CASE STUDY: The ‘Pushy’ Papillon
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.


Rocco is an 11-month-old intact male Papillon.

Presenting Problem

Rocco’s owner sought treatment for his ‘aggressive’ behavior towards other dogs. When he sees other dogs he will lunge towards them and vocalize. He also does not like to be picked up and will snarl, snap, and attempt to bite.


Rocco was obtained from a reputable breeder at 10 weeks old. He was sold as a ‘show quality’ dog. His breeder described his personality as ‘outgoing’.

He was enrolled in puppy classes (clicker training) at 16 weeks old and completed 2 sessions that were each 10 weeks long. He seemed fine with other puppies in those classes. He is currently enrolled in a conformation class, a puppy agility class, and takes private obedience lessons.

His owner describes Rocco as “intelligent and sweet”.

Previous Episodes

Rocco’s owner reports that he first snarled at her in the car on the way home from picking him up. She was holding him in her lap and he was sleeping. When she stroked his ear, he snarled. She was surprised, but chalked it up to having startled him out of sleep.

When he was about 4 months old and in to see the vet he growled at her as she attempted to examine him. The vet told the owner that the pup was displaying dominant behavior and that she needed to respond to it with an ‘alpha roll’. The owner reports that she did this 5 or 6 times, but felt very uncomfortable with this technique and did not see any positive change in Rocco’s behavior.

*NOTE: An alpha roll is a traditional corrective technique that involves forcing the dog into a down, usually on his back. Those who suggest this method state that it puts the dog into a submissive position and teaches him that the owner is the pack leader and must be obeyed. This technique was popularized in the 1970s by The Monks of New Skete. Most educated dog trainers are aware that this technique has the potential to damage, rather than strengthen, the dog/owner relationship. It could also lead to increased aggression in certain dogs.

Rocco’s reactions to other dogs increased in intensity when he was around 9 months old. He became tense, anxious, and overexcited in class settings with other dogs.

Rocco spends time in his owner’s office in a wire crate while she does chiropractic treatments on other dogs. He has started to react aggressively (growling and snarling) towards the other dogs while he is crated.

Previous Treatments

At first, Rocco’s owner dismissed his behavior problems and minimized them. This is, of course, understandable. If we can ignore problems, then we don’t have to deal with them. Unfortunately, behavior problems rarely, if ever, get better on their own. Instead, they usually escalate in intensity over time.

As stated above, she used an ‘alpha roll’ on a handful of occasions, but was not comfortable with that technique and did not find it to be useful.

In his conformation class the instructor suggested using time-outs for inappropriate behavior. Rocco is given a brief period of isolation in a crate when he overreacts to other dogs. The effectiveness of this technique is not yet known as it has only been tried a few times so far.

In class settings his owner reports that, when he becomes reactive to other dogs, she tries to regain his attention by talking to him and luring him with treats, and that she sometimes picks him up.


I have had the opportunity to observe Rocco’s behavior first-hand and to use some behavior modification techniques with him on several occasions. I first met him at an agility trial when his owner approached me about working with him. She described his aggressive behavior when being picked up. As I picked him up he snarled, growled, and snapped. He certainly would have bitten if he had the opportunity. Once in my arms he turned sweet and charming, wagging his tail and being quite friendly. At that time I suggested that the owner practice picking him up, quickly popping a treat in his mouth, and putting him back down. The treat is given WHILE he is being picked up. Being picked up and being given a treat must happen at the same time. Rocco seemed very willing to take the treat rather than attempt to bite.

Session #1:

During our first session I took an extended behavioral history, observed Rocco’s behavior, and instructed his owner on some basic behavior modification and handling techniques (details in the Recommendations section). Rocco did indeed show himself to be both intelligent and sweet (as his owner described). He was already familiar with clicker training, very food motivated, and very willing to work with us. In fact, he still seemed energetic and eager to work at the end of our two hour session!

Session #2:

During this session I first worked with Rocco and his owner in a private lesson, then observed Rocco in his conformation class and his agility class. On that particular evening the conformation class was very small (another Papillon and a Great Dane were the only other students) and Rocco did not exhibit any inappropriate behavior. The puppy agility class was much more lively and active. The other students included a German Shepherd, 2 Papillons, a Cocker Spaniel, and 2 Shelties. The puppies were working on individual obstacle skills and there was lots of noise and movement. This environment did elicit Rocco’s unwanted behavior. He spent much of his time watching the other dogs and attempting to interact with them. He would lunge and bark, and strain at the end of his leash.


