Dog-dog aggression, misunderstanding the problem
I receive emails and phone calls regularly about dogs with dog-dog aggression. In most cases, distraught owners are trying to “correct” an issue they do not fully understand. You need to fully understand canine body language and aggression before you should try to correct dog-dog aggression. There are different reasons for dog-dog aggression; it is not just one simple cause.You have the dog that explosively reacts the second they see a dog (even if it is not in your sight yet), a dog that sometimes reacts then other times seems “friendly”, a dog that gets along fine with dogs off leash but not on leash, and the dog that approaches other dogs friendly then “becomes Cujo” in an instant. These are only a few of the descriptions we hear everyday.
Different issues cause each description above. Unlike most trainers out there, I do not blame dominance for everything. Too many trainers are very quick to label dog-dog aggression as a dominance problem. This is not always the case. In most cases the dog is clearly displaying stress & fear, correcting bad manners from another dog, reacting to your anxiety, or trying to stop you from being angry.
I have been asked on occasion to go to a dog park with clients (and if you read my “dog parks & why I avoid them” article, you know how I feel during these appointments). It is always the same scene, pent up dogs running around out of control trying to dominate each other while other dogs cower near their owners who are trying to “force” them to play with the other dogs. This in itself should explain why we have issues of dog-dog aggression.
Dog parks aside, a dog that approaches another dog then becomes Cujo in an instant, tells me one of two things. Either the dog approached stiffly and gave a challenging stare, or the dog rushed in and rudely tried to say hello. Sadly too many dogs are taken from mom too early and do not learn the proper “greeting” skills they need to stay out of trouble. If your dog is approached or is approaching another dog by rushing in paws first with the explosiveness of a truck, it’s a good chance they will be bitten; not because the other dog doesn’t like dogs but because that behavior is rude. Tell me, if a stranger came running at you with their hands extended and yelling excitedly; would you stay there and see what happened next or would you go on the defensive, maybe even run away? Your dog makes these same decisions. Fight or flight, it is instinctual.
Another issue is the dog that sees another dog on leash and reacts before they even get near. Again, this could be a couple of different things. One, the dog may have been severely scolded at one time for “correcting” rude behavior and now must keep them far away before it upsets you again. Two, it may not understand how to play and greet a dog properly. We have had a couple of clients dogs that were so unsocialized they just truly did not understand how to play, the excitement of being around another dog literally launched them into a frenzy. These dogs can learn how to play appropriately if done correctly.
Then we do have dogs that have taken the lead role and will not allow another dog to come close to their pack members. This is usually seen when a dog body blocks their owner and launches toward another dog with teeth bared and hair raised. Their bark is not anxious (high pitched and quick), but a deep threatening growl and bark. Their bodies are very tense and their tails are held very high, some of these dogs will turn and snap at the owner if corrected (they are the leader after all and they say when aggression is allowed). Picture yourself in a bar and an attractive young thing comes up to your significant other. While you may not show your teeth, you sure will stand in the way of their path, right? And if your significant other tries to correct you, look out, the fight is on. A dog that has the lead role in your pack will not chance another dog coming in to “take over”.
The last and worst misunderstood problem is fear. A large majority of dogs out there have fear based dog-dog aggression. Again, this is commonly mistaken for dominance. They are sometimes called “insecure bullies”. This is not an appropriate term for this problem. Anxiety and fear will cause your dog to instinctually go into flight or fight mode. While some dogs will try to run away, still others will put on an impressive screaming display while lunging at the other dogs because they feel they must “protect” themselves. We see this with leash aggression as well. It only takes one time for a dog to feel unprotected by you while on leash to develop into a leash aggressive dog.
If you have a dog with dog-dog aggression, we recommend finding a trainer/behavior specialist who has experience working with all types of aggression, this way they can read the signs correctly and help you and your dog get through this properly.
Tara, Brandie & the Pack