Why Do Some Dogs Act Pushy?
Lack of Manners or Lack of Momentum?
Does your dog insistently push toys at you when he wants to play? Does he bark and whine to get your attention, paw at your legs or feet, exhibit begging behaviors or try to push between you and another dog or person who also wants your attention? Then you may have a pushy dog.
Before writing this piece I looked at several online blog articles on pushy dogs to see what the general consensus was about this subject.
Here’s Victoria Stillwell’s take: “At six months of age, your puppy has entered adolescence, a phase where boundaries are tested and the ‘crazy’ brain takes over.”
It’s true that the adolescent brain is, in some ways, quite different in structure and function from the puppy and adult brain. But I don’t think “my brain made me do it” is a satisfactory explanation for why some dogs act pushy while others don’t.
Armando Morales writes: “We all know that dogs at times can be pushy and demanding. In their defense, this insistent behavior usually comes about because we’ve somehow trained it into them. Yes, you read that right. Often enough our unruly or bad mannered dog is a direct result of actions we’ve taken or failed to take.”
This comes a bit closer to the truth, in that many dog owners “over-narcissize” their puppies, giving them too much leeway and not enough structure, which tends to create behavioral problems in the adolescent or adult dog. That said, this is still not a satisfactory explanation for why a dog acts pushy. Spoiled? Yes. Pushy? No.
Melanie Schlaginhaufen says: “Dogs are programmed by their creator to naturally look for the leader of the pack and to defer leadership to this individual. The problem is that many dog owners don't understand how dogs determine who is in charge. If we are sending unclear and inconsistent signals, then our dog will feel insecure. This type of insecurity can actually cause a dog to attempt to step into the position of leader himself.”
This explanation is similar to that of Morales, but with a bit of fantasy sprinkled in That said, there’s probably more truth to this idea—minus the “pack-leader” fiction—because without consistent structure it’s true that some dogs will tend to go off the rails emotionally. However, since dogs don’t have a pack instinct  that structure doesn’t have anything to do with pack mentality.
Still, what is the underlying cause of pushiness?
Andrea Arden starts her blog post with an example of a pushy motorist, which I think is also a very helpful window into the mind of a pushy dog:
“I was driving into work today and had to cross over a bridge that had construction and was tapered down from two lanes to one. … This procession went along swimmingly until some guy in a van decided to shove ahead and try to squeeze in before it was his turn. From the traffic stall that ensued, it was obvious that this act of impoliteness, and not following general merging rules, had infuriated the fella in the car behind him. It also caused the rest of us to be inconvenienced.”
This is much closer to the truth about the how and why of pushiness. It comes from a feeling in the dog’s body and mind that things simply aren’t moving fast enough. This creates deep inner stress, and stress is one of the primary motivators of human and canine behavior.. There’s clear evidence that stress is at work in pushy behaviors because of increased muscle tension seen in the pushy dog’s body, whereas in a normal dog we see less physical tension.
Getting “It” Out of His System
Years ago I would occasionally see a particular dog at the dog run who, instead of doing the usual meet-and-greet with the other dogs would—as soon as he was unleashed—begin racing as fast as he could in wide circles around the perimeter of the area.
At first I thought he wanted the other dogs to chase him, because that was often one of the side-effects of his behavior. But he never made any of the usual overtures to the other dogs. Plus, I’d also seen him to this when no other dogs were present. Plus, once he’d made enough revolutions, and was tired enough, he’d simply settle down on the ground panting about for 5 minutes or so until he got his “breath back.” Then his owner would leash him back up and they’d go home.
It always seemed to me that the dog was running as fast as he could because he felt like he “had to get something out of his system.” In other words, there were internal pressures —and I mean actual, physical pressures—impinging on his feeling of well-being that he felt had to be gotten rid of. And that’s why he ran in circles until he was too tired to continue.
I also think this dog had two deficits. The first was reflected in his need to run as hard as he could until he was too tired to continue. The second was his inability to synch-up with his owner or with other dogs through play. Since dogs are the most social animals on the planet, whenever a dog engages in solo activities when he could be engaging with his owners or with other dogs, something is out of whack.
What does this have to do with pushiness?
There are two aspects to pushiness in dogs. The first is the neediness mentioned above. The second is an inability to act in a socially acceptable, give-and-take manner, particularly when put in stressful situations. In humans we would label that tendency as ego, narcissism, or selfishness. Those labels certainly fit the guy who caused the traffic jam Andrea Arden wrote about.
So pushiness comes from two things: a dog’s need to “get things out of his system” and an inability to engage in the normal give-and-take of social interactions.
Stress: The Motivating Factor
In the positive training paradigm, dopamine is thought to be what motivates behavior. But that’s not true. Dopamine is not a “reward chemical,” as it’s mistakenly called. It’s a salience detector; it teaches us (and dogs) to remember things, both good and bad, positive and negative. But dopamine has less of an effect on behavior than the stress hormone cortisol does. After all, when we wake up in the morning the first thing that happens is our bodies immediately increase production of cortisol! It’s what motivates us to get out of bed every day. It’s also what motivates most other behaviors. Dopamine motivates us to remember things, cortisol motivates us to do things.
I know some of this might sound strange. But think about it for a moment. Feelings of motion, momentum, pushing past resistance, and the ability to move freely through space, reduce feelings of stress and create pleasurable sensations in both dogs and humans.
Veteran dog trainer Kevin Behan has likened this feeling of moving well as a feeling of flow, like the feeling we get when we’re driving on an open road with very little traffic. The sensation of speeding along at a nice clip, has a quality of weightlessness to it, almost as if we were flying. And whenever there’s an obstruction or impediment to that feeling, we experience it as a stress-inducing loss of momentum (which is also reflected in Andrea Arden’s example of pushiness in humans).
So while we may not think about it much, the ability to move well is a bedrock element of all human and animal behavior, one that’s not only necessary for survival but automatically creates a pleasurable feeling of release from tension and stress. Restricted motion, meanwhile, has the opposite effect. So whether we’re observing a van driver with bad manners, or a dog who constantly barks for his dinner or pushes his toys at us, the need to push past resistance and achieve a state of flow is the underlying cause.
So how do you treat pushiness?
Applying Management Tools or Building Working Character?
Here are some examples of what not to do.
Armando Morales: “How do you deal with a pushy, bossy, or demanding dog? Simply ignore it.” … “Initially, ignoring your dog will frustrate him, but that’s the point.”
Since the dog is already frustrated by his lack of physical and emotional momentum, this seems like a huge emotional hurdle to overcome, one that will only increase the dog’s stress, not reduce it.
Victoria Stillwell: “A good [puppy] class will show you how to teach your puppy a reliable recall, which gives you the opportunity to redirect negative behavior onto a toy or treat.”
There is some value in redirecting a dog to a toy (though not a treat), because biting toys in play is one way of giving a dog the feeling of emotional release he’s looking for. But puppy classes are often the cause of socialization problems in adult and adolescent dogs.
Andrea Arden: “While helping your pushy dog learn self-control … it is wise to employ the use of management tools that will help you help your dog avoid practicing pushy behaviors.”
I don’t think self-control and manners are the way to go. Nor do I believe in the use of management tools. If your sink is clogged do want a plumber who’ll give you management tools: “Don’t use so much water,” or “Try not to let things go down the drain?” Or do you want someone who can unclog the pipes and restore the flow?
So what’s the best way to treat pushiness?
Treating the Underlying Cause
Oddly enough, I would start by doing what’s called “The Pushing Exercise,” created by Kevin Behan, where you hand feed your dog all his meals, outdoors, in such a way that as he eats from your left hand (if you’re right-handed), he also has to push into your right hand —which should be cupped against his chest—while he eats. The harder a dog pushes while eating his meals this way, the less pushy he’ll be.
One example of how well this works to treat pushiness comes from a Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb, a dog I didn’t train but who often stays with me overnight when his owners are out of town. A few years ago, when he was still an adolescent, he decided one day, that all the food in all the other dogs’ bowls was his, and he was not only pushy about it, he became quite aggressive.
So for three days I fed Caleb by hand, separately from the other dogs, using what's called “The Pushing Exercise.” You would think that making him push for food at all his meals for three days would make him more pushy but, in fact, the next time I fed him at the same time and in the same room with the other dogs, his pushiness and aggression were gone, never to return.
How could that have possibly worked?
Remember, the reason dogs act pushy is to find a release from internal feelings of tension, pressure and stress. Once those feelings are resolved, the dog no longer has any need to act pushy. It’s just that simple. And one way to resolve those feelings is to hand feed your dog using the pushing exercise.
I would also recommend the rest of the 5 Core Exercises created by Kevin Behan: the other four are the collecting exercise, the suppling exercise, teaching the dog to speak on command, and bite and carry, which includes playing tug (90%) and fetch (10%) as well as teaching your dog to carry a ball, toy or stick in his mouth as a kind of pacifier. 
All of these exercises are designed to reduce stress and build working character.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1.) Videos for these exercises can be found on the videos page.