Rocco’s inappropriate behaviors around other dogs are probably the result of several factors. His undesirable behavior increased in intensity as he approached physical maturity. Since he is intact, the effect of male hormones has probably exacerbated the problem. His hormones are telling him to be ‘macho’. Another factor contributing to his inappropriate behavior around other dogs is likely to be his small size. Small dogs often seem to be aware of their vulnerability. Certain personality types seem to try to ‘cover’ this vulnerability with an aggressive persona. The aggressive behavior is simply a way to hide fearfulness and a lack of confidence around other dogs.

However, in my observations of Rocco, I did not see any behavior that I would categorize as aggressive. Instead, he seemed to be desperately trying to interact with other dogs. He seemed very interested in them and curious about them, but did not show any true signs of aggression while I was watching him. It may be that his owner has misinterpreted his excited behavior, or it may be that I simply did not have the opportunity to see the worst of his behavior. Because of this, I will base my recommendations on my observations, but also make some suggestions regarding the possible aggressive displays as well.

His aggressive behavior when being picked up (snapping, snarling) could have several possible causes. First, of course, physical reasons must be considered. Once these are ruled out another strong possibility might be that he feels helpless and out of control when being lifted off the ground. This is not uncommon in small dogs.


1. Neutering. If Rocco were a pet dog, I would strongly suggest that he be neutered as soon as possible. While neutering will not solve the problem, it will make retraining easier. Without the push of his male hormones, Rocco is likely to be a bit more tractable and less distracted. However, his owner and breeder are interested in showing him in conformation. Also, his behavior seems as if it will be controllable even without neutering at this time.

2. Crating. When Rocco is confined in an open wire crate when other dogs are around, he probably feels trapped and vulnerable. I suggested to Rocco’s owner that she change the way she confines him. Rather than keeping him in her office when she works on other dogs, she now confines him in another room with chew toys. This seems to make him much more comfortable. She also now crates him at the training center in a covered crate away from the activity. She reports that he is doing much better while crated.

3. Situational management. Rocco’s excitable responses occur most often in situations that are busy and noisy , and where there are lots of dogs (such as agility class or walking through crowds). Now that his owner is aware of this, she can take steps to better manage the environment. She needs to become aware of times when the situation is overwhelming, and be proactive in her approach to changing the situation. For example, instead of trying to regain Rocco’s attention in agility class when he is lunging and barking, she needs to move him away from the center of action to a place where he can calm himself enough to pay attention to her again. Trying to break through Rocco’s frenzy of excitement is doomed to failure. In that state, he is highly unlikely to respond appropriately to his owner. Instead, Rocco needs to be moved to a setting in which he is more likely to regain his composure and be successful.

The example I used with his owner is this: Imagine that you are in a noisy, crowded nightclub. Now imagine that your math teacher is there and is trying to teach you calculus. How likely is it that you could ignore the distractions and concentrate? Even if your teacher were to tug on your sleeve and wave chocolate in your face, you would probably still find it difficult to pay attention. However, if you and your teacher were sitting in a quiet coffeehouse, you would probably find it much easier to concentrate and to learn.

4. Leash handling. Rocco and his owner have fallen into an interaction pattern that maintains his inappropriate behavior. Rocco spends much of his time in class settings ‘out in the world’ instead of tuned in to his owner. He is very focused on the environment, as are many dogs. He gets to the end of his leash, strains against it (often standing on his hind legs), and makes every effort to attract the attention of other dogs. Once this behavior occurs, his owner is left trying to find some way to entice Rocco back into interacting with her. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem nearly as interesting to him as other things in the environment. As another trainer once said “it’s hard to be more interesting than another dog’s rear end!”

The good news is that Rocco’s owner can change this pattern. The first thing she can change is the way she handles the leash. Both Rocco and his owner are used to having a tight leash between them. When the leash is tight, each knows exactly where the other is without looking. I spent quite a bit of time working with Rocco’s owner on leash handling. Keeping a short, but loose, leash is vital for success. Rocco needs to stay within about a 4-5 foot radius of his handler on a loose leash. We started by clicking and treating Rocco whenever the leash was loose. By using the leash as a gauge, his owner has a clear target behavior to observe and reinforce. If the leash is loose, Rocco must be within his ‘safety zone’, so he gets reinforced. At first, we would continue to reinforce about every 5-10 seconds if the leash stayed loose. This duration would increase as we were successful. When Rocco would lunge and strain against the leash the owner was instructed to move backwards or to the side. She was to keep moving until Rocco moved towards her and made the leash loose again, then she could reinforce him. The owner was also instructed on how to use a mild tug and release (NOT a leash pop) to help Rocco become aware of her position and move towards her. The purpose of the tug and release is to eliminate leash tension and remind the dog to move into the handler. The tug should not physically move the dog. I think of the difference between a tug and release and a leash pop as the difference between tapping someone on the shoulder rather than shoving him. The tug and release should be accompanied by slight movement away from the dog by the handler. It’s important to remember to reinforce once a loose leash is again established. It takes conscious awareness and vigilance on the owner’s part to maintain a loose leash. It’s very easy to fall back on old habits. Keeping a tight leash is a behavior that the owner seems to be unaware of. She found herself unconsciously holding the leash tightly over and over again. Changing that behavior will take practice, time, and effort.

