Owning a dog is a great experience. Owning two dogs should be twice as good, right? Well, not always. Two or more dogs make a pack and where there is a pack there is inevitably competition for position. Pack hierarchy is not based on democracy, but there is a clearly defined order with a leader and followers.
Pet dogs are relatively social animals; they co-exist happily with their human owners and canine companions. They play together, eat together, sleep together, go out for walks together, but what happens when this platonic relationship suddenly erupts and a fight breaks out between them? Either or both dogs may be injured and the owner feels helpless as she watches her two best friends having a scrap.
As a dog behaviourist, I am finding more cases of inter-pack aggression, that is, dogs living in the same household suddenly become aggressive to one another for no apparent reason. The dogs may have lived together in the same house, with the same people, for years then they erupt like a volcano and fight.
Maggie introduced Lola, a West Highland Terrier puppy to Tilley, a four-year-old Norfolk Terrier, who had enjoyed being the only dog in the household. Maggie decided that Tilley needed a companion and introduced Lola. This was probably a shock to the older dog, who previously had enjoyed the Maggie’s attention, there was no competition and Tilley could virtually do as she pleased – that is, rest where she wanted to, wander around the house and garden at leisure, eat in peace and be taken out for exercise and return home to a peaceful environment.
Enter Lola. Everything changed. Maggie’s attention was diluted to at best half of what it had been for years and every whimper, toilet accident or demand for attention resulted in Maggie – being the attentive new puppy owner – responding to Lola’s every need. Most owners in this situation are unaware of how dogs adapt to similar new circumstances.
Aggression between dogs in the same family rarely develops out of the blue; it’s more likely to be a culmination of events that have happened over a period of time. There are always signs that precede any aggressive act, such as the dogs may growl or snarl more frequently, they may lift their lips to reveal their teeth, their body language may alter when the dogs are together – tail carriage may be high and ears erect. This behaviour frequently happens when the owner is present and one dog feels that the other is enjoying more privileges, thus higher status within the family hierarchy. As owners, we try to be fair to our dogs, but human logic is not dog logic and Maggie’s natural instinct to treat both equally, is probably the underlying cause of friction between Tilley and Lola.
Just like wolves in the wild, dogs have a position within their pack or family hierarchy and when each dog knows its place harmony prevails. Here’s an example: Tilley is resting on her bed in the lounge, Lola walks in and Tilley gets up to move to another spot. Lola lies in the higher-ranking position vacated by Tilley, thus Lola (even though she is a puppy) has higher status between the two dogs.
I pointed out to Maggie that introducing a new companion (Lola) to a resident dog (Tilley) is a common cause of aggression, especially dogs of the same sex, regardless of age. Most dogs sort out their differences during play and an example of this is when two dogs play tug-of-war, testing each other’s strength. The winner assumes dominance over the loser. Growls, bites and body language are means of communication between dogs, important signals that many owners don’t observe. Lola has started young; usually such quests for pack dominance don’t start until a dog is 1-3 years old. If the older dog resists, the fights are likely to be intense, but depending upon how serious the challenge is, the advances of a young dog are usually rebuffed with a growl, sharp nip or just an intense stare.
As owners, we tend to become distressed when our dogs are aggressive to each other and, depending upon the severity, intervene to stop it escalating. This defers the definitive decision of who is pack leader amongst the dogs and later skirmishes are likely. The action generally kicks off when the owner is present, for example, when it’s time to go for a walk and the leads are produced or when one dog is being stroked and receiving attention. We would call it jealousy, but to a dog, we are elevating the status of the other dog, especially if it is a lower pack member.
Maintaining harmony in the home is essential and a good starting point for Maggie was to decide who was “top dog”; was Tilley ranked higher than the young newcomer or was feisty Lola above Tilley? Lola is approaching her first birthday; she is aggressive towards dogs when out on walks, especially when on lead and holds her tail and ears erect virtually all the time. Is this dominance or fear? A bit of both – probably because she missed out on being socialised with other dogs as a young puppy and finds it difficult to read their body language. Even when approached by friendly dogs she goes forward snarling, snapping and attempting to bite, although Maggie has managed to avoid her making contact.
Setting aside our natural human tendency to be fair, Maggie has decided that Lola is the dominant dog and will be treated accordingly. The main aim is to restore peace and harmony to the household, so Tilley takes a step down to remove friction between the dogs.
I advised Maggie that whenever she is feeding the dogs, Lola is to be fed first and separately from Tilley to avoid any aggression surfacing over food and Lola should receive treats first. When going out for a walk, Lola’s lead should be clipped on first and although they may be walked together, they should also be taken out on their own regularly, to avoid them forming a pack and Tilley backing up Lola when she is aggressive to other dogs. Dogs that are always exercised together, in my experience, tend to develop at slower speeds and in different ways. Their characters seem to be affected and the abilities of the lower ranking dog, in this case Tilley, seems to blunt her ability to make decisions. I have noticed this particularly in obedience classes where two dogs are present from the same home. The lower ranking dog appears anxious particularly so if he is separated by other dogs and handlers. This can be worse between siblings when in the same class.
Excitement is best avoided, particularly in enclosed spaces – including the car and entrance areas – and games that cause friction between the dogs should cease. Each dog should interact with the owner, but by keeping the dogs separate the chances of boisterous play triggering aggression is removed.
I advised Maggie to remove all toys, bones, chews and the like that are left lying around the house; they become trophies and often spark fights over possession let’s be honest, the toy that the other dog has is always better than the one they have, similar to children really. There is no problem with allowing dogs to have a toy or bone to chew, but for safety’s sake, give one to each dog and separate them in different areas of the home. Inevitably, when the dogs are together one may find something to guard and if that dog growls when approached by the other, it is best for the owner to avoid shouting or smacking the dog, which only serves to reinforce the behaviour and elevate the dispute into a fight. Fighting has an outcome and dogs decide whether it is worth starting the fight in the first place or from the other perspective, whether it is more prudent to take evasive action (flight) and avoid it altogether.
There are usually no children in Maggie’s home, but when they are present their safety must always come first.
Whether or not to intervene when a fight breaks out is for the owner to decide at the time. Intervene and the dispute may be settled at a later date, however, if one of the dogs is in danger of serious injury, intervention may be the best course of action. A very loud noise from an air horn or personal safety alarm may break the dogs’ concentration for long enough for the owner to take control; similarly spraying or dowsing the dogs with water may interrupt the fight. When dogs are constantly fighting each other and they don’t respond to correction, the best course of action is to re-home one of the dogs. Not an easy decision, but perhaps taken in the best interests of all members of the household, including the dogs.
Obedience training is an essential aspect of any remedial behaviour programme. Maggie and Lola are now attending classes regularly, socialising with other dogs and handlers, learning how to read body language and above all, manners! Westies may be feisty and strong-willed, but I am giving Maggie every encouragement and support to restore her household to the harmony that was enjoyed prior to Lola taking over.
Written by Sue Gilmore
This article appeared in Dogs Monthly magazine in spring 2013