Joyconjurer Ep 8 - Air Bud: Ring Fetch Adventure


Weird one for you: My dog barks at me when I play Ring Fit Adventure. To be honest, he barks at people passing by in the street, the doorbell, other dogs, but usually he leaves us in peace when we watch TV or play games. I don't know why this one bothers him, but it has made the game unplayable for me.

You have written in to the correct Joyconjurer: I was a professional dog trainer for years.

I see a number of red flags here, and I want to ask about a thousand questions. How old is the dog? What is the dog's history? Does the dog eat people food? Does the dog sleep in your bed? Does the dog pull when you walk them? Does the dog eat all of their food at once or do they leave some in the bowl? Does the dog jump on people? Has the dog ever bit, air snapped, or growled?

You might look at that list and think it has nothing to do with a dog barking at Ring Fit Adventure, but dogs are complex. Like people, their behaviors aren't rooted in one specific thing but the result of various overlapping systems, experiences, personality traits, and quirks. It is hard to solve a specific problem without diagnosing or treating the systemic roots of that problem. Because dogs have limited lingual-brains, they communicate their needs through action, body language, and how they retain or rescind ownership of space. In fact, most of what we think of as bad behavior in dogs is rooted in anxiety, which can stem from a variety of seemingly independent factors.

Most of us love our pets and want the best for them. We recognize their importance to the texture of our lives, but because we don't "speak dog," we are often oblivious to the ways our animals may be suffering. This is not at all meant to shame! The fact is, we don't live in a culture that prioritizes understanding our pets or one that makes the resources to do so widely accessible.

Additionally, society often signals that our dog's behavior is a reflection of us. This makes us slow to engage with a problem because our brains suddenly equate our dog's issue with the idea that we're "bad owners." Our brains would rather avoid and dismiss the idea. "Sure, the barking whenever someone passes by the house is annoying, but it doesn't seem dangerous or like something that needs attention." We put it off or simply don't engage. Once more I want to stress: this is normal and not something to feel guilty about.

Now that you have some information, though, you can act!

Your dog could be barking at you for playing Ring Fit Adventure for a number of reasons: If they are a rescue and suffered abuse, something about your movements might remind them of the abuse. They might think of the ring as a toy to play with, or they might not understand their role in your household, assuming they are in charge of toys and be upset that you seem to be in charge of this one. It makes me wonder if they bark at you when you pull out one of their chew toys or when you feed them. All of this could be a sign of latent aggression, which is something you definitely want to start managing.

Of course, all of that is speculation. I'm not present to witness the behavior first-hand, and I don't have all of the data. My main recommendation would be to seek out a professional who can meet the dog, gather the data, and formulate a plan of action. Barking at Ring Fit Adventure is a symptom of larger issues and not something you should ignore. That I can assure you.

I understand that resources are a problem for many of us, and as such, I invite you to write me back and answer my initial questions. If the issues seem manageable, I can suggest some possible tactics to help reduce your dog's overall anxiety and hopefully treat this problem. If I hear more that raises alarm, I might still direct you to find a local trainer.

I invite everyone to take a moment and think about your pets, without shame or self-blame. I'll be available in the comments for additional questions.

As always, you can also send your quandaries to [email protected]. I look forward to hearing from you!


The question I want to ask as a non-dog owner is: "doesn't your house have doors?"

If this is someone who lives in a city then the answer could easily be “no, it’s a studio.”

Also, if it is a house, the dog could also be barking when closed into a room. The letter doesn’t talk about that, but I wouldn’t be surprised based on what is in there.

Generally speaking, dogs are like foxes in that they enjoy burrowing into small, dark places when they rest. They get anxious, however, when they have some room to move about or when they can see things they can’t interact with (this is probably part of why this dog barks at people passing on the street.)

Putting the dog in another room and shutting the door isn’t a good solution, especially if the dog is exhibiting symptoms of separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is a huge problem that many dogs have and requires its own treatment methods.