5. Self-control down. The self-control down is very different from an obedience down. It is not cued by a word or signal. It is a behavior that is offered by the dog. Once offered, it is reinforced and strengthened by the handler. The self-control down works to give the dog a positive and conscious behavior to perform. Reinforcing this behavior makes it more likely, and inappropriate behaviors less likely. To begin, show the dog a very desirable treat, stand upright, and wait. Most dogs will try a variety of behaviors in order to get the treat. Your target behavior is a down. Your job is to wait for the dog to offer you a down, no luring or prompting is allowed. When the dog offers the down start moving the treat towards his mouth. If he jumps up, stand upright and move the treat out of his reach. You might put it behind your back. Don’t say anything. Simply stand up and wait again. Most dogs try a wide variety of behaviors to earn the treat, including jumping, barking, and pawing. Ignore these behaviors as much as you possibly can. The only behavior that moves the treat towards the dog is lying down. Most dogs are smart enough to figure this out in a single training session. Don’t worry if your dog takes longer. Be patient; the usefulness of this exercise makes it worthwhile. Whenever your dog offers a down start moving the treat towards his mouth. Don’t cheat, though, he needs to stay down in order to actually get the treat. As your dog starts to understand this exercise, move the treat towards him more and more slowly. The dog must maintain the down, no matter how long it takes to get the treat. Don’t use a clicker for this exercise as the click is also a release. You don’t want the dog to jump up once he hears the click, you want him to hold the down position even with a treat hovering just over his head. Once you give the dog the treat you can give him a verbal release cue and move so he gets up.

Once the dog is offering downs regularly and is holding them well, you can use this exercise, and some variations on it, in more distracting settings. Instead of trying to lure the dog’s attention, show him a great treat (and it needs to be a really good one at first) and simply wait. If the dog is motivated to get the treat, he will offer the down. Move the treat towards the dog in a smooth, deliberate manner. Don’t wave it around or tease him with it. When your dog offers a down he sets the ‘treat delivery’ in motion. If he gets up, or even raises his elbows, the treat ‘goes away’. If you find that your dog is too distracted to even notice the treat then you need to move your dog to a less stimulating situation. This may mean simply moving further away, or moving behind a visual barrier.

The same exercise can be practiced using a favorite toy. The toy is delivered to the dog in a very slow and deliberate fashion. If the dog moves, the toy is moved out of his reach or hidden behind your back. Once the toy reaches his nose you can give the dog a release cue and either play tug with him or throw the toy for him to fetch.

Another good opportunity to practice the self-control down is at meal times. Hold your dog’s filled food bowl and wait for him to lie down. Slowly move the bowl towards the floor. If he moves, the bowl moves away. When he lays back down, the bowl starts its descent again. Be sure you give a verbal release cue before you allow him to approach the bowl and eat.

Once your dog begins to understand the self-control down you can make the requirements more difficult. First, you can use it in more and more distracting surroundings. Your dog will come to learn that the presence of a desired object is a signal for the ‘down game’ to begin. He will start offering the down when there is something that he wants to gain. Use this exercise before you allow him access to anything he wants in the environment, including getting to greet favorite people and going outside. You will find that your dog will start to ‘throw’ downs at you when he wants something. When this happens you will have made yourself, in your dog’s eyes, the key to gaining anything he wants. This is your ultimate goal.

Another way to make the requirements for this exercise more difficult is to make the delivery of the reinforcer slower and more tempting. Your dog will learn to be patient and to wait for his release cue before he attempts to get his reinforcer. At this stage you might try slowly and carefully putting the reinforcer on the floor. Be ready to snatch it back up if your dog moves. If he holds his position, give him a release cue and let him get his goodie.

