Common behaviour problems
“My Dogs Are Fighting!”
“My Dogs seem to be Hunting or Fighting with Other Animals!
“My dog wants to dominate me!“
I am often asked questions about dog management; the following are typical and is the behaviourists worse nightmare:
Q: I am the owner of two female dogs. These dogs haven’t always fought. Until recently, they’ve been good friends and pack mates. However, during thee last few weeks as one growls at the other, a fight begins. Neither dog is a spayed, one is a three year old female; the other is a one and a half year old female. Is there anything I can do to make them friends again? Would spaying the younger one be the answer? I don’t want to give up one of the dogs. Please help!
Q: I have 4 Whippets plus a recently rescued Greyhound and suddenly for no apparent reason they have all started to chase any thing that moves. We have 2 cats and even their lives are being made a misery. My question is why has there been a change in their behaviour, they never used to do this until we got the Greyhound?
Q: I have a young dog, just coming into his prime. Normally he is very good but lately he has started to get very bossy, nipping and growling at me if he doesn’t get his own way, chasing people, lunging at other dogs etc. – why is he doing this? We are firm but fair with him but I am worried it is getting out of control.
Before these questions can be answered we need to look at the reasons as to why dogs behave in the way that they do.
When the symbiotic relationship between dogs and humans first began some 13,000 years ago, the ancestors of the dogs we have today were living feral, on the outskirts of human settlements in much the same way that ‘village dogs’ still live in parts of the world today. In behaviourist speak there is a conditioned reflex known as ‘fight or flight’ and the best dogs, that were suitable for man’s use, would have been the ones with the ‘fight’ or survival instinct. Dogs that were anxious or stressed at being in human proximity were of no use and they would have been the ones to develop into the wild dog species we know today. Over centuries of breeding, neoteny – receptive social traits bred in and the wilder aggressive ones bred out, and saltations – factors of change due to intense selection for character, the dogs we share are our lives with developed and evolved.
However, like all animals, dogs have the genetic imprints for survival and all behaviours come down from one or to all four reasons for the continued existence of the species.
This is something the dog wants or needs in order to survive; food, water, mates etc. Hunting is the natural instinct to catch/kill a resource. Protecting their resources is of prime importance. In domestic dogs you as the carer/provider is a major resource. The well cued Labrador walking to heel of the leash is appeasing his/her resource. The Pointer working the shoot is hunting for his/her pack leader. The young puppy pouncing on a ball is practising skills as an up and coming hunter and the Collie herding sheep is carrying out a skill for driving prey forward that began when dogs hunted in packs and each had its own task. Stealing something of yours and then protecting it is guarding a resource the dog thinks it needs.
Having discovered a resource then it is imperative that it is defended. Self-defence is paramount for the survival of those genes and any cornered animal will defend itself and its pack – which includes you and your family. The flock guarding dogs used to defend the food resource against intruders, Chows defending religious sites for their carers and the abusive development of this instinct by humans throughout history, when butchers’ dogs were used for sports such as bear baiting or the early war dogs taken into battle with their masters, are all examples of a dog defending its resource.
Mating & Rearing:
The choice of a suitable mate to carry genes on to future generations is so ingrained that even today when the process is one of selection by man, a female in prime breeding readiness will sometimes refuse the mate chosen for her. In a wild dog pack the alpha female controls the production and survival of the pack; if not in breeding condition herself she will allow a beta female to breed, often removing the puppies into her own care at birth. In this way, the survival of the pack is maintained. Defending the prime breeders as a pack resource, and defending the right to breed by the alphas, kicks in all the survival fighting instincts a dog has – all four reasons for existing are found here. We give anthropomorphic terms to this: “she’s a good mum, really loves her puppies so much she wont let anyone near them” this is not love, this is the pack survival instinct at it’s height! Anyone who has bred dogs and has a strong female pack manager will have seen this and those that have bred with a beta female will be able to tell you exactly when the time came for “ Okay – you’re the manager, done my bit so you can have them now” oh the joys of late night/early morning feeds and outs!
Dogs fight for all of the above reasons, and the most common in today’s dogs, especially between dogs of the same sex, is a dispute over their status in the family “pack”. Dogs were designed by nature to run in packs with a clearly defined order of authority from the top dog on down. As long as everyone knows his or her place and follows orders, life is usually peaceful. In today’s society we are, or should be, the pack managers but by living the way we do as humans and not as a dog pack, we are continually subjecting the pack to new, from the outside, membership. Dogs that are born and grow up within their own pack structure learn the rules very early on – but the rules learnt by today’s puppy go with him/her at eight to ten weeks of age when joining a new pack.
With most dog packs, it’s easy to see who the manager is and how the rest of the dogs fit within the order. Watch your dogs interact – which one takes the best toy, goes out the door first, gets to eat first and takes the best sleeping place? This is the “alpha” dog, the leader of the canine pack. The pack manager dog achieves his/her rank by being smarter, stronger or sometimes just more flexible in control behaviours than the rest. Some dogs are born leaders, others fall into the role because no one else wants the job. Most dogs don’t mind holding a subordinate position and seldom challenge the pack manager’s authority.
