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Inter-Dog Dominance Aggression

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli

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Another common form of dominance-related inter-dog aggression is known as sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry refers to situations in which two or more dogs in the same household fight. The fights may start out as snarling and growling over space or other resources. If left unchecked, serious fighting can ensue resulting in injury or even death.

Fighting occurs because the dogs have not established a stable dominance hierarchy. Dogs have no sense of equality, so one must always be the leader. This is often a difficult concept for owners to grasp. They prefer to treat their dogs as equals and work to even out disputes. But well-meaning intervention only serves to fuel continued fighting between the dogs. Fights occur between dogs of near equal dominance and rarely, if ever, between a very dominant dog and a submissive dog because the latter readily defers. There are two varieties of sibling rivalry that are commonly seen.

  • Type 1. This is a simple dominance struggle between two dogs, siblings or not, that live in the same household. Confrontations often arise when one dog reaches social maturity (18 months to 3 years of age) and begins to challenge an older, more dominant dog's rank. Alternatively, confrontations may occur when an older dog becomes ill and begins to lose ground as the leader. Under these circumstances, a previously subordinate dog may begin to challenge his former leader and attempt to usurp his social position. This type of aggression will usually resolve in fairly short order (2-3 weeks) as long as people do not interfere with what is the course of nature.

    The posturing and displays are similar to those described above and fighting will end when one or other dog has successfully made his point and has assumed the leadership role. With emotionally well-balanced dogs, fights are usually not life threatening as posturing, inhibited bites, and vocalizations constitute the basis of the communicative displays. Occasionally aggressive interactions may span a month or more because both dogs are unwilling to concede to a subordinate status. In these situations, typically the dogs are of the same sex (female disputes tend to be more refractory and more likely to result in injury) and one or both dogs have recently reached social maturity. As dogs are inherently social and hierarchical animals, any breed may engage in sibling rivalry disputes. However, this problem is reported to occur more frequently in breeds selected for independent, feisty temperaments, such as terriers. Aggressive incidents are often restricted to specific circumstances, such as competition over space or resources.

  • Type 2. The second and much more common type of sibling rivalry is what is referred to as alliance aggression. This unfortunate situation is man-made and occurs when humans interfere with dominance/deference struggles between dogs in the same household. The typical human reaction is to support the subordinate, which ensures that dominance is not established and fighting continues. By supporting the underdog, the owners increase the would-be subordinate dog's social status, and by chastising the more dominant dog they will effectively weaken his position. This ensures that near equal dominance status is maintained and the fighting will continue. These fights can be much more dangerous (resulting in severe injury) and persist for a considerable length of time. Typically, the dogs fight only in the presence of the owner and it is the owner's comings and goings that precipitate the violence.

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