Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour)
Elite Fear Free Certified Coach
“My dog is lovely to people, but wants to fight other dogs”
“I have to walk my dog at sunrise to avoid seeing other dogs”
“I just want my dog to go to the dog park and play with the other dogs”
This is a difficult article to write and keep short, as no two dogs are the same and no two incidents or reasons why dogs might be anti-social are the same either. But here goes.
Inter-dog reactivity is a very common concern that people raise in consults, and is really distressing to owners. It is NOT caused by dominance, but in most cases is motivated by fear, or defence of high value things to the dog. All cases of aggression should be discussed with a qualified behaviour professional to ensure it is addressed properly, as there is no generic approach that can be taken with aggression.
Aggression is normal. Any dog can become aggressive. Although its triggers should be avoided wherever possible as we do not want the behaviour practiced at all, aggression should also never be punished. A bark, growl, snarl, lip-lift, hackles raised, stare, muscle tension and lunge are all helpful cues on the “ladder of aggression” a dog can give before snapping or biting.
We WANT a dog to be able to tell us when they are feeling uncomfortable or threatened and wanting to increase the distance between them and the thing that is making them uncomfortable, because then we can do that for them and the dog doesn’t have to escalate to biting (Landsberg et al., 2013).
We have a problem however, when displays of aggression are out of context, too intense, too frequent or for too long.
Not all dogs like other dogs
Just like people, dogs have personalities and preferences. They have affiliates or friends, dogs that they prefer to spend time with. This also means that there are some dogs they don’t like, and don’t want to be around.
Some dogs are high energy, intense and like rough, physical play with lots of other dogs in a mosh-pit. Others are a little more introverted, wanting only to interact with one or two other dogs at time, with non-contact play. And any and all combinations in between.
There are MANY more reasons why your dog may not want to interact with another dog in any given moment, and display aggression to communicate this. It includes, but not limited to:
Pain/illness – perhaps you have an older, arthritic dog that is wary of being injured
Anxiety – anxious dogs get overwhelmed by big emotions easily and become reactive
PTSD – it could be possible your dog has been attacked by another dog
Connection – your dog might be reading uneasy body language from the other dog, which in turn makes your dog unsure about them
Breed – all dogs have the potential to be aggressive, however your dog might struggle to read another dog’s body language due to extreme features of breeding, such as ear variations (long floppy or short folded) or docked tails
You – it's hard to hear, but if you yank on the lead & raise your voice every time you see another dog, your dog could think the other dogs are causing this unpleasant scenario
What should I do in a dog fight?
Dog fights can seem sudden and very confronting. Triggers can include fear and defence, excitement & crowded spaces, resource guarding and misread social cues. Altercations should always be interrupted because of the potential to be very severe. That said, there’s always great personal risk in interrupting a dog fight, so following safety advice is important.
Rather than using your hands or legs, try to interrupt the fight by throwing a blanket, water or even your jacket on the dogs, or by pushing a baby gate, box or large cushion between them. Safely separate the dogs, keep them separated, and then contact a qualified behaviour veterinarian on advice for your specific problem (American College of Veterinary Behaviourists, 2015).
Because the underlying causes and triggers of aggression are complex, often the solution needs to be sophisticated as well, so stay with me and read on, for your dog’s sake, but don't hesitate to contact us for an appointment.
How to Manage inter dog aggression
Know your dog; their health, reactivity, life experience and temperament all contribute for risk of inter-dog aggression
Aggression can increase with behavioural maturity (1-3 years old) so can start to develop ‘later’ in life, do not ignore changes & seek help early
Triggers – know them and avoid or lessen them wherever possible is the safest approach to aggression, like separating your dogs when giving treats
Avoid off leash dog parks – they are consistently high risk for dog altercations
Make sure your dog has a properly fitted harness or head collar
Become an expert on canine communication and body language – learn to read how the dogs are interacting right from the start and intervene early if needed. “Doggie Language Book” by Lili Chin is an excellent resource for this (Chin, 2020)
Consider muzzle training your dog – this can be a fun game! Reach out to us for more information on muzzle training
No punishment – this includes raising your voice, leash pops/tugs, shock collars, alpha rolls, dominance downs, growling, hitting or any other aversive interactions (Overall, 2013)
Behaviour Modification – trying to shift your dog’s emotional state
A behaviour modification plan is what you receive from your qualified behaviour professional aiming to change the underlying emotion driving the behaviour. After your consultation, more will be understood about your dog’s particular responses to different stimulus and how we might be able to manipulate the intensity, distance etc. of dog-dog interactions.
It’s also important we teach your dog a different behaviour to perform in the moment, one that is incompatible with the aggressive behaviour. For example, ‘sit’ is incompatible with lunging, and eating treats is incompatible with barking/growling. This cue must be taught when the dog is calm and relaxed, so the response substitution can be stronger when challenged with the distraction or drive to be aggressive instead.
Counterconditioning and desensitisation is a very helpful tool in inter-dog aggression. Counterconditioning tries to create a new association with a particular stimulus, usually a positive one. Desensitisation is the process of slowly increasing the intensity of the stimulus in increments, stopping for the individual to acclimate at each ‘level’. In this case, we try to create a positive association with dogs (counterconditioning) through incremental exposure at gradually decreasing distances, rewarding your dog for not reacting or remaining calm when they see another dog slowly getting closer over time (desensitisation).
Look for the good.
It’s easy for us to focus on the aggressive behaviour, and think of our dog as difficult, or a problem needing to be solved, but don’t forget to reward & note with attention when your dog is doing something right! Calmly resting on the floor sleeping, picking up a toy to play by themselves, continuing with a food toy instead of getting distracted and being reactive… these are all things to celebrate! The more you look for positive relaxed behaviour and reward it, the more your dog will offer it (Overall, 2013).
Will my dog need Medication?
If your dog is behaving aggressively due to fear or anxiety, seems to react explosively or has an underlying physical condition, it is likely that medication will be recommended to help the management and behaviour modification be more effective, and improve your dog’s quality of life. Use of behaviour-modifying medication is never a ‘cure’ and management and modification training must always be implemented if any change is to be expected.
Aggression can be managed but never ‘cured’
Be proactive, attuned to your dog’s signals and avoid triggering the behaviour
Pay attention to your dog’s face, ear, tail, voice and posture to understand their level of discomfort with other dogs
Seek advice & referral early from your veterinarian if your dog becomes aggressive
Manage your dog with muzzle training, environmental awareness and no punishment
Modify your dog’s behaviour through a Fear Free counterconditioning and desensitisation program
Medicate if your veterinary behaviourist or counsellor prescribes it
Monitor progress and celebrate the little wins!
While intended to help any pet parent with an anxious little one, this article is no substitute for a consultation with firstly, a veterinarian to ensure no physical ailments, and secondly, a qualified veterinary behaviour professional to assess your pet, their unique triggers, thresholds and capabilities, to offer a treatment plan tailored for success.
American College of Veterinary Behaviourists. (2015). Decoding Your Dog (D. Horwitz, J. Ciribassi, & S. Dale, Eds.; 1st ed.). Mifflin Harcourt.
Chin, L. (2020). Doggie language (1st ed.). Summersdale Publishers. https://www.doggielanguagebook.com/
From Overall KL: Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats PROTOCOL FOR TEACHING YOUR DOG TO TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND USE OTHER BIOFEEDBACK METHODS AS PART OF RELAXATION. (2013).
Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W., & Ackerman, L. (2013). Behaviour Problems of the Dog and Cat (3rd Editio). Elsevier Inc.
Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats - E-Book by Karen Overall – Books on Google Play. Elsevier Health Sciences.