Family Feuds

a new approach to dogs fighting within the household

This article concerns dogs fighting within the family, featuring a new approach to analysis and treatment of the problem, from a lecture at the 1st Annual Behavior Symposium at UC Davis Vet School by Dr Jacqui Neilson DVM, a Board certified veterinary behaviorist who did her residency in Behavior at UCD and is now at the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland Oregon. Additional discussion by the page author, Pam Green, is included.

Dogs fighting within the family

This material features a NEW approach to analysis and resolution of dog fighting problems occuring within the home, ie between dogs who are members of the same family or pack structure. The key concepts are from from a lecture at the 1st Annual Behavior Symposium at UC Davis Vet School by Dr Jacqui Neilson DVM, a Board certified veterinary behaviorist who did her residency in Behavior at UCD and is now at the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland Oregon. Additional discussion by the page author, Pam Green, is included ; and I hope to make clear which ideas are mine rather than Dr Neilson's so she does not get blamed for my ideas.In any case , this article is for your general information only and does NOT take the place of consultation with a credentialed applied animal behaviorist or a Board certified veterinary behaviorist. If you are having a behavior problem with a dog, please consult an appropriate professional for individualized advice. Please always keep in mind that dog fights can pose a serious DANGER OF INJURY to humans who put their own body parts too near the action. !!

based on Dr Neilson's lecture

Dr Neilson introduced ANOTHER ELEMENT in diagnosing and treating fights between dogs within a household. (I found this especially interesting because it fits so well with some feuding dog relationships and dogs I have known and lived with.) Her analysis and advice goes an important step BEYOND THE CONVENTIONAL ADVICE to figure out which dog is or should be the higher ranking one and to treat that dog preferentially, ie as having more privileges.

Dr Neilson says that the first step is to analyze both dogs asking for each of them "how normal is this dog and how normal are the interactions?" This is done by being a very good observer and by being a good listener and interviewer. She also advises taking advantages of videos of the dogs interacting at home if possible. (I have for years advised anyone with a dog behavior issue to try to capture the behavior and situation in which it occurs on videotape so that the behaviorist can see the body language in great detail.)

In normal dogs there is the appearance of confidence and in normal interactions there is a sequence of events from initiation (warning) , pause for the other's response, response from the other dog, response by the first dog, and so on resulting in either one dog's submission or an escalated display or a scuffle, then a resolution with one dog submitting and the other accepting that submission.

In abnormal dogs, there are signs of anxiety such as ears flattened , trembling, crouching, panting , pacing, lip smacking, yawning) and there are steps missing in the behavior sequence. For example, abnormal dogs may lunge without any preliminary warning or even attack a sleeping dog. The abnormal dog may continue attacking even though the other dog has given signs of submission and surrender. Abnormal dogs may not interpret the normal social signals of normal dogs correctly. Abnormal dogs may assualt dogs which pose no threat to them, eg puppies.

Also normal quarrels occur over normal causes, mostly some valued resource (eg a toy or food or being center of attention from owner), something both dogs want but is in limited supply (or dogs think so) so that they can't both have it. Normal fights may be noisy and seem to have a lot of action (what I call "full of sound and fury") but seldom produce serious injury because the dogs partly inhibit the force of their bites.

Thus for each of the dogs involved, Dr Neilson aims to evaluate that individual on a scale ranging from totally normal to highly aberrant. Once that determination is made, a treatment plan can be designed and intitiated.

For abnormal aggression to unfamiliar dogs, which is usually based on fear or anxiety, she recommends a program of desensitization and counterconditioning to presence of other dogs. The owner has to learn to be acutely observant of all signs of tension and relaxation; relaxation includes regular slow breathing patterns and relaxed eyes) The desenititiztion begins with completely non-aggressive and non-challenging dogs appearing only at a distance from the dog being treated. The subject dog is rewarded only for remaining calm and relaxed. Anxous or aggressive behavior must NEVER be rewarded. As the dog learns to remain relaxed in the other dog's presence, the distance is reduced and more interaction is allowed, but at any given time this happens so gradually that the dog in treatment can remain calm and relaxed and be rewarded for doing so. (Ideally, the other dog is one who has maximum skills at presenting himself as a harmless and friendly dog. Many trainers can think of an individual dog they have known who has great talent at making himself liked by other dogs. Later on in the program , each step is repeated with other dogs who may have less talent for such reassurance.) However before working around other dogs, she suggests a program of teaching dog to sit and relax in response to the owner, with increasing distractions; again dog is rewarded for remaining calm. A very detailed program for this is laid out in Karen Overall's book, Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. Throughout both phases of training, some useful ancillary tools are the halter ("Halti" or "Gentle Leader"), DAP (dog appeasment pheromone) , and possibly serotonin enhancing drugs (eg ProzacTM , ClomicalmTM, , and others). There are anecdotal reports of acupuncture, touch therapy, anxiety wraps, and herbal supplements as having some value.

