and snapping at anybody other than us could get him into serious trouble. We called on Heather Smith, who runs our pup’s Heelwork To Music classes. In addition to her training skills she’s a qualified behaviorist and has already helped friends of ours with their Beagle. She gave us some simple, practical advice and techniques for dealing with Biggles’ naughty habits. Here are some of them:

  • Never back down. If you have a confrontation, you HAVE to win it, otherwise you can only expect things to get worse.
  • Never respond immediately to our dogs’ demands. They get attention/food/walks when we decide, not when they ask for it.
  • Gently get Biggles used to human behavior that can be threatening to a dog, such as standing or leaning over him. At the same time, adapt some common operations to make them less threatening. For example when attaching a lead to the collar, try to do it underneath rather than above the neck.
  • In resource guarding situations like the one in the video, secure Biggles’ by the collar by reaching in from the side, not from the front. Don’t get in to a tug of war or talk to him, simply hold him firm and patiently wait for him to release the item.

All of this was valuable, but for me the most valuable thing Heather’s visit gave us was the confidence to tackle Biggles, and Beanie for that matter, and not be plagued with doubt that what we’re doing might be harmful or counterproductive.

Two weeks on, the changes in Biggles have been amazing. He rarely resists us when we try to take things off him, and if he does, he gives up within a couple of seconds. We can usually get him off tables and out of rooms he shouldn’t be in by command alone, and we’ve resumed cleaning his ears. On walks he’s becoming much more attentive and less headstrong. Beanie’s changed too – she’s suddenly become very cuddly, whereas before she tended to be a bit aloof and only accepted affection on her terms. I can’t help thinking that the most important factor in all of this is the confidence we now have in interactions with our dogs. I guess Caesar Millan would say that we’ve become a little more like the leaders of our pack.

And in case your wondering, demotion from joint pack leadership hasn’t made our two any less playful:


You wouldn’t believe how many goes it took to get them jumping in sync! Or if you own a beagle, maybe you would!


Don’t be fooled, Beanie’s not resting – she’s lying in wait, ready to ambush the Bigglet


Biggles knows what’s about to go down, and hangs back for a while…


Eventually he succumbs, and this is what’s waiting for him!


But he turns it around soon enough!


Biggles investigates a moth by the window. It seems kind of big, so he bravely hands the job over to Beanie


She’s remarkably gentle with the moth, and picks it up in her mouth then releases it a couple of times without harming it in the slightest. The capture and release cycle continues, but then some bits fall off and the moth dies. I guess they don’t make moths like they used to.