Trouble starts when a lower ranking dog tries to move up the pack ladder or “forgets” his/her place. This can be a young dog entering his/her adolescent (teenaged) stage or a beta pack member that senses the pack manager dog is getting older, weaker or losing his/her authority. Trouble is also in the making when strong managers are introduced to an existing pack order – regardless of age, it is all about status and those behaviours developed with mum/managers consent when with his/her siblings.
The manager makes and enforces the rules. They enforce their authority by the use of stern eye contact, growling, strong body postures and if that fails, biting and fighting. If you watch your dogs closely, you’ll see examples of this eye contact and posture in their daily activities.
Your dog’s “pack” includes his human family as well as other dogs or animals in the household. You should be the ‘human’ pack manager. As such, you have the right to make the rules and it’s up to you to enforce them. Hopefully, your dogs recognize your status and you’ve re-enforced it through positive consistency of cue delivery and flexible management style re-enforcement training. As the human pack manager you have every right to make and enforce this rule: “There shall be no xxxxx!”
It’s always easier and safer to prevent a fight or a hunt than to try to stop one that’s already in progress. Very few fights start without reason, and the reason will be due to one of the above, even if that reason is only clear to the dogs. If you pay close attention to your dogs, you’ll be able to see the beginnings of an argument – a dirty look, a low growl, a shove – and be able to nip it in the bud.
When you see one of your dogs “talking tough” or inciting hunting behaviour to the others, correct in a firm voice: “That’s enough!” or the one I use “Excuse me!” but it is important not to single out any one dog – especially the pack manager, scold them all, not pin pointing any with eye contact or body contact.
If you catch them while they’re still thinking about arguing or hunting, you’ll be that much more effective. If your dogs are a little more serious and aren’t responding to your verbal corrections, you can leave short leads on them so you can give them leash corrections. Don’t be afraid to sound tough; you want them to understand that this behaviour will not be allowed – period. Make it clear that if they want to fight, they’re going to have to fight with you first! Or if they want to hunt, you are the initiator. This is what a pack manager would do, using her body language and those heavy vocals; she would give them both a warning and if one or either dog refused the one she judges to have been the cause will be the one she challenges. She would also make that final decision as to whether the hunt will take place. She can’t afford to have disruption in the ranks or a challenge made to her; it breaks down the pack hierarchy, the long term effects being the eventual break up of the pack, or survival risk. The most important aspect of the hunt – often this means ‘chase’ to a dog, is to have a really well cued recall with a good ‘stop’ cue – I use a whistle for this. Even in the wild dog pack the beta dogs have a recall cue – imagine what would happen on a hunt if all the pack tried to go at once! If the recall is not learned during the important classically conditioning stages then it is very difficult to get it 100% reliable and fluent.
If your dogs are fighting when you’re not home, it’s safest to keep them separated at those times. Most fights, though, occur in the presence of the human manager and are a result of competition over resources – food, toys, you and of course, pack status. You can help prevent these disagreements by recognizing the dog pack manager in your pack and favouring it with your attention. This is the dog you should pet first, feed first and let out the door first. Giving the dog manager privileges to a lower ranking dog, even if it might be your personal favourite, confuses the others and can lead to fighting. All the dogs will be more secure and comfortable with each other when they’re clear on where they stand within the pack.
There are some dogs that just aren’t going to get along no matter what. Some breeds are less sociable than others and some, originally bred for fighting. In these cases, a permanent separation may be the best answer. This doesn’t mean you have to get rid of one of the dogs. Those of us who keep multiple dogs including ones that don’t get along are familiar with a system we jokingly call “musical dogs”. One dog spends part of the day with the family while the other dog is crated, outside in the garden or in another part of the house. Partway through the day (or at any interval you want), you switch them. It’s not as ideal as having all the dogs together but can be a very workable solution if you are prepared to manage it.
Obedience training for all dogs in the pack is highly recommended.
If your dogs have already been through a class and understand commands, practice with them on a daily basis. A long “down” is great for cooling the heels of a rambunctious younger dog. Another good drill is to put all your dogs on a “sit/stay”, then call each one to you individually for attention or a treat – the pack manager first, of course!
By understanding pack hierarchy and the language of dogs, we as dog carers can help to avoid those situations that sometimes seem to be out of our control. When we lose control or do not enforce our management status then the very worse can happen. Two females fighting are the worse there is – they will fight to the death, not feeling pain until it is all over. Keeping a dog pack is altogether different than keeping one dog or even two dogs as ‘pets’. Dogs that live in a pack quickly introduce status commands, communicating skills and cue each other; bringing to the fore all those genetic instincts. A good carer knows how to manage, is flexible, watchful and has the survival of the whole pack at heart. Too many dogs are destroyed each year for this basic lack of understanding. There is no such thing as an ‘aggressive’ dog, only a reason as to why the dog feels the need to display a certain type of aggression, sadly it is when we as managers let them down that the dog usually gets the blame and his/her life is, at the worse cut short, or distressingly disrupted by the need to re-home.