In order to understand conflicting dogs and help them cope with the problem, it is necessary to be able to distinguish between normal and abnormal animal behavior in the context of their interaction. Aggressive behavior may or may not correspond to a specific situation, and in some cases, some types of aggression may be a normal, adequate response to changes in the situation, and some – abnormal.
A dog attacking another without warning communication signals is abnormal. A dog that cannot distinguish between threatening and non-threatening behavior from another is abnormal. A dog attacking a puppy is usually abnormal. A dog that seriously injures a yielding and submissive opponent is most often abnormal or exhibits predatory behavior. The reaction to demonstration of respect by a threat, aggression in response to signals of peaceful intentions are socially abnormal, inadequate and inappropriate.
It is important to understand that dogs showing inappropriate aggression do not “make mistakes” in their behavior and do not “behave badly” – they are clinically abnormal, unhealthy, and should be treated this way.
Aggression towards relatives, or intraspecific aggression, most often occurs in animals of the same sex and is associated with hierarchical conflicts. Most abnormal aggressive manifestations are caused by anxiety, when the dog is not sure – despite the signals from another individual – in its hierarchical position. This condition manifests itself in the dog’s attempts to either establish control over the social environment, or at least check if it can do it. Even if one of the dogs in a social group has behavioral abnormalities, this is already enough for the occurrence of dog fights.
In dogs, there are two categories of intraspecific aggression – one that is directed at unfamiliar dogs and one that is directed against familiar dogs, mainly living in the same family. The second type of intraspecific aggression is more common.
Aggressive conflict may involve two young dogs of similar age, sex, and build who argue over status. A more common scenario for the development of the situation involves an adult and a young dog, in whose relationship there were no problems until the youngest reached the age of social maturity (1-3 years). At this time, she begins to dispute the status of the older one, or she senses weak and almost subtle changes in the behavior of the younger, associated with the status, and reacts with the aim of suppressing these signs.
Aggressive manifestations can be active and involve competition for food, chewing bones, toys, attention, or access to any of these resources. Passive manifestations of aggression are also possible, which are not always noticed by the owners: controlling the actions of another dog with a gaze, growling or barking, blocking movement, taking away and protecting toys or treats, demonstrating ritual poses (when a challenging dog approaches perpendicular to another dog and lays its head to the withers – T-call). If the older dog gives in, the situation is usually resolved. If the older dog does not give up or none of the dogs can achieve a high enough status to completely subjugate the other, the result will be the manifestation of intraspecific aggression.
To solve the problem of aggressive behavior of dogs living in the same house, owners were traditionally asked to identify the “dominant” dog and reinforce its “alpha” status. However, the study of many episodes of aggression of this kind shows that in some cases, as a result of reinforcing the behavior of the “dominant” dog, the aggression does not stop, but intensifies.
The topic of “dominance” and social rank in group interactions is one of the oldest, most controversial and hotly debated questions in animal behavior science. (Read the article “On dominance and the laws of the pack” on the website.) The modern understanding of complex social behavior requires us to abandon the outdated and unreasonable terminology, according to which an animal that yields in conflict situations is called a “subordinate”, while an individual, initiating such situations is considered “dominant”.
In fact, most social interactions are not characterized by confrontations, but by the demonstration of signs of respect, deference. Respect has nothing to do with submission or subordination, it is a status that a dog accepts voluntarily, it is not forced on her. The animal that most of the rest treats with respect is not a “dominant” individual, not the animal that should always be the first at the door with threats and aggression, or the first to eat, or occupy the best lounger, this is the animal that demonstrates the most correct, normal behavior for the given situation.
If the dog gives inadequate signals and cannot correctly perceive other people’s signals, it is no longer capable of normal communication with relatives. The concept of “dominant” or “alpha” -species is useless in such situations, and reinforcement of the abnormal, pathologically aggressive behavior of a socially unhealthy dog as “dominant” can lead not only to aggravate the problem, but to serious, even fatal consequences for the victim of aggression.
Try to find out which dog is claiming high status and who starts fights (unfortunately, they are not always the same dog). It should be borne in mind that dogs are trained in the process of confrontation, and both competitors hone their aggressive skills. The attacker may become faster over time and signal their intentions less intensely, and the victim may understand that they will avoid the attack if they launch a preemptive attack. In a situation like this, it is very easy to make the mistake of identifying the aggressor and the victim. Forget about “alphas” and “omegas”, “dominant” and “subordinate” individuals, it is about correctly identifying the dog that behaves most normally in a particular situation, in the appropriate way, and protecting and reinforcing this particular dog.
GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CONFLICTING DOG OWNERS
The first cycle of a behavior modification program aims to teach dogs the skills to help them relax and focus on the owner. Using positive reinforcement, train all dogs to sit (or lie down) and wait. In this case, the dog should calmly, relaxedly observe the owner, waiting for further commands. Until each dog individually learns to sit and wait under all circumstances, it should not, without the owner’s control, meet with relatives to which it reacts in an undesirable way. At the next stage, the warring dogs are gradually taught to sit quietly, first in the same room in opposite corners, and then, reducing the distance, and side by side, generously rewarding non-aggressive behavior with a delicacy in the presence of each other.
Changes to conditions of detention
In all situations where you cannot control the behavior of the conflicting dogs, they should be separated. Organizing the separation of dogs living in the same house is difficult and requires careful planning. If an aggressor is identified, he should be kept in the least comfortable and desired part of the house (the guest room, not your bedroom, where dogs usually sleep, paddock in a well-heated and lighted basement or garage, not the kitchen where dogs are fed). All other dogs should be able to move freely around the house. If several dogs are problematic, all of them should be closed separately from each other, and the problem-free ones remain at large. If each of the animals provokes conflicts, all of them should be closed in cages or in different rooms so that they cannot see each other and visually threaten each other.
Keep in mind that if the dogs are separated so that they cannot get close physically, but can still see each other, they cannot be considered “mentally” separated and the aggressor continues to send and the victim receives threatening signals. Make sure that the victim of aggression does not accidentally get stuck in a cage, fence, or get entangled in the ammunition – this should never happen! If your dog is afraid of the cage and experiences severe stress in it, please do not close it until he learns to be calm in the cage! Feeling trapped increases the dog’s fear and reactivity and will only worsen the overall situation.
Hang differently sounding bells for the dogs to detect all their movements around the house by sound. If the sounds of the bells are indistinguishable, hang the bell only on the aggressor. The bell will tell you his approach and help you avoid confrontation. Conflicting dogs may approach each other ONLY AND ONLY WHEN you are confident that you can control them from a distance and prevent harm. Do not forget – the harm can be both physical and mental, and mental trauma is much more difficult for many dogs that are forced to live in a state of constant terror.
All dogs that provoke conflict should wear Gentle Leader halters to prevent any unwanted behavior by pulling on the leash and clenching the dog’s jaws. (You can read more about halters in our article “Ammunition for a beagle”.)
Reinforce the “right” dog!
Develop a reinforcement order that maintains the dog behaving in the most correct, appropriate manner. Remember, the reinforcement is not the most arrogant, “dominant” dog, but the one that behaves normally, corresponding to a particular situation. Reinforcement of the chosen dog means that you are the first to feed him, take him out for a walk, show him signs of attention, start a game, etc. In this way, you establish a clear set of rules that allows all dogs to understand what behavior is a role model, namely, show, that not abnormal, aggressive behavior is encouraged, but calm, peaceful. This method of reinforcement works because it is completely consistent with the structure of social relationships of dogs, built on the demonstration of deference and concessions, rather than threats and violence.
Specific examples of correct reinforcement are discussed in the following scenarios, in which conflicts between dogs living in the same family usually unfold:
1. A young dog challenges an older one without resorting to active aggressive actions. The older dog is not going to obey, growls and snarls – and in most cases the young retreats. The older dog is larger and stronger, good health, the age differences between the competitors are negligible. Reinforce the older dog. Both dogs behave normally in this situation, the young one is trying to determine his place in the social structure, but she is not yet ready for a higher status, so she needs to learn to live in peace with the older dog.
2. The older dog perceives the younger dog’s behavior as threatening her status and behaves aggressively – even if the younger dog does not make any active attempts to establish itself and the challenge or threat from her side is imaginary, not real. The older dog is weaker, and the younger, for all its good nature, is much larger and more powerful. Reinforce the younger dog. The younger dog’s behavior is more appropriate for the situation. The older dog behaves inappropriately and its behavior cannot be considered normal. You cannot support the elder, as this will show that her inappropriate aggression – and her idea that she should exhibit such aggression – is acceptable, which is not true. However, be sure to give your older dog enough attention so that the change in status is as smooth and painless as possible.