6. Interaction with other dogs. As I stated earlier, Rocco seems desperate in his desire to interact with other dogs. During our training sessions we worked him with my Golden Retriever, Sully. (Note that Sully is very experienced in dealing with Papillons and I have 100% confidence in his behavior around them.) Rocco was clearly fascinated by Sully and took any opportunity to approach him. The first few times he approached Sully from behind and sniffed. When allowed to interact freely, he invited Sully to play by performing the ‘zoomies’. His body language in these interactions was friendly and inviting. Sully would respond by loping after him for a bit, and Rocco clearly enjoyed this attention.

I learned from his owner that Rocco rarely has the opportunity to interact freely with other dogs. Due to his small size, and the owner’s concerns about his behavior, she has kept him isolated from other dogs. In my observations, it seems clear that Rocco can behave appropriately when around dogs who are non-threatening and safe. I would strongly recommend that Rocco’s owner work hard to find a variety of safe dogs for him to interact with. A large part of Rocco’s intense interest in other dogs is probably simply due to curiosity. While he’s still young it would be good for him to have a variety of positive interactions with other dogs, as long as those experiences are carefully chosen, monitored, and controlled. I prefer, whenever possible and safe, to allow dogs who seem compatible to play off-lead. This requires a secure environment and a good recall. If you don’t have both of these things and must keep dogs on-lead for interactions, be sure to keep the leashes as loose as possible. The more opportunity Rocco has to make canine friends, the less intriguing strange dogs will become. He will be more relaxed and less anxious in larger groups of dogs.

7. Tug game. During his puppy agility class I discovered that Rocco enjoys playing tug and can concentrate on the game, even in a class setting. I would strongly recommend that the owner encourage this behavior. Playing tug can serve as both a distraction from environmental elements as well as a reinforcer.

Rocco’s owner had some typical concerns about this practice. She had heard that playing tug can lead to problems with dominance and that, if you do play this game, the dog should never be allowed to win. She was also concerned about playing such a physical game with such a small dog. Luckily, I had just returned from Clean Run Camp and had the opportunity to attend a fantastic presentation by Rachel Sanders on “Play for Control and Motivation”. She really clarified the issues that this owner raised. In particular, she discussed the fact that it would really make the game demotivating if the dog always lost. All but the most persistent of dogs would soon give up. She also discussed and demonstrated the importance of the handler moving away from the dog during play so that the dog moved into the handler to initiate more interaction. A by-product of this is more attention and focus on the owner. One more point she made was that the handler should not tug harder than the dog. This is an important point for those of us with smaller breeds. All of these factors were relevant to this case and helped me convince the owner that tuggy would be an appropriate and beneficial activity.


Rocco’s owner has been training him continuously ever since she started puppy classes. He is a very quick learner and seems to really enjoy training. However, this case highlights an important distinction. *There is a definite difference between obedience training and behavior modification. The purpose of obedience training is to teach the dog specific responses to distinct cues. Obedience behaviors are controlled by the handler. While obedience training is a necessity for a well-behaved dog, it is not the complete answer when dealing with behavior problems. In behavior modification we are helping the dog discover and use more appropriate responses in specific situations. These responses need to be internalized and freely offered by the dog when necessary and appropriate. They do not rely on the owner to cue and control them. They need to become automatic and habitual responses.

*Karen Overall, DWM, Ph.D. has discussed this distinction and written an excellent article on the topic in a recent Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s newsletter.

There are several other very interesting elements in this case. First, it deals with inappropriate behavior in a toy dog. As a Papillon owner myself, I have had first-hand experience with similar behavior. Many people find inappropriate and even aggressive behaviors in small dogs to be rather amusing. While small dogs don’t have the potential to do as much physical damage as large dogs, they can certainly startle or frighten people and dogs. They can also still inflict painful bites and scratches. Inappropriate behaviors in small dogs need to be taken just as seriously as those same behaviors in large dogs.

Second, the issue of dominance became a factor in this case. The traditional explanation that a dog is showing his dominance when he displays inappropriate behavior is not necessarily useful, and may even cause, rather than solve, problems. Again, this is a case of making an internal assumption about the cause of behavior. Approaching the situation with the assumption that the dog is dominant and trying to gain control leads many owners to take physical action against the dog in order to attempt to regain a feeling of control and power. Interacting with the dog on a physical level may bring about momentary control, but it will not lead to lasting behavior changes. The way to lead the dog to lasting changes is through the use of behavior modification and training techniques that are grounded in learning theories.


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