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Inter-Dog Dominance Aggression

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

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Diagnosis

  • A complete physical examination is recommended to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to your dog's aggressive behavior. If there are no underlying medical causes for the aggression, a behavior specialist can help supply an appropriate treatment plan.

    Therapy for Sibling Rivalry

    In the early stages of this condition when fighting is infrequent and of a minor nature, it is possible to reverse the process and establish a stable dominance order by following the program outlined below.

  • Elevate the owner's leadership status. Enforce a dominance control program with both dogs so that the owner, as the clear leader, has full control over both dogs. This requires implementing a non-confrontational behavior modification program whereby the owner makes the dog earn every resource he needs or desires by following a command.

  • Avoid further confrontations. To avoid reinforcing the learned component of aggression, it is essential that owners attempt to prevent any further aggressive episodes between their dogs. Toys and food may need to be removed when the dogs are together and access to highly emotional areas (thresholds, kitchens, bedrooms) may need to be restricted. In severe cases, complete separation of the dogs may be necessary for a while.

  • Help establish a stable social hierarchy. To do this, owners should consistently support the more dominant dog in his rightful social position. The only difficulty comes in determining which of the two dogs should be dominant and this is not always an easy endeavor. Factors that come in to play are temperament, age, length of time in the household, size, and breed. If there is any doubt about which dog is dominant, it is probably best to engage a senior support program initially. This is a program in which the elder incumbent dog is supported over a newcomer (especially if the challenger is a puppy that has just reached puberty and has begun to challenge the more senior dog's rank). Once it has been decided which dog to support, that dog should be first in everything and the other dog should be obliged to follow. The dominant dog should be fed first, petted first, praised first, allowed through doorways first, exercised first and played with before the other dog.

    If this causes problems, the more subordinate dog may have to be put into a crate or tethered so that he is compelled to watch the owner interact freely with the more dominant dog.

  • Safety and reinforcement. Because treatment is not immediately effective and may take three or four months, it is a good idea to have both dogs wear body harnesses or head halters and trailing leads around the house. This way, fights can be broken up safely by applying gentle traction to the leads to keep the dogs just far enough apart that they cannot injure each other. The owner should hold the dogs apart in this way until they calm down. Following a fight, or near fight, the dominant dog should be praised, petted and played with while the subordinate dog is ignored or taken out of the area for a time out.

    For most people, behaving this way is counterintuitive, but resolves the problem. At the conclusion of the program it will be found that the more dominant dog is less anxious and protective because he now knows he is being supported in his true alpha position and the subordinate dog will stop competing and will be comfortable in his "number two dog" role.

    If fighting is severe, or refractory to initial treatments, it may be necessary to advance to a more comprehensive rehabilitation program involving the following steps:

    Desensitization

    If the fighting has escalated to the point where the dogs have been housed separately, the owner can attempt to reunite them using systematic desensitization and counterconditioning techniques. Once both dogs are responding reliably to obedience commands and have accepted the dominance program, the owner can begin the process of reintroduction in earnest. It is important to proceed very slowly during desensitization since if you rush the process and a fight ensues, ground will be lost. The dogs must always be relaxed and content in each other's presence. The reintroduction process necessitates the involvement of one person per dog.

  • Both dogs should be safely restrained on leash. Begin the sessions in "neutral territories" i.e. areas where competition for resources is least likely to occur.

  • The number one dog should be relaxed and happy as you present the subordinate dog.

  • The number two ranking dog should simply appear and disappear BEFORE the number one dog has an opportunity to react negatively to his presence.

  • Reward both dogs with praise and food treats for remaining relaxed. Then have the number two dog step in for a few more seconds, and then step out. Continue this process for no longer than 15 minutes (~12-15 trials total) as long as both dogs remain relaxed. At no time should either dog become aroused. Both dogs should be required to focus on their handlers and should be focused on their rewards for good behavior. In time, they will learn to associate each other's presence with positive experiences.

  • If after 2 weeks of practicing these exercises both dogs appear relaxed in each other's company, the owner may progress to having the dogs in the same room with leads attached to their halters/harnesses.

  • If the dogs can remain relaxed in each others presence for another 2 weeks, it may be possible to allow them to engage in supervised interactions or play if they are so inclined. This entire timetable is tentative depending on the dogs' response to each stage of the program.

    Reintroduction and counterconditioning techniques require patience and a complete understanding of each dog's response to the other. This is a gradual process and rushing any phase of the program can result in failure to achieve the desired goal.

    During the program, if the dominant dog looks at the second ranking dog and the latter averts his gaze, reward both dogs profusely. The act of withdrawing eye contact indicates a willingness to submit rather than fight. Once the social hierarchy (owner -> dog 1-> dog 2) is established, the owner may be able to return to more normal relations with the dogs. However, the hierarchical structure must always be reinforced with both dogs deferring to the owner and dog number one receiving access to all resources prior to the second ranking dog and so on.

    Medication

    Pharmacologic treatment is sometimes necessary to assist in reintroducing a pair of feuding dogs. Anxiety-reducing drugs or antidepressants are the medications of choice. Buspirone (BuSpar®) or fluoxetine (Prozac®) are most frequently employed for this purpose. Both drugs tend to decrease aggression, buspirone perhaps by virtue of its anxiety-reducing effect and fluoxetine by stabilizing the dog's mood and reducing his impulsivity. If one dog only is to be treated, it is usually best to treat the aggressor.

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