3. A young healthy dog challenges an old one, and her persistent attempts to establish herself are truly aggressive. In this situation, the following responses are possible: 1) the elder immediately yields, demonstrating respectful or submissive behavior; 2) the older one does not immediately yield, but if the aggressiveness of the young dog increases, obeys; 3) the older one answers the challenge, as a result one of the dogs wins, and both participants accept the outcome of the conflict; 4) the dogs are constantly fighting, and none of them give in. In all cases, participants demonstrate adequate sequential behavior appropriate to the situation. These dogs behave normally and owner intervention may be required, perhaps only in the latter case.
With incessant conflicts between two dogs, one of which is older, weaker and also has arthritis, the right decision is to start supporting a stronger young dog – no matter how sorry you may be for the older one! – and see what happens. A socially normal dog should change its attitude towards the older one and stop aggressive attacks, and the older one should accept the new status of a young dog. If, despite the lack of resistance from the older dog, the threats of the aggressor continue, the behavior of the young dog should be recognized as pathological and inappropriate, it cannot be reinforced (see scenario 4).
4. The most serious scenario. A dog trying to raise its status is very stubborn and does not accept the surrender of another dog that demonstrates deference or concession behavior (turns its head and neck away from the opponent, turns its body in the opposite direction, stops moving and freezes). Simple reinforcement of high status is not enough for the aggressor, it only confirms his belief that a weak dog does not belong here. Even the victim’s demonstration of complete submission – when she falls on her back, exposing her stomach and neck, tucking her tail, urinating, etc. – does not stop aggression and leads to attempted murder.
Of all the forms of aggression between dogs, this is the most dangerous, and unfortunately, in most cases, owners follow the wrong advice to support a socially pathological animal. Remember: responding to behavior of deference or submission with aggression is pathology! The behavior of the aggressor is abnormal and socially unacceptable, the severity of the disorder in such animals is determined by their potential willingness to kill a dog with normal behavior, which shows a reluctance to fight.
ATTENTION! Reinforce the weaker dog, regardless of age or condition. This is quite difficult to implement, but if you cannot raise and maintain the status of the victim – so that the aggressor understands that she also has a right to exist – the consequences can be the most tragic, up to serious injury and even death of the dog being attacked. You will either have to constantly keep the dogs separated (in different rooms, not allowing their contact), or part with one of the dogs. From the point of view of ethics, it is more correct to give up an animal being attacked. If a decision is made to give up the aggressor, then this must certainly be a house in which he will be the only dog. It is unknown if his aggressive behavior towards dogs will continue in the new family, but in the interests of safety it is better to assume the worst case and minimize the risks.
Reinforcement of the selected dog, in addition to active components (the dog whose rank is raised, should always receive ALL attention first, preferably in the presence of another dog – if, of course, this can be done in a calm atmosphere, without threats and open aggression), includes passive … For example, a dog being attacked can be allowed to sleep in your bedroom and even on your bed (if you don’t mind) while the attacker sleeps in a cage in another room. During walks, the leash of the dog, whose right to life you defend, can be released a little further so that it is a little ahead of the rest of the pack, etc. Please understand correctly: this has nothing to do with “theory of domination” or “laws of the flock”, but is directly related to the fact that access to desired benefits (food, attention, play, sleeping space) is deserved by socially normal behavior, which is usually show dogs in vivo.
Of course, regardless of the rank of which of the dogs rises, each of the dogs needs daily individual attention of the owner (walks, classes, games, grooming).
Pharmacological drugs help control the mechanisms underlying anxiety, thereby helping to reduce the level of aggression. Anti-stress medications are prescribed for some dogs that otherwise fail to benefit, and must be prescribed in cases of severe aggression. However, it should be remembered that pharmacological treatments should only be used in addition to, and not in place of, a behavior modification program.
Castration or neutering
Pugnaciousness refers to complex behaviors that are controlled not only by hormones, but are largely dependent on the acquired experience. Sex hormones are not the cause of aggression, they only contribute to both the manifestation of aggressive behavior and its further development and growth. Despite the fact that castration is recommended for aggressive animals, it has been proven that it leads to a decrease in aggressiveness in males in about 60% of cases, so it cannot be called a panacea for the treatment of interspecies aggression. It is known that a considerable part of cases of aggression between familiar dogs falls on the share of already castrated males. When addressing the issue of castration, it must be remembered that if the aggression manifested itself over a long period of time, many elements of such behavior are likely to be entrenched through repetition. Castration reduces the dog’s reactivity, but cannot eliminate situations in which this behavior is habitually manifested.