For dogs in the same household, if one of the dogs is abnormal (anxious, not self confident, etc) it is recommended dogs be kept separate except when being worked with. Separation can be achieved with such tools as barriers (stretch gates, crates, closed doors, etc) or basket muzzles. The owner is taught to reintroduce them in a very controlled way. Owners need to be taught the safest ways to break up fights without putting their hands near the flashing fangs, and tools for breaking up fights should be kept at hand. The use of a canned foghorn from boating store can be very effective for disrupting combat. Other tools include water , inserting plywood or cardboard between the dogs, or throwing a blankent over the dogs. (In other seminars, I have heard of using "Direct Stop" citronella spray to break up a fight, and have found it to be very effective for some dogs but not for all. ) It is also important to identify the triggers for aggression and eliminate thm if possible. However for aggresion involving a dog who is abnormal, the innovation that Dr Neilson recommends is that RATHER THAN SUPPORTING & GIVING PREFERENTIAL TREATMENT TO THE HIGHER RANKED DOG , THE OWNERS MUST SUPPORT AND PREFER THE MORE NORMAL DOG. It is this concept of supporting the more normal dog , rather than supporting what is believed to be the higher ranked dog, that is new about Dr Neilson's approach.(Now it seems to me that it is the more normal dog that will probably wind up at the higher ranked because she/he is the more confident one. In any case, it is the more normal dog who will make the more beneficent peaceful dominent dog.) The less normal dog (or both if both abnormal) should do relaxation and deference to owner exercises (as described by Karen Overall and others) and be on a "nothing in life is free" regime. The additional use of halters, DAP, and psychotropic drug therapy can be helpful. As for so many behavior issues, increased exercise can also be helpful.

For dogs in same household where both are fairly normal (confident) dogs, the fights are almost always about social status , ie dominence, ie "the right to preferrred access to valued resources" (see The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell for full discussion of this). Owners must be gotten to understand that dogs do not believe in equality, ie that a social hierarchy is essential to maximize peace in the pack. For such situations, the conventional advice to give preferential treatment and support to the higher ranked dog continues to be the correct paradigm. Generally the people should allow dogs to posture at each other unless the situation seems to be escalating. If it is escalating, that is time to interrupt the situation. (Which I would follow by a long down-stay for both or crating for both.) Don't allow or encourage the subordinate dog to challenge or aggravate the dominant dog.



discussion by Pam Green

The concept of a dog being relatively NORMAL or relatively ABNORMAL in its social signals and social responses to other dogs is a very important one. It is one that any person who has lived with groups of dogs is likely to recognize as corresponding to dog relationships they have experienced. Each observer might choose different words, often rather anthropomorphic ones, to describe the abnormal dog, but usually we pick up on the suspicion that that dog has a less than ideal character or less than serene self-confidence. I am going to take the liberty of using some anthropomorphic terms in the following discussion.

There is the totally normal naturally high ranking dog, who is very self-assured and therefore rarely needs to assert rank in a dramatic manner. Sometimes such a dog can hardly ever be seen to give more than a subtle warning look to other dogs, and that assertion can be so subtle that most people completely miss noticing it. Self assured high ranked dogs can be very tolorant and benign to other dogs, especially in a domestic situation in which an intelligent dog can realize that all the resources that might be desirrable are available in ample supply, thus not requiring dispute. For example , if there are several water bowls, so several dogs can drink at the same time, there is no need for asserting rank to drink first. If all dogs have their own space in which to eat in peace, there is no cause to assert rank over acces to food bowls. If, when treats are offered all dogs must sit and it is the human pack leader who determines which dog to offer a treat first (and yes, it usually is the highest ranked dog, but not always.), there is no oppertunity or need for dogs to contend for treats. If there are so many comfortable resting places that every dog has some choice and none of these places is so much superior as to be worth the effort to claim, rank will not need to be asserted. In my own home, the only resource that my dogs seem to find "scarce" and thus worth making faces at each other about is , at times, to be the center of my attention. or to be center of attention and petting by guests. (Sue Sternberg makes a similar observation about conflict over owner's attention.) The normal subordinate dog is likely to respond very appropriately , thus deferentially, to the slight assertions of the normal higher ranked dog. If the high ranked dog is generally calm and benign, the lower ranked dog responds with trust as well as respect, so the required show of deference has no fear or anxiety in it . Again, if resources are plentiful, an intelligent and non-anxious subordinate dog doesn't have much motive to contend for first access , no motive to fail to defer to the higher ranked dog's assertion.

