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Dealing with Dominance Aggression Between Dogs
Dogs fight for a number of different reasons, but quests for dominance often underlie much of the sparring. Aggressive incidents may be isolated to one or two specific situations, such as competition over specific resources or space guarding issues. Hierarchical disputes are more common among dogs of the same sex and fights between two females are typically more vicious. Any breed can develop such hierarchical disputes as this goes hand in hand with “pack” mentality, but it may be more difficult to maintain stable hierarchies with terrier breeds and other breeds that have been selected to work independently.
Why Dogs Fight
Dogs in the same household will fight if they are near equal in social status. This can occur in two distinct situations.
Aggression due to owner alliance issues can be very dangerous and may persist for some time. The fights are often vicious and result in injury to one or both dogs. In alliance situations, the dogs generally fight only in the owner’s presence, but can peacefully cohabitate in the owner’s absence.
In most cases, both dogs are less respectful than they should be to the owner since the presence of a dominant individual within the social group tends to suppress aggression between other pack members.
Unfortunately, some dogs are socially dysfunctional and may never integrate well in a canine social group. In particular, dogs that have not received appropriate social contact with other dogs during their sensitive period of social development may never acclimate well to other dogs.
Diagnosis of Dominance Aggression
A complete physical examination is recommended to rule out any underlying medical condition that may be contributing to the dog’s aggressive behavior. If the dog receives a clean bill of health, a behavior specialist can provide a diagnosis and an appropriate treatment plan.
Therapy for Dog Dominance Aggression
Information In-depth on Inter-Dog Dominance Aggression
Dogs fight for a number of different reasons but dominance, in one form or another, underlies much of this feuding. When a couple of unfamiliar dogs encounter each other there is a good deal of mutual investigation that occurs between the two dogs before either can fully relax in the other’s presence. During this investigational stage, all five senses are utilized to gather information about the competition and a variable amount of posturing goes on as the dogs transmit their comfort level toward each other through the medium of body language.
If two easygoing dogs meet, there is rarely a problem. If one dog is clearly dominant over another, and the other dog accepts his dominance, again there is no real reason for concern. The more dominant dog transmits his status to the other by certain characteristic posturing and expressions. Perhaps the most well known signal is the dominant dog’s stare. Other signals of dominance include tensing of muscles, erect ears, tail held at or above horizontal, and the head and neck held high. The approach of the dominant dog is often toward the other dog’s flank, and upon reaching it, he may rest his chin upon the other dog’s back almost daring him to react.
A clearly subordinate dog will defer to a show of force by averting his eyes, shrinking down to make himself small, holding his tail either low or tucked between his legs, and may even squat and urinate or roll over to expose his belly in extreme situations. At the instant the dominant dog has received the signal of deference, he immediately stops posturing and may start playing with the other dog.
Problems arise when two dogs of near equal dominant status meet and the true leader is not immediately apparent. In signaling dominance, dogs may stand parallel to each other, facing the opposite direction, each with his head resting on the other’s rump and each with his tail raised like a flag. Next may come a low growl, lip lift, snap, or even bite. If neither dog concedes, a dogfight will ensue, and winner takes all.
In an entirely appropriate battle, the dog that eventually emerges as the dominant individual immediately accepts the underdog’s concession. The dominant dog may laud his victory for a few seconds before strutting off but will usually not sustain or escalate his attack under these circumstances. Some dogs, however, are not savvy regarding canine etiquette and will continue to attack despite the other dog’s obvious submission. Such dogs usually have a checkered history of improper socialization with other dogs or have had adverse experiences with similarly dysfunctional dogs in the past.
A dominant dog may behave well in the presence of nine out of ten other dogs because the others either defer or are even more dominant. Occasionally, however, such a dog will encounter another dog of almost identical dominance status and that’s when the trouble begins. As two owners stand chatting, not paying much attention to their dogs, a fight may suddenly break out.
Of course, there are many different circumstances in which dominance aggression may be displayed; however, they usually fall into the same categories as dominance aggression directed towards people. The first is in protection of a valued object or person, the second is in response to another’s challenging postures or gestures (or even frank attack), and finally there is space guarding and/or territoriality. The dog’s mood and motivation have a lot to do with whether he reacts in a particular circumstance. Both internal and external factors determine the dog’s final reaction. Two internal factors are sex hormones and the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Internal Factors Affecting Dog Aggression
When male or female sex hormone levels are high, aggression is more likely. When serotonin levels in the brain are high, aggression is less likely. Castrating a male dog eliminates the supply of testosterone from the testes, and testosterone levels fall to near zero within hours. At the same time, brain serotonin levels rise, because testosterone is suppressed by testosterone. The result: a less aggressive dog especially as far as inter-male dominance aggression is concerned. In fact, aggression between males is substantially reduced by castration in two out of three cases. But castration is no panacea, as the dog’s temperament, residual maleness, and learning all have some bearing.
Another internal factor that influences aggression is the hormonal change that occurs following parturition. When a bitch has had puppies, her aggression level, particularly when it comes to protection of her pups, will be raised. The elevation in aggression (so called maternal aggression) exactly parallels the rise and fall of the lactational hormone, prolactin.
One last internal factor that influences the propensity for dominance-related behaviors is elevation in catecholamines (the fight or flight hormones). Increases in these neurotransmitters lower the threshold for impulsivity and aggression.
External Factors Affecting Dog Aggression
External factors include the location of an encounter, the nature of the combatant, and the presence of people, other dogs, or certain chattels. Dominant dogs will guard their own space (space guarding), exhibit territorial displays of barking when another dog approaches them on their own patch, and will be more likely to be aggressive if the transgressor is of near equal dominance status. People and other dogs can influence a dominant dog’s confidence and combativeness, but in the presence of strong leaders (either people or other dogs) aggression is less likely. Thus, for owners of dominant dogs, increased leadership via a “Nothing in Life is Free” leadership program is invaluable in helping curb the dog’s dominance aggressive overtures towards other dogs.
Canine Sibling Rivalry
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.
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.
Diagnosis In-depth on Dog Dominance Aggression
Therapy for Sibling Rivalry in Dogs
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.
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.
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 for Dog Aggression
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.
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 for Dogs with Dominance Aggression
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.