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Defusing and Modification of Dog-Dog Aggression in the Same Household

By January 1, 2015Dog Blog

Defusing intra-pack aggression.

Not all dogs get along with each other, despite the fact that dogs are a social species (as are humans), and we certainly don’t all get along! Dog-dog aggression is unhappily common in our world. Dog-dog aggression and intra-pack aggression cases are particularly distressing, especially for the same family who aren’t getting along with each other.

There is no simple, tidy explanation as to why, but rest assured, stress and anxiety (of the humans and in their household) are a large part.

Stress happens
We do know that aggression is caused by stress. With the very rare exception of idiopathic aggression, aggression is the result of a stress load that pushes a dog over his bite threshold.

When tensions increase between two dogs, you need to look for possible added stressors in their environment that are pushing them closer to, and yes, sometimes over, their bite threshold.

To resolve aggression issues between your own dogs, you’ll want to identify not only the immediate trigger for the aggression – fighting over a meaty bone, for example – but also everything in your dog’s life that may be stressful to him. The more stressors you can remove from his world, the less likely it is that he will use his teeth – the canine equivalent of pulling out a .38 revolver.

It’s often relatively easy to identify the immediate trigger for your dogs’ mutual aggression. It’s usually whatever happened just before the appearance of the hard stare, posturing, growls, and sometimes the actual fight.

Tension over resources is a common trigger. Scenario: a d is lying on his bed, happily chewing something yummy like a bully stick or deer antler, when Dog #2 approaches. Dog #1 tenses, signaling to #2 Dog, “This is mine and I’m not sharing.” (see my blog “The Mine Syndrome.”

In the best of worlds, #2 defers by looking away, saying in canine speak, “Oh, no worries, I was just passing through.” When things go wrong, however, a fight breaks out. This can happen even if Dog #2 had no interest in the item. Perhaps Dog #2 failed to notice or failed to heed #1’s warning. Remember that resources include more than just food; a guardable resource can also be a high-value human, a coveted spot on the sofa, or access to a doorway. The stressor in these cases is obvious: the dog is anxious over the possibility of losing or having to share his treasured possession.

Other triggers may be less obvious. If a dog is in pain, but not showing it, the mere proximity of a pack mate who has inadvertently bumped her in the past could be a trigger. Dogs can be notoriously stoic about pain, especially slowly developing arthritis, or unilateral pain (my own dog is a good expample). The undiagnosed arthritic dog may become defensively aggressive in anticipation of being hurt by a livelier canine pal, trying to forestall painful contact in what looks to the owner like “unprovoked” aggression.

“Status-related aggression” can result when neither of two dogs in the same family is willing to defer to the other. Note that this type of aggression is more about deference (or lack thereof) than it is about dominance. A truly high-ranking member of the social group doesn’t engage in scuffles – he doesn’t have to! This should never happen, because the humans should have made it clear that they are the highest ranking members of the pack and everyone else defers to them!

When you have identified your dogs’ triggers, you can manage their environment to reduce trigger incidents and minimize conflict. This is critically important to a successful modification program. The more often the dogs fight, the more tension there is between them; the more practiced they become at the undesirable behaviors, the better they get at fighting and the harder it will be to make it go away. And this is to say nothing of the increased likelihood that sooner or later someone (dog or human) will be injured.

Stressors, in contrast, can happen anytime and be anywhere. Remember that it’s the sum total of a dog’s stressors that push him over his bite threshold, so the more of these you can identify and get rid of, the more you’ll ease tensions between your canine family members.

Create a list of all the stressors you can think of for the dog or dogs in question.

If you need help, we will discuss possible strategies, assigning one or more strategies to each of the listed stressors. These strategies are:

– Change the dog’s opinion (Conditioned Emotional Response or “CER”) of the stressor through the use of counter-conditioning and desensitization.

– Teach the dog a new behavioral response using operant conditioning.

– Manage the dog’s environment to minimize exposure to the stressor.

– Get rid of the stressor.

Some low level stressors are best dealt with by just accepting and living with them, while working on reducing the stress associated with the trigger. I can help you make a management plan that will go into place immediately, to help defuse the tension until she is able to start work on behavior modification. Then we create action plans for two or three of the stressors on the list, starting with the one you are most concerned about – in this case, the dog-dog aggression.

First option: Aggression modification
My first choice with most clients is the first strategy listed above: changing the dogs’ opinion of each other through counter-conditioning and desensitization (CC&D).

CC&D for intra-pack aggression involves changing your dogs’ association with each other from negative to positive. The easiest way to give most dogs a positive association is with very high-value, really yummy treats. I like to use chicken – canned, baked, or boiled, since most dogs love chicken and it’s a low-fat, low-calorie food.