Since you are reading this article, it will come as no surprise to you that dogs don’t always get along with each other, despite the fact that canis lupis familaris (domestic dog) is a social species. Heck, we humans are a social species too, and you know how that works out! Sometimes, dogs will simply have an argument. These end quickly and the dogs get back to normal. But, when tensions between dogs leads to chronic interdog aggression, something needs to be done.

You may be surprised to learn that most interdog aggression is a symptom of stress. With the very rare exception of idiopathic aggression (at one time called Rage Syndrome), aggression is the result of a stress load that pushes a dog over his bite threshold. Too often, dog on dog aggression is viewed as a dominance issue, with one dog attempting to take control – this concept is based on outdated wolf studies that have long since been disproven.

So, to resolve aggression between your dogs, you’ll want to identify not only the immediate trigger for the aggression – fighting over you or a bone, for example – but also everything in your dogs’ life that may be stressful to them.

Common Stressors that Contribute to Interdog Aggression

  • Lack of structure. The absence of house rules. Flexible boundaries.
    Dogs thrive with structure and boundaries. They don’t care so much what the boundaries are, they just need consistent feedback from their humans about those boundaries. If you are not sure where to start, the following will help:

    • Your furniture is not a jungle gym. You are not a landing pad. Dogs should be polite, if allowed on the furniture. And by “polite” I mean they should not fly across the room, land on you and/or ricochet from chair to chair.
    • If your entry way is mayhem when visitors come calling, it is time to rein that in. Dogs can sit away from the door and let people in. If that isn’t do-able, they can go in crates or behind baby gates until the visitors are in. AFTER the dogs settle down, you can allow them to go greet the guests. This is do-able. It will just take some training.
    • Each dog should respect your space and YOUR decision about who you are paying attention to. When you are petting one dog, the other does not get to push in between. Make the second dog sit and wait their turn.
    • The road of free treats is a slippery slope to begging, entitlement and pushiness. Treats are awesome and should be in every dog’s life…but, make them earn the goodies.
    • Your house is not a high-energy playground. High energy play should always go outside. The inside space should be a place where the dogs chill out.
    • Sleeping space. If dogs are fighting, they really should be sleeping on the floor. Your bed is the crown jewel. If dogs are sleeping on it with you, they can start squabbling over it. Making them sleep on the floor sends the message about rules. They can come up on the bed when invited and only if they have been getting along. I recommend you get them off of the bed for six months and after the fighting has disappeared, invite them back up and see what happens. But, don’t be surprised if the fighting resumes.
    • Inconsistency among the human members of the house. And this is a big one. Each person must give the same feedback to the dog about what is and what is not acceptable. Inconsistency within the same living environment is very stressful for dogs.
  • A crowded house. Not enough breathing room.
    Dogs, like humans, need their own space. And they need to be able to move around without bumping in to the other dog. Many fights occur in tight spaces. For example, between the couch and the coffee table. Or passing in a hallway. look around your house and make an honest assessment. Perhaps it is time to clear out clutter and rearrange the furniture?
  • Not enough exercise
    Each dog has different exercise requirements. Some dogs do well with a calm 45-minute walk five days a week. And some dogs need more than that. They need to get out, move around, breath some air, sniff some yukky stuff, release some endorphins and leave their pent-up energy behind. If your dogs are fighting, get them out every day for enough exercise and see what a difference it might make. If you already get them out, double the time you are out there and see what happens. You might be surprised!
  • Yelling in lieu of training
    If you find yourself saying “No!” a lot, or shouting or getting frustrated, it is because you and your dog have not learned how to communicate or work together as a team. A simple basic training class will help you get on the same page!
  • High anxiety or OCD in one of the dogs
    Untreated anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder in one of the dogs will cause stress among all of the dogs. Especially if the affected dog compulsively licks the other or if the affected dog over-reacts to noises and perceived threats throughout the day.

