Aggression Between Your Dogs – How To Stop It

Aggression between dogs in the same household is a difficult problem.  Often, the dominant dog turns on the submissive one for no apparent reason.  Unfortunately, the episodes will escalate in severity over time.  Here are my recommendations for dealing with this challenge.  Sadly, some dogs will never get along.  Finding a new home for one of them might be your only option.  Please note, these recommendations are for dogs with dominant type personalities.  They are not for dogs that are motivated by fear.  If you are unsure what is motivating your dog, please consult with a veterinary behavioral specialist. 
1) Keep the dogs separated at all times unless under direct supervision.  Consider using a head collar or basket muzzle when the dogs are allowed to interact to make sure the dominant dog cannot injure the submissive one.
2) Identify the cause of the aggression and avoid it.  In veterinary medicine, we call these triggers.  Common triggers include control of resources such as toys, food or treats, access to humans, excitement and human attention.  Basically, a trigger may be anything the dog considers valuable.  The front door was a trigger for one of my patients because that is where the family entered the house.  The dog would not let any other pet in the family approach this area.  

Once the trigger is identified, avoid it.  In the above situation, I had the family enter through the back door until the dog was deconditioned to the area.  Another common trigger is food.  Feed the dogs in separate rooms and pull up the food bowls before allowing them to leave.  Also avoid excited greetings, throwing one ball for two dogs and situations where the dogs become over stimulated.  One of my patients was bitten by the other dog in the family when they were riding in a car.  Both dogs started barking at a pedestrian.  When the dominant dog could not jump out of the window, it turned and attacked the submissive one.  

3)  Give both dogs an obedience refresher.  Focus on the basics as well as the “settle” command. 
4)  Exercise, exercise, exercise!  As I was taught in veterinary school, a tired dog rarely gets into trouble.  Give the dogs, especially the dominant one, a great deal of exercise.  This is the best treatment I know for controlling a mischievous personality (and as an added bonus, it works for children too!)

5)  Institute a new policy for the dominant dog, nothing in life is free.  Make them work for everything they want.  If they want to eat, make them sit first.  If they want a cookie, make them settle first.  Do not allow them to demand attention.  If they want to jump into your lap, make them wait until invited.  Teach them to work for what they want (this works for husbands too!)

6) Make sure all humans support the established hierarchy of the house.  That means, interact with the dominant dog first and then the submissive one.  Some fights occur when we humans ignore the established order.  Here is an example from this spring:  A family with an adult dog adopted a new puppy.  When they returned from work, the people greeted the puppy first, then the dog.  The adult dog felt the puppy was being disrespectful.  On the second day, the dog bite the puppy. 

CAUTION:  This recommendation comes with two important caveats.  First, do not over do!  I do not want to turn the dominant dog into a bully.  Second, this only works if both dogs understand proper canine etiquette.  Let me demonstrate this point with an example.  Let’s say a dominant dog has a toy that the submissive dog wants.  When the submissive dog approaches, the dominant dog raises its lip and growls.  In normal dog interaction, the submissive dog understands the signal, backs away and no fight ensues.  In one form of abnormal behavior, the dominant dog attacks even though the submissive dog has retreated.  The cause of this behavior is often rooted in anxiety.  On the other side of the coin, some submissive dogs miss the signal to retreat.  This often occurs with age when hearing and eyesight diminish.

7) Consider drug therapy for six to eight months in conjunction with other behavioral therapy.

8) If the basics aren’t helping, consult with a board certified veterinary behaviorist (yes, veterinary medicine has shrinks too).    

9)  I have written here about two dogs who live together.  Some of it also applies where two dogs come together in other settings.  An example might be relatives who come to stay over the holidays and bring their pet  along.  So be on the lookout for clues the dogs are sending and remember to think about the hierarchy from their point of view. 
As you can tell from the above, dealing with aggression between family dogs is a difficult problem.  Watch your dogs closely for subtle signs that might signal a problem.  Look for staring, hesitation to enter a room and other abnormal behaviors.  If observed, seek help immediately.                 

Published by kristennelsondvm

Dr. Kristen Nelson grew up on a farm in Watertown, Minn., where she developed a deep love for animals of all kinds. She received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine. Kris then completed a small-animal internship at the prestigious Animal Medical Center in New York City. In addition to writing and speaking, she cares for small and exotic animals in Scottsdale, Az. Dr. Nelson is widely quoted in the media. Her credits include Ladies’ Home Journal, USA TODAY, the Los Angeles Times and numerous radio and television interviews. Dr. Nelson has written two books, Coated With Fur: A Vet’s Life and Coated With Fur: A Blind Cat’s Love. Kris and her husband Steve share their home with rescued cats, birds and a dog.