Do your dogs fight with each other in your presence?
The next time your pups are ready to do battle, try thinking like a dog instead of a human.
You might just be surprised at how quickly and easily you can put a stop to canine combat in your household.
Even though your dogs live with you as members of your human family, they are pack animals with behaviors and a social hierarchy very similar to their wolf cousins.
This social hierarchy is in part characterized by the roles the animals assume based on whether they are dominant or submissive by nature.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that one of the dogs in your “pack” is more assertive than the other (or others, if you have more than two).
This dog is also likely to be the more confident and curious of the two.
Inside the social hierarchy of your pack, the aggressive, outgoing pup has assumed a leadership role. His more submissive pal has taken the role of follower. This is how dogs naturally organize themselves – there’s a lead dog and one or more followers who maintain a less dominant presence in the group.
If you’re like most pet owners with two or more squabbling canines, when you’re not around your four-legged charges get along just fine. It’s when you’re at home that the trouble starts.
Ever wonder why?
Where You Lead, I Will Follow
Left to their own devices, your pack will adhere to the hierarchy nature has compelled them to establish. The dominant dog will set the agenda and the other dog will follow it.
In your absence – whether you’re away from home or just in another part of the house -- your doggie leader will call all the shots for his pack.
He’ll decide what toys are played with by whom, who will nap where and for how long, which noises and sights should be barked at, and other important issues. Your more submissive pup will follow his lead without argument.
When events in their world unfold without interference your dogs will follow the relationship pattern nature has imposed on them, which is one of leader-follower.
Let’s say your dogs are out in your backyard in the warm sunshine.
You’re inside doing a few chores, and each time you look out a window to check on them, your pups are snoozing nose to nose on the grass, or chasing each other playfully across the yard. There’s not a hint of trouble.
You decide to pour a cold drink and join them on the patio. As you open the door and step outside they run toward you.
Your more passive pup reaches you first, but your dominant guy bumps her aside to assume his position as leader. After all, as leader he should be noticed by you first, according to pack protocol.
As this little doggie drama plays out in front of you, your human brain tells you to even the score by ignoring the aggressive pooch in favor of the one pushed aside. You might even chastise the leader for his rudeness as you praise and pet your shyer dog.
This feels right to you with your human brain. After all, your dominant dog needs to learn to play fair with his pack mate, and your passive dog shouldn’t have to put up with such intimidation.
So you’re feeling good now, petting and praising both dogs … and suddenly a fight breaks out between them. You put a halt to the brawl with a yell and some foot stomping, but the quiet peace of the afternoon has been shattered by the disturbing behavior of your snarling, snapping canines.
What just happened?
If your dogs were human children, your even-the-score approach when you greeted them would have made perfect sense.
In children you want to instill manners, charity, compassion and a sense of fair play.
The problem is that your human brain didn’t distinguish between the behavior of your dogs and what it perceives as similar behavior in children.
To state the obvious -- your dogs aren’t human children. They’re members of a canine pack with a social structure that is leader-follower based.
When the leader bumped your more passive pup out of the way to ensure you paid attention to him first, he did exactly what he’s supposed to do.
Your submissive dog understood and accepted what was happening. Your human brain did not.
Yes, it’s true -- it was very likely your behavior in trying to even the score that created the problem between your dogs. You not only ignored the protocol of their social hierarchy, you turned it on its head by ignoring the leader while lavishing attention on his follower.
By ignoring the hierarchy of your pack and showing favoritism to the follower, you inadvertently elevated your passive pup to a higher status than the pack leader. This misstep can set the stage for disputes between your dogs – especially in your presence.
Next Time, Think Like a Dog
To find out if it’s your interaction with your pups that is stirring things up, try doing the opposite of what your human brain is nudging you to do.
Next time your dogs greet you, acknowledge your pack leader first. Focus on him exclusively for a minute or so (or longer in the beginning, if necessary) – pet him and talk in soothing tones to him. When he turns his attention elsewhere, you can turn your focus to your other pup.
If your dogs have been properly socialized and are generally well-mannered, it should take very little time for them to adjust to the new greeting routine – especially since it will feel natural to them as a part of the leader-follower hierarchy.
If the squabbling has been going on for some time or your dominant dog is especially aggressive, you may want to greet them in separate rooms initially. If you do this, make sure to move your pack leader to a separate room first and spend your first few moments at home with him before turning your attention to your other dog.
If it’s your greeting behavior that’s setting off the conflict between your dogs, consistently following these tips should bring an end to the problem in a week or two.
In future articles I’ll discuss more causes and solutions for fights among dogs.