If you have experienced the calm and intelligent and self-assured high ranked dog, then you will be primed to sense something wrong or "off" about the "wannabe" dog who wants to hold high rank and have respect from other dogs, but who really is under-qualified for the job. This dog may be the highest ranked dog in that particular group, but holds this spot for lack of a better contender being present. This dog can be anxious and can be much more "pushy" and can be "bossy" or even something of a "bully" because this dog is always feeling a bit insecure and always having to prove itself. (Don't we all know people the same way?) Because "bully" dogs are always giving other dogs a hard time, the lower ranked dogs may have more fear than true respect and trust, so their defference includes some anxiety. If the "bully" dog starts a lot of physical fights, the rest may learn that they must fight back and they learn to fight back better and better. So if a younger subordinate comes into social maturity and gains physical ability, while the "bully" perhaps is physically on the decline, there is likely to be rebellion and revolution. I've had one of these in my home (when Pixel deposed the bully Sweetie), and it was not pretty, but at least it resulted in a new stable hierarchy.

I have observed that in my own household during those eras when the highest ranked dog is a very self-assured and benign one, whether male or female, the pack as a whole lives in peace most of the time. Quarrels are rare and mild in intensity. When the top ranked dog is an insecure "wannabe" or "bully", there are far more disputes amoung all the dogs, with the top one and with each other. Moreover a quarrel between two dogs has more chance of turning into a brawl with other dogs joining into the first fight or assualting one another in secondary fights.

I've observed quite a variety of personalities in truly self assured dominant dogs . For example, my Chelsea always comported herself with immense dignity and regality, as if she were Empress at the least and Goddess on Earth at most. And other dogs believed her valuation of herself. They deferred to her without her having to ask for it. Some threw themselves into the dust beneath her feet , quite litterally. My Bonesy was much more casual in outward appearance , and 99% of the time it would have been hard to guess that he held high rank. He was always so benign and so rarely asserted rank priviledge. On rare occasions, when another dog seemed about to disturb his enjoyment of a priviledge, he would need to do no more than a subtle "dirty look" and , rarely, a grumble These days, Bonesy's adopted son, Chris, who is extremely gifted at setting other dogs at ease and teaching them how to play, generally appears to have little rank, and yet once in a rare while when another dog disputes some resource Chris wants, one dirty look or air-snap from Chris settles the matter. There is also a variety in insecure "wannabe" bossy dogs. I have lived with two bitches, Sweetie and Pixel, who were bossy bullies and in each one I was aware there was an underlying insecurity in Sweetie and a needyness and insecurity in Pixel. Sweetie taught the young Pixel how to fight back, and was ultimately dethroned by her, after several nasty and damaging fights. Pixel is now boss, but she is occasionally just slightly a bully as well to some dogs, especially to ancient Duke who too my eyes seems quite inoffensive , but never ever to Chris who is her favorite and who may or may not actually outrank her when the chips are really down.

Now this becomes even more interesting to me when I read in Frans De Waal's wonderful book "Peacemaking Among Primates" about the observations of ethological observers of hierarchy formation in the young of that hairless primate species that so resents being compared to its hairier cousins (chimps and bonobos). One such researcher has found "already at one year of age, conflicts amoung children have a predictable outcome. A dominance order is easily recognizable , although it is still subject to change." And "by the age of four, dominant children have become the preferred playmates and friends" and "dominant children use their position to stop fights among others." Another ethological researcher makes a sharp distinction between two types of dominant children.One category he calls "aggressive dominant". These are mostly boys who go around bullying their peers. They hit or push without reason, claim their toys without asking, and otherwise disturb the harmony. The second category are the so-called leaders, among whom are as many girls as boys. Leaders warn first, and wait for the other's response, before using force, which they rarely do. Another difference is that they make up after fights and otehrwise employ calming gestures." Not surprisingly it is these leaders, the "diplomatic dominants" who are popular, not the bullies.

