The call came first thing in the morning, “I need help! Our dogs got into a fight last night and two of them needed veterinary care.” As an animal behavior consultant, I’m often called about the squabbles and fights that happen between dogs in a household. In this incident, a new dog to the household (recently adopted from the local shelter) decided to chew on the older dog’s bone in the older dog’s bed. The older dog was upset, tried to take his bone back, and a fight ensued.
This particular fight wasn’t serious (both dogs stopped fighting when the owner yelled at them) although both dogs needed some veterinary care. However, fights are scary. Dogs can be seriously hurt or killed, and family members can be bitten in the heat of battle.
I think most of us would like to have peace in our family (human and canine) and it’s a reasonable goal. However, there are many things that must be taken into consideration when trying to maintain that peace in a multi-dog household, including defining what ‘peace’ is.
Although we would like to think that everyone – human and canine – should be able to get along, it doesn’t always happen that way. Just think about your relationships with other people: what annoys you? Do you hate it when someone leaves the cap off the toothpaste or when someone leaves the newspaper on the floor? Do you get irate when a driver cuts you off in traffic or jumps in line ahead of you?
Just as there are things that annoy you, there are things that annoy your dogs. With some dogs, possessions are more important. Darlene Arden, a Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and author of “Rover, Get Off Her Leg!” a book about canine behavior, says, “Any number of things can cause fights but one major issue is toys.” If dog A likes a special toy and dog B takes it, dog A may respond by growling and trying to take the toy back. With many dogs, this may simply turn into play and a wrestling match may ensue with the toy in the middle. But if one of the dogs takes the issue seriously, a fight may erupt.
Many dog owners don’t realize that they, the owner, may also be the cause of squabbles. Linda Aronson, DVM, says, “Owners often forget that if they are doing things right, they may be the most valued resource for their dogs and therefore the biggest cause of a dispute.” When a dog gets to spend time with you, on your lap, going for a run, or even time spent training; that is special. The dogs who aren’t getting this special time, or the ones who wish to have more time with you, may get upset and cause a problem with the dog who is getting attention.
Other things that can cause squabbles may vary from household to household. Terry Albert, a professional pet sitter, Poway Pet Care, who often brings dogs into her home, says, “Food can cause many squabbles.” She recommends feeding the dogs separately. Dr. Aronson, who has a professional behavior referral practice, PetShrink, says, “Valued resources are the most common cause of disputes. What those are depends on the individual dogs. The obvious ones would be food, toys, games, locations in the house (beds, couches, crates) but some dogs may even value and guard the water bowl.”
Most Dogs Don’t Want to Fight
For decades dog owners have been told that dogs live in packs and when they live with us, we are all a part of that pack. Dog owners have been taught to be the pack leaders and that the dogs must be submissive within that pack. Although many behaviorists cringe at this definition, it’s usually because it is too simplistic. Dr. Aronson says, “Dogs do not have a fixed hierarchy in multi-dog households or even in feral packs. Some dogs will be more pushy and others less so, but most of the time you would be hard pressed to find any real hierarchy. Dogs that live in multi-dog households generally learn to get along; fighting and constantly jockeying for position would be counter-productive and not at all energy efficient.” It would also create more stress than it would solve.
Most mentally healthy dogs don’t want to fight; it’s counter productive. In a fight, the dog can be severely hurt or even killed. That’s why most dogs will give many warnings of annoyance prior to actually fighting. Dr. Aronson says, “Most polite dogs that live in groups will not go straight into fight mode; there will be growls and lip lifts (bared teeth) before an eruption.” The dog will also stand tall, raise the hackles (hair on the shoulders and spine), and will stare at the offending dog.
The vast majority of dogs will also accept any excuse not to fight. When an owner says, “Cut it out!” most dogs will back down and may even look slightly embarrassed at being seen looking so aggressive. When the dog being stared at shows submission, perhaps by crouching low or by turning away or baring the belly, the potential aggressor is appeased and a fight won’t happen.
When Fights do Happen
Unfortunately, there are some obnoxious dogs who won’t stop at the boundaries other dogs observe and will push until there is a fight. There are also reactive dogs who jump in and cause a fight before the other dogs have a chance to defuse the situation. And then every dog has a trigger, a point, where he will fight.
If a fight happens, the first thing you must do is stop the fight without getting injured yourself. If the fighters are outside, turning a hard stream of water from the hose can sometimes stop the fight. A loud blow from an air horn can work, if you have one handy.
If these things aren’t possible, you can try and break up the fight by grabbing the dogs but never, ever reach into the fight to grab the dogs’ collars; you will get bitten. If the dogs are small, grab a back leg of each and pull the dogs apart. If the dogs are bigger and someone else is present, each of you can grab the back legs of a dog and again, pull them apart.
Just keep in mind, when the dogs are fighting, they aren’t thinking and will bite at anything. Terry Albert says she tried to break up a fight between two smaller dogs – a Jack Russell Terrier and a Miniature Schnauzer – and the Jack Russell bit clear through one of her fingers. He wasn’t trying to bite her; her finger was just in the wrong place.
Once the fight has been stopped, separate the dogs into different rooms. Check them over and see if either needs veterinary care. Let the dogs relax for a while; a couple of hours is fine. Dr. Aronson says, “Clean up the combat area and make sure no traces of blood remain.” When the dogs are behaving normally again, leash them and go for a walk. Let the dogs get to know each other again in a neutral area.
Creating and Keeping the Peace
The definition of peace is going to vary from dog owner to dog owner. As Dr. Aronson says, “We all have our levels of tolerance.” Terry Albert has four dogs, a Miniature Dachshund and three Shetland Sheepdogs, and when she takes in dogs for pet sitting in her home, she only allows those that will get along with her dogs. Dogs who are willing to start fights are separated and are not invited back.
Dr. Aronson has six Bearded Collies and a German Shepherd, as well as other pets. She says, “I believe every dog has the right to tell off another dog if it has crossed the boundary and behaved in a rude fashion. Lip lifts and growls are fine.” However, she adds that she will not tolerate a dog ambushing and attacking another dog, especially if the larger dog is pouncing on a smaller one.
She also expects her older dogs to teach the younger ones, “I allow normal discipline over exuberant puppies, but not excessive force. If someone cries uncle and shows submissive behavior (a bared belly, for example) the other dog had better stop.”
Darlene Arden says, “The easiest way to achieve peace is to start a training session in which both are playing the game and being rewarded. Only good things should happen for one dog when the other dog is present.” Both dogs can sit, be praised and receive a treat, for example. But begin with the dogs on leash so that you can maintain some control over the situation.
Training can help establish social rules. When you are controlling the situation you can defuse stress that may lead to a fight. For example, squabbles can break out when several dogs try to dash through an open door at the same time. However, if you teach the dogs to sit at open doorways and wait to be invited through, one at a time, the stress is removed.
Arden also cautions owners to be aware of the attention they pay to their dogs. When one dog is on the floor and another is on the owner’s lap, the dog on the lap has been elevated in status. The dog on the floor may become jealous and attack the first dog when the lap time is over. Arden says, “Try to have both at the same level, whether it’s up on your lap or both on the floor.”
Another way to keep the peace is to make sure that each dog gets individual attention with you away from the other dogs. This attention can be a grooming session, a snuggle on the sofa, time in the house while the other dogs are outside, or a game of catch. When each dog gets this special attention, there is less cause for jealousy at other times.
Having more than one dog in the household can certainly make life more complicated. You may need to make some changes in your routine or household in order to accommodate multiple dogs. Feeding the dogs, providing play toys, and making sure all the dogs get time to train with you become much more important. But sharing your life and home with two, three or four dogs is two, three, or four times as much fun. And that makes it all worth while.
Introducing a New Dog
The dog being introduced to an established family pack is in a very vulnerable situation. The dogs in the established group may all get along and may even happily play with other dogs at the dog park but when a new dog comes into their home territory, he may not be welcome.
When Terry Albert, of Poway Pet Care in Poway, CA, brings in a dog to be cared for at her house, she introduces the dog to hers in a neutral place, even though her dogs are used to strange dogs staying with them. During the get acquainted visit, she also watches for behaviors in the new dog that might concern her, especially a high prey drive towards smaller animals.
Then when the new dog is brought to her house, he is allowed to cruise in the back yard for ten to fifteen minutes while her dogs remain in the house. The new dog can then get used to the smells of her dogs. Then she brings her dogs out one at a time. If the new dog seems worried, she puts him in a dog run and lets everyone get acquainted through the fence. Only when everyone is relaxed do they get to go in the house.
Albert says the dogs are free to move around her house, even the new dogs, but she adds, “I have dog crates in every room so that if a dog is too stressed or over stimulated, I can crate him for a timeout so he can relax.” She also crates dogs when the play gets too rough.
The owners of new dogs also need to keep in mind that the first three months after a dog joins the household are the most tentative. During this time period, the new dog is beginning his training, is learning the household rules, and is figuring out where he is. He’s also getting to know the dogs he’s living with and where he is in relation to the other dogs. Most experts recommend crating the dogs when they cannot be supervised to prevent any problems during this “getting to know each other” stage.
Originally published in Dog World magazine