Typical triggers for dog fights

It’s often relatively easy to identify the immediate trigger for your dogs’ mutual aggression. It is usually whatever happened just before the appearance of the hard stare, posturing, growls and sometimes the actual fight. But it is important to be sure, so you can manage things to prevent the dogs from having a reason to throw down into a fight, until you get a handle on the stressors and put some training in to place.

  • Tension over resources.
    This is a common one. A resource can be anything from a bone to a food bowl, to a sleeping space, to you! If it is you, basic training and establishing boundaries will help.
  • Redirected aggression
    This happens when one dog really wants to go after something else, like a passer-by outside the living room window or back yard fence. But, because he can’t get to the culprit, he unloads his aggression on the dog next to him. If this is happening in your situation, block access to the window or fence until you can get some help teaching the dog to not react.
  • Jostling through tight spaces
  • Any event that produces adrenaline
    Since adrenaline is involved in aggression, it stands to reason that any adrenaline-producing event can trigger a dog fight. For example; the mailman, UPS truck, running/squealing children, pizza delivery person, etc.
  • Any event that produces pain
    For example, one dog accidentally stepping on a dog with arthritis.

Where to begin?

You may benefit from some professional assistance if your dogs are fighting. When I am called to help with interdog aggression cases, I always start by identifying the stressors and the triggers. Then eliminating the stressors and training around the triggers. Sometimes, muzzles are warranted. If not for the dogs, but because the humans must be able to relax. Your tension and anticipation of a fight can easily contribute to the problem.

IMPORTANT! Muzzles are a temporary management tool and cannot take the place of training.

The first exercise I teach all dogs is to go to a place or bed station upon command and stay there for 30 minutes once every day. If your dogs will stay put for 30 minutes while waiting for you to give them permission to get up, it shifts their focus from each other to YOU! That alone, will go a long way to reducing stress and setting boundaries. If your dogs are not accustomed to structure and are not in the habit of listening to you, this exercise can take a while to master.

The second important exercise for all dogs that are prone to fighting, is to master polite doorway greetings. This is critical.. Will your dogs listen to you when visitors arrive or do they jostle for attention?

In the meantime, there are things you can begin immediately:

  1. A veterinary check-up. A complete medical work-up, including a thyroid panel, is always indicated for any significant behavior problem. Minimally, it will be helpful to identify any sources of pain among your canine friends and address it as best as you can.
  2. Look at the list of stressors and address each of those that apply to your situation
  3. Manage the triggers to prevent fights.
  4. Separate the dogs for awhile to give them a chance to decompress. After a significant fight, it will take days to weeks for adrenaline levels to return to normal. Elevated adrenaline will cause dogs to trigger more easily. The way you set up and manage the separation is important: Divide up a portion of your house with baby-gates or other similar type of room divider. Between a kitchen and family room, for example. Rotate the dogs so they get turns in each area, to prevent them from claiming ownership to one area or the other. Watch for obvious signs of relaxation and friendliness between the dogs, while separated by the baby gates. After you see days of friendly overtures between the dogs, then you might be ready to  let them mingle, as long as everything else is in place. Keeping the dogs together in the main living space is key…you do not want to isolate one behind a door, because then they are not re-acclimating to living together peacefully.

Can fighting dogs learn to get along?

Usually. But, there are situations in which two dogs simply will not get along. I call that a personality conflict. I worked with a pair of dogs one time. A Great Dane and Labrador mix. The Dane arrived as a puppy and, initially, both dogs got along. But, when the Dane got bigger and towered over the Lab mix, the older guy decided he didn’t like the Dane anymore. The Dane tried to play and the older dog was simply overwhelmed with the size difference, so he went on the attack. The Dane was tired of getting picked on and the fights escalated. No matter what we tried and did, the Lab was not going to ever be happy being over-shadowed by the younger dog. They found another home for the Great Dane and everyone lived happily ever after.

Safety first!

If there are children in the home, or children that visit you must realistically assess your situation! Humans can inadvertently get in the middle of fighting dogs. Moving forward with a training program will depend on the severity of the fights and your ability to micromanage the situation to keep everybody safe.

When in doubt, hire a professional! I am available to help!