I think this same distinction applies to styles of dominance and attempts to rise in rank among dogs as among children. Dogs of course do not have the same capacity to plan , to woo, and to take revenge as children do, nor do they have language available as a tool.

I also think that just as De Waal so rightly points out that to understand human conflict and hierarchy it is as important to study "peacemaking" , ie conflict prevention and conflict reconciliation, as an innate part of primate behavior as it is to study aggression and assertive aspects of dominance, so too we might do well in studying canine conflict and hierarchy to pay some attention to "peacemaking in pooches", ie to how dogs reassure each other, whether and how they prevent conflict (besides the warning dominant dirty look and the submissive response to it) , and whether and how they reconcile after a dispute. We do know for sure that dogs who live together can be very close and loving friends, though they can also be bitter enemies. Dogs who live in human households don't really get to choose who they live with. Wolves probably do have more choice, at least the choice to leave the pack. We do see dogs who seem to be especially talented at getting along with other dogs and perhaps even who help other dogs to improve social skills. Turid Rugaas, author of "On Talking Terms with Dogs : Calming Signals" , seems to be the canine observer most focused on this area of peacemaking among pooches as a primary area of interest.

Of course the role of the human as the ultimate pack leader, out-ranking all the dogs and in control of all valued resources and so able to make rules about how dogs have to behave to obtain such resource, has a critical influence on peace between dogs. If that human is calm, benign , and always self-assured, ie a natural Alpha (or as I often say " having natural Alphatude"), no doubt that helps all the dogs feel more self-confident and in Dr Neilson's terms feel more "normal." If such a calm , benevolent, self-confident Alpha deliberately teaches the dogs that only patient and good-mannered behavior will win them the desired resources (including that of the person's attention and caresses), that would tend to minimize agitation and conflict between dogs. This is the plan advocated by behaviorists Karen London and Patricia McConnell in their booklet "Feeling Outnumbered ? How to Manage and Enjoy Your Multi-dog Household." Contrarywise, if the human leader is "dominating" or "domineering" rather than simply benignly dominant, if the human tends to act as a "bully" or a "tyrant", then such aberrant attempts at leadership will produce anxiety in the dogs and result in attitudes and behaviors that would be in the "abnormal" range.

So maybe there is one more step in analysis that preceeds Dr Neilson's first step of asking "how normal are the dogs ?" and that step is to ask "how normal are the humans?" or at least "how calm, benign, and self-assured are the humans in their interactions with the dogs (and with one another)?"

Update : recent publication

There's a study on the effect of unequal rewards on dog motivation that may tend to support the London/McConnell approach.

The study by Range et al, titled "The absence of reward induces inequality aversion in dogs", published in Proceedings of the National Acadamy of Sciences USA (2009) 106:340-345 found that dogs were unwilling to "shake" (give a paw) if they received no treat reward but observed the other dogs getting treats for doing the same response. Now I haven't yet gotten to read that study, and I can think of some possible flaws and alternative interpretations.. But it may tend to support the idea of asking all the dogs to behave in a calm "polite" manner, eg sitting and waiting, and giving each a reward or similar value for compliance. Note that getting one's leash attached so all can go for a walk would be a valued reward.

The abstract of this article is at If you have access to any university library, they will surely have PNAS, as it is one of the most prestigious scientific journals.

Communicated by Frans B. M. de Waal, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, October 30, 2008 (received for review July 21, 2008)
One crucial element for the evolution of cooperation may be the sensitivity to others' efforts and payoffs compared with one's own costs and gains. Inequity aversion is thought to be the driving force behind unselfish motivated punishment in humans constituting a powerful device for the enforcement of cooperation. Recent research indicates that non-human primates refuse to participate in cooperative problem-solving tasks if they witness a conspecific obtaining a more attractive reward for the same effort. However, little is known about non-primate species, although inequity aversion may also be expected in other cooperative species. Here, we investigated whether domestic dogs show sensitivity toward the inequity of rewards received for giving the paw to an experimenter on command in pairs of dogs. We found differences in dogