Inter-Dog Aggression Explained

Question: How do I stop my dogs fighting?

This article will focus specifically on inter-dog aggression, otherwise known as sibling rivalry or aggression between dogs living in the same household.

It should be understood this article is for guidance only, aggression is a complex psychological condition to evaluate and treat, requiring an educated and experienced professional to assess each case individually. Treatment programs are detailed and bespoke to the dog and its social situation.

Inter-dog aggression
Inter-dog aggression

Sadly, aggression is now considered one of the most prevalent problematic dog behaviours, responsible for approximately 80% of my work load as a canine behaviourist. With a notable rise in the incidents of dog attacks on other dogs and humans it is not surprising that aggression can be one of the most difficult behaviours to treat and is complex to assess and challenging to manage.

There have been many occasions where I have been called out to assess a dog for unprovoked canine aggression and have identified an underlying trigger for frustration and anxiety elsewhere in the dog’s lifestyle. Finding the trigger for the unbalanced frame of mind and applying modification programmes to the dog’s general lifestyle is far more successful then attempting to correct the dog during a phase of aggression or reactivity. This is unlikely to produce a sustainable long-term result and often adds more negative energy to the already unbalanced animal.

Motivation for Canine Aggression

Having a basic understanding of how aggression manifests is your primary focus for beginning to address this negative behaviour.

Firstly, let’s look at the triggers for aggression:

  • Medical conditions
  • Genetic motivation
  • Poor breeding
  • Poor or incorrect early socialisation
  • Dog sustains an aggressive response from another dog/individual
  • Persistent bullying from another resident dog
  • Learnt behaviour from another dog or individual experience
  • Resource competition (food/toys/objects/humans/territory)
  • Pain
  • Frustration/Irritability
  • Hunger
  • Stress/anxiety
  • Fear
  • Unsure of expectation
  • Lack of confidence or immaturity in social situations

To establish the motivator for an inter-dog problem, you should consider the dog’s lifestyle. Ensure you approach this in a balanced and sensible way.

The dog is primitive in its needs and values, uses clear communicators to express its feelings and lives by a strict hierarchical code. It is highly likely that the majority of inter-dog aggression will be triggered in the presence of a human handler or high prize resource or both! While this is always upsetting you shouldn’t blame yourself, instead it provides you with a good opportunity to change the dynamics of your relationship around the dogs.

Remember, while you are busy getting on with your life at home, your dogs are watching and responding to both your energy and behaviour, observing how and when you deliver your prime resources and deciding where they fit in the social dynamic. Everything you do in your dog’s presence is relevant. Use this to your advantage when rehabilitating them through a tricky period.

Why Does Inter-Dog Aggression Occur?

You spend your time and energy providing your dog with the best life possible and this is how they repay you! I understand, having your dog’s fighting with each other in your own home can be at best extremely upsetting and at worst terrifying. In many cases the aggression is all noise and very little actual damage, however it is still worrying and incidents usually escalate if the motivation is not dealt with immediately.

Stable pack relationship
Stable pack relationship

Your home should be viewed as an office or work place type environment to enable you to attach the correct perspective for canine management. Your dogs want and need you to tell them what to do, instability in hierarchy is a huge cause of inter-dog aggression and is actually pretty straight forward to rectify.

I always ask my clients; who sits in the managers big black leather chair in their home? (metaphorically speaking of course) or who calls the shots! In simple terms who delivers the major resources to the dogs. So to recap, these are:

  • Food (including any human food/treats/scavenged food)
  • Territory (do the dogs roam where they want or are there restrictions and direction?)
  • Possessions (who owns and looks after the toys and are objects/possessions stolen by the dogs?)
  • Attention – YOU! (do your dog’s nudge you for attention or follow you around the house, what happens if you close a door on them? Do they become vocal?)

Once you have addressed control around these considerations you should then look at other affecting factors.

Relevance of Age, Sex and Health of the Dogs

Dog behaviour between other dogs is not only simple but it is also harsh! Social standing is achieved with maturity, proven ability, physical strength and importance. As a dog ages or suffers from ill health it becomes more difficult to maintain an air of authority over younger, maturing individuals.

The natural canine social dynamic is for an older dog to become more deferential in a social situation but often the older dog is empowered by an owner as they suffer ill health or struggle physically. It is obviously unintentional but the result is that owners may inadvertently interfere with this natural demotion process. This creates stress in both dogs and may result in extra pressure being placed on both to maintain their importance.

Inter-dog aggression is more common in dogs of the same age and sex, it is easier to solve with a male and female, particularly if they are of different ages. This suggests that hormones are highly relevant. You should seek professional advice about neutering from an experienced, qualified behaviourist, neutering the wrong dog may cause more harm than good!

Poor Early Social Experiences

The type of early social experiences the dogs received will also contribute to the level of confidence they possess. It stands to reason that if they were bullied and dealt with in an aggressive manner by an older dog, they will have retained this level of learning. Much like children who bully and then may go on to bully others.

While you can’t change this, it is important to recognise it as it allows you to work within your dog’s limitations.

One of the most common problems is rough play. Dogs who have not learnt bite inhibition as a puppy will use a more intense bite during play sessions and this could trigger a reactive response in the receiving dog. Play sessions should be controlled and focused more on progressive exercise, particularly in the presence of an owner.

Using toys to interact with both dogs at the same time creates a natural competitive situation and you need to be really confident of your leadership to prevent this situation deteriorating. If you are inexperienced or concerned it is advisable not to engage in this level of interaction. If you choose to play then shut one dog away while you play with the other and then switch them over, even then this may result in conflict so be careful of your introductions.

How to Reduce Those Potential Flash Points

The only way you will be able to protect your dogs from becoming involved with human emotion and conflicting communication is if you send them away and encourage them to ‘switch off’. Ultimately you will need to find a way of protecting them from the more complex and detached version of you, when you are distracted, busy or engaging with another individual.

Creating a positive area for the dogs to be sent to is an excellent way of establishing who’s home it is and who should be respected, while ensuring you avoid punishing the dogs or acting negatively if they are demanding on your time.

It also provides you with an opportunity to reduce free access to important resources.

What to do if You Find Yourself in the Middle of an Inter-Dog Fight

In short you should remove yourself and/ or the dogs. Your interference will usually make things worse, if the dogs are indoors, push them out! This is dog communication and they will work it out between themselves quicker if you don’t get involved. Unless of course you can safely and efficiently separate them.

Summary of Treatment for Inter-Dog Aggression

  • Set a clear hierarchy via leadership
  • Ensure the dogs have their own down-time area, be clear with your boundaries
  • Remove free access to resources, make the dogs work for everything!
  • Exercise them well and with control
  • Avoid instigating high energy moments in the dog’s presence
  • Set clear control over mealtimes and play
  • Don’t interfere with the dog’s natural social dynamic, they will forge their own relationship
  • Spot early warning signs: barging, growling, staring, direct eye contact, posturing, chasing and encourage clam down time
A happy balanced relationship
A happy balanced relationship

I generally have good results and a high success rate with these cases. However, each and every case is different, requires a detailed level of skill and understanding and is dependent on owner compliance, which comes in a variety of different packages depending on their time, ability and understanding. Education really is the key to solving canine behaviour problems, along with supporting a committed owner, these cases are no different.

If you are struggling with an aggression problem feel free to let me know.

Jo Croft MA