Very interesting email and response, Richard! So much so, that I thought I would ask you about my dog Duncan, see if you can shed some light on his behavior. Based on what you said here, I’ll try to offer as much information as I can. Let’s see…

My wife and I have two dogs, Rosey and Duncan. Rosey, some kind of Akita mix, was a rescue my wife got even before we met, and she has had her for 15 years. She was told Rosey was about two or three when she adopted her, so she is at least 17. She is a bit of a grouch (I’ll be too when I’m that age), and she is definitely the dominant dog out of the two of them. Duncan, who is an Old English Sheepdog, will be four in May, and we have had him since he was 11 weeks old, so he’s lived with Rosey for pretty much his whole life. He is super sweet and playful, and he loves everyone he meets, both humans and animals. When we take him out for a walk downtown he always wants to meet other dogs and acts very submissively and non-threateningly so that the other dogs feel like they can approach him. He is definitely a lover… but.

We also have one cat, Annie, whom we found out in the woods when she was just a kitten two summers ago. She spends about half the time in the house and half the time out on the porch or the yard hunting, climbing, running, and hanging out with the two cats (Xena and Aristocat) that adopted us when we moved into the house they had clearly claimed for themselves three years ago. Even though we feed them every day, neither Xena nor Aristocat will set foot inside the house (even when it snows), despite knowing we mean them no harm. At the beginning, they kept their distance and put Duncan in his place when he tried to play with them, but now they let him lick them and smell them and play with them. Annie also lets him play with her and really puts up with a lot, because Duncan can be very overwhelming and he appears to think he is smaller than he actually is. So everyone gets along pretty well, except for the fact that…

1. Duncan will occasionally try to hump Annie, Xena, and Aristocat. (Duncan isn’t fixed.) As a matter of fact, he also tries to hump me almost every night, when I’m doing the dishes after dinner. He also tries to hump pretty much everyone who comes to visit or to pet sit, except for my wife. He has almost never tried to hump her.

2. Duncan used to have some food aggression issues when we got him (the woman we got him from had a whole litter, and I’m not sure what the situation there was when it came time to feed them), but he grew out of them… or so we thought until recently. Up until a few months ago, he would just growl every now and then (quite rarely) if Rosey looked at him while they were eating (we feed them separately, with enough distance between the two to prevent anything from happening), but for the most part he was okay. I don’t blame him for being wary of her, because Rosey has been known to snap at him for no reason, and while Duncan clearly loves her and gives her kisses all the time and wants to play with her (he’s too rough, though, and Rosey rarely ever wants to play —she’s at least 17, remember), he is also afraid of her and sometimes he doesn’t dare drink out of the water bowl if Rosey is looking at him from the other side of the room. However, for the past few months, Duncan has been interrupting his dinner to look around to see if Annie is around, and then he will bark if he sees her and will go try to prevent her from getting close to his bowl, even though Annie is 100% uninterested in his dinner or in getting any closer to him. This causes Duncan to choke on the food he has in his mouth, and he ends up coughing and having a very unpleasant time.

3. Related to this, when we feed Annie or the other two cats, Duncan LOSES HIS FREAKING MIND like you wouldn’t believe. It’s like we were taking all the food in the world and giving it to the cats and he will have to forever go hungry for the rest of his days with not even a morsel to put in his mouth. This happens both at breakfast and dinner, and he didn’t use to do this.

4. Finally, he also barks like crazy when he hears cars outside of the house. We live in a tiny cabin in the woods, and there isn’t a lot of traffic on our gravel road, but a few cars come and go every day. If he happens to be outside in the yard when the cars approach, he runs down to the fence and runs alongside the cars as they drive past the house, occasionally barking but not really (the whole yard is fenced in and he can’t escape). The same if it’s a pedestrian just going for a walk or walking their dog. He will run to the fence to greet them, but he rarely barks. But if he is inside the house and he can’t get out because the door is closed, he loses his mind when he hears the noise outside. This also applies to the occasional opossums and raccoons that visit our porch to eat the cats’ food. He will stand on his back legs to look through the door window and will bark and howl in sheer desperation to go outside while he scratches the door and pounds on the glass. We are afraid he might actually break the glass and hurt himself, because he loses all sense of self and hits the door really hard.

Sorry for this super long essay on Duncan’s idiosyncrasies! My question is, of course, what can we do to prevent him from displaying these behaviors? Since you asked some of these questions about the first case you discussed, let me answer them for Duncan as well, in case they help you get a better idea of what might be happening:

Does the dog eat people food?
We give them tiny bits of our food every now and then. It is not a habit, and he and Rosey have their own food, but we do give them some stuff every now and then.

