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When Dogs Get Too Aggressive

By: Stephen Sawicki

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Several years ago, Ohio artist Susan Graham added a second Pembroke Welsh corgi to her household. She figured that a playmate for her dog, Bennett, would defuse his never-ending demands for attention and play. Plus, she simply thought having two corgis would be fun. However, things didn't quite turn out as she planned.

Bennett tolerated Chili, the newcomer, during the puppy days but before long it was corgis at war. The pair would frolic together in the yard, but when it was time to come in, they tore into each other over who would enter the house first.

Susan felt her mere presence was enough to ignite a territorial skirmish - any time, anywhere. Nothing she tried would make the combatants back down.

Now Susan keeps the dogs apart with an intricate schedule of individual feedings and outdoor times, combined with crating and baby gates placed in strategic locations around the house. "I live in the land of crates and gates," she says with a laugh. "But it works."

Perhaps. But not everyone has Susan's patience or the endurance to vault thigh-high gates all day. What's the underlying problem with her dogs? And is there a better way to tackle this all-too-common problem of "sibling rivalry"? Why yes there is, say animal behaviorists. But first you need to understand what's going on.

Why Dogs Show Aggression

In the canine world of dominance and submission, aggression is a natural, innate tendency that many dogs will evidence at one time or another. To act aggressively, in certain situations, is instinctive. Although a myriad of issues may complicate matters, when it comes down to it, all dogs want to be "top dog."

Dogs are pack animals and hierarchical rules dictate how they behave around each other. Left to themselves, most canines easily slip into their roles. The pyrotechnics erupt when they disagree about their place in the pack.

Although there are no absolutes, bringing together dogs with too many similar characteristics - same sex, same age, same breed (brothers from a litter, for example) -may spark conflict. So many commonalties make it difficult to settle who is the alpha dog. Hormonal surges also have an effect. Other times redirected aggression is the problem - attacking one's companion when agitated about the mail carrier's arrival, for example.

Can You Fuel the Fire?

Often, you can inadvertently fuel the fire of discontent. People can disturb the hierarchical balance by rushing to protect the would-be subordinate from being "bullied" or granting him liberties, such as being petted first, which your "alpha" dog considers his due. With your support, the low dog on the totem pole may now feel bold enough to challenge his housemate. "People need to understand that dogs have their own set of social rules, whereas most dog owners want democracy," says Brian Kilcommons, a professional dog trainer.

How to Douse the Fire

Prevention, of course, is the preferred route. It's important that puppies socialize with other dogs – in puppy kindergarten or romps in the park, for example. This way, they learn the unspoken rules of canine society. Spaying and neutering not only prevent unwanted litters but these procedures also reduce aggression. Exercise also works wonders and obedience training is a must.

After the dogs have been together for a while and are getting along, an insignificant scuffle or two might erupt.

"In theory, all dogs should be able to work it out together as long as the owners don't interfere," says Dr. Gary Landsberg, an animal behaviorist in Ontario, Canada. Still, owners must heed mounting tensions. Watch for eye-to-eye contact between your dogs, as well as stiffening and shouldering. "As soon as you see signs of trouble that you're uncomfortable with, take steps," Kilcommons says. "Don't wait for fights to happen because that changes the dynamics considerably."
        
Often the problem can be relieved if, instead of protecting the perceived underdog, the owner supports the hierarchy. Determine which dog is the more dominant dog and reinforce that dog's position by feeding, greeting or letting it out first. Usually this will help, but not always. "The problem with that approach is that it's often difficult to tell who should be the lead dog," says Dr. Wayne Hunthausen, past-president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. "Secondly, it's really difficult for owners to play favorites with their dogs."

Put Your Paw Down

Experts agree it's crucial that you take a strong leadership role. When Hunthausen faces a tough sibling rivalry case, he tells clients to firmly establish their place as leader of the pack.

First, he suggests that the owners make both dogs "work for everything." Before they're fed, given a treat or taken out for a walk, you should order the dogs to sit or lie down. The same applies to demands for attention. And finally, he suggests that you regularly practice the stay and release commands, even if your dogs are just going from one room to another.
        
If your dogs indicate they're about to fight, calmly, but forcefully, intervene. "The approach is, 'I don't care who started it, both of you, Down!'" says Kilcommons. "You basically tell them: 'You don't have to worry about her, and you don't have to worry about him. You have to worry about me."'

Calling in the Pros

If your dogs are still regularly warring, Kilcommons suggests enlisting an animal behaviorist. Animal behaviorists may either be veterinarians or individuals certified by the Animal Behavior Society of the United States. The difference is often akin to seeking the help of a psychiatrist versus that of a psychologist.
        
Occasionally, a veterinarian will recommend drugs for one or both dogs. Usually, though, medication is a last resort, as it does not address the underlying cause - household dynamics.
        
Until the problem is solved, keep bickering dogs separated or on halter leashes so you can easily pull them apart if a fight ensues. It's best not to grab either dog - by the tail or anywhere else - during a fight. Stepping between two battling canines can be dangerous.

Reaching a Resolution

When all is said and done, sibling rivalries usually can be resolved, but not always. Sometimes people are unwilling or unable to implement the necessary changes; and genetic or socialization shortcomings are intractable. If that's the case, the best solution may be to find another home for one of the dogs. After all, says Kilcommons, "What people fantasize can be, and what can actually be, are sometimes two different things."

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