Does the dog sleep in your bed?
Yes and no. He is on our bed when we are getting ready to go to bed, and stays there until we turn the lights off. When we do, he gets off the bed and crawls underneath, where he likes to sleep. He also jumps on the bed to sleep throughout the day. He does have a dog bed, but he never uses it (Rosey loves hers). He’d rather use ours.

Does the dog pull when you walk them?
Like you wouldn’t believe. And he’s about 75 pounds, so he is strong.

Does the dog eat all of their food at once or do they leave some in the bowl?
He usually cleans his bowl. Maybe he leaves some once or twice a week. Then, for dinner, he asks to have Rosey’s leftovers when she’s done (she’s not a big eater), but he never does for breakfast.

Does the dog jump on people?
He will occasionally stand on his back legs and put his front paws on our shoulders, as if he were trying to give us a hug. He doesn’t actually run and jump on us, though. Being as big as he is, that would end up in disaster!

Has the dog ever bit, air snapped, or growled?
No to the first two, yes to the growling. Besides the instances mentioned above, he started to growl and bark when we took him to restaurants, which he didn’t use to do. And in case that sounds weird, let me explain. There are several restaurants in the area that allow you to bring your dog, provided you sit out on the deck. We would take Duncan with us, give him some treats, and he would be happy to hang out there with us while we ate. But then, all of a sudden he started to growl any time someone (or another dog, or something on tiny wheels, like a suitcase or a skateboard) walked by, so we stopped taking him to restaurants with us. Other than that, he never growls to other people or dogs.

And something else I just thought of, Duncan loves to be the center of attention, and he gets super jealous if we are petting Rosey or Annie instead of him. He loves to have his belly scratched, and if we didn’t have to do things like going to work, cooking, or typing really long essays about him, he would have us scratching his belly twenty-four-seven. This is something he’s loved since the very first day we met him, when the woman we got him from brought him and his siblings for us to choose which one we wanted. As soon as he saw us, he went on his back and asked to have his belly scratched until we realized we were supposed to choose him over his litter mates. Ever since, his belly hasn’t gone a day without being scratched!

Anyway, thanks for reading all that! If you have any further questions, I’ll be happy to answer them!

(Yes, Duncan loves the couch, and also the coffee table.)

(He used to sleep under it when he was little, but now that he's as big as the table, he likes to sit on it.)

And here you have both Rosey and Duncan (with his summer hair cut).

And, finally, Duncan and Annie.

I *love* these pictures of Duncan and co., and I'd encourage people to share any pet pics they'd like here!

But, let's get down to some business. There are a number of things which raise alarm for me. I want to commend you for being willing to share, and want to give you all the kudos in the world for being an awesome, responsible pet owner! I also want to put up a disclaimer that I'm not there to witness the behavior, so there could be things that I'm not seeing. That said, here is my advice:

The most important thing to address is the growling. I don't mean to frightening, but a growl IS a bite. It is an expression of intention and aggression - especially in the context of when it seems to happen (when Duncan is protecting his food.) . It must be taken seriously. If he snaps at the kitties or at Rosey, that's an escalation to watch out for. The following escalation could be a bite. That's what we want to prevent.

If you can manage it, I would recommend getting a local trainer in for a consultation. It is better to be preventative rather than reactionary. If that's difficult, I have some protocols which I'll outline below that should help manage some of Duncan's food related anxiety. If you do get a trainer in, please follow their protocols instead of mine. They'll have more first hand information and might see things I have no way of seeing from the internet :).

From his history, it sounds very likely that he had pushy siblings and had to fight for food. Thus he has a fixation on it. This explains his early food aggression. Like any childhood trauma, it is always going to be present, even when he seems fine. It is something you are going to constantly have to navigate.

Fortunately, there are great ways to do this. Not all of these will be directly about food, but my other general sense is that Duncan would also benefit from some clarity of his role in the pack. He's unneutered, which means that he is going to have aggressive tendencies - this is normal and something that can be managed. All of these behaviors are intertwined as well, so big structural changes are going to be the key to mitigating some of the behaviors you don’t want.

Here my initial suggestions:

--Switch over to dry food (if you aren't on dry already) and cut all human food for the time being, except in the specific circumstance I note later.

--Take the total amount he eats per day and divide it into two halves. The first half is going to be used in his meals.

--Take the other half and use it as a baseline treat throughout the day. This becomes the standard unit of reward. When you ask Duncan to do something "Sit", "Stay", etc. you give him a treat. Make him work for these treats. You and any other members of your family are in control of them and throughout the day put him through his paces.

--For meal times, ditch bowls and feed Duncan in kongs. They require the dog to work to get at the food. Putting a little human food (like peanut butter) or wet food at the bottom makes them extra enticing.

--Duncan should eat the kong in a selected spot that is his - be it a dog bed or a crate. A crate is actually best, because you can throw a blanket over it and keep it contained. Dogs are like foxes, they like dens. Having him on leash and tied down on his bed can also work.

--Here's the key: In order to get the Kong, Duncan has to work. He needs to run through his entire repertoire of tricks. Don't use the same order every time. Most importantly, you need to teach him to stay while you put the kongs down, and not go to eat them until you have released him from the stay command. This is done to reinforce that you are the food resource and he doesn't have any control over food. In order to get the food, he needs to obey you (or anyone in your household - it is actually really important that all of the humans in the apartment participate in this.)

--While he's eating the kongs, you can feed the others. For now it is best to have him separated out from other pets during meal times - that's a complex problem in it of itself, and we need to get a handle on his food issues and start having him look at you and the humans of your household as the food resource before we tackle that.

--The golden rule with dogs is "reward good behavior, ignore the behavior you don't want." It is possible that he's getting positive reinforcement for doing things like "humping" you or strangers in the form of attention. To counteract this, if he starts doing it to you, turn your back on him when he does it. Shun him. If he does it to someone or something else, calmly stop him and then walk away. Leave the room. Don't give him an emotional response at all, don't express frustration or say "no" or aggressively remove him. Just calmly turn around and walk away. Pay him ZERO attention. Then, after a minute, go back to the dishes (or whatever you were doing.) Don't look at him. Don't acknowledge his presence until sometime later, when he's acting calm and not doing anything in particular. At that moment you can interact with him, praise him, pay attention to him. If he goes back to humping someone or something else, just grab him by his collar and gently move him somewhere else. And then ignore.

--The above will take some time and some work. Just remember that dogs understand body language more than lingual language. Showing him your back asserts your dominance without punishing him. It lets him know that your rules are to be followed and that violating them doesn't give him anything he wants (attention.) In fact, to get attention, he just needs to be calm and chill!

--When he meets new people or dogs, he must sit calmly before he can interact with them. If he won't do that, then he doesn't get to meet the new person or the new dog. This is going to be hard at first, especially when you are out on the town. He sounds like he loves everyone and judging by his picture, everyone must love him and want to interact! To counteract this, ask them to help you with a training exercise and see if they can get him to sit. This has the benefit of making Duncan start to see humans in general as "in charge" as well as reinforcing his own training. It will teach him that obeying humans leads to food, a thing that is very important to him! Don't forget to treat him if he has a good interaction with people.

--This is going to sound odd, but Duncan should only be on furniture if invited. The reason for this is because it will help him see the space as yours, which in turn will help him understand that his role in the pack is support, not leader. If he knows the stuff is your stuff, he won't be anxious about it. It is VERY CUTE when he stands on the table like he does in the second photograph, but it is important that he only does so when you ask him to. Dogs understand ownership of space, you need to assert that the house and the furniture are yours, not his.

--On walks, I advise a gentle leader for the pulling. He shouldn't be pulling so much, you need to control the place and start teaching him to walk at a heel. The gentle leader is great for this. You can also employ his dry food/kibble here as treats. Have him sit at every threshold, be it crossing the street or going through a door.

--Finally, Duncan will need exercise. A whole ton of exercise. I haven't asked what he currently does, but sheepdogs in general need to RUN and tire themselves out. I'm sure you get him quite a bit. If possible ramp it up.

I've thrown a lot at you here, so please feel free to ask questions or let me know if you run into any issues.

Thank you for your super detailed answer, Richard! I will start trying to implement your suggestions, and will take it from there. My wife has experience training animals (mostly horses in the past, and chimps now), but since I spend more time at home than she does because of our jobs, I definitely need to step up and start doing this myself!

And you're right --when we go downtown, Duncan becomes the main attraction and everyone wants to stop and say hi, because (I know I'm biased) he is soooo cute, and also because you don't really see sheepdogs as often as you did twenty years ago! He also loves to run, and he is incredibly fast and has lots of stamina, so I will try to ramp it up and get him to tire himself more.

Anyway, thanks for all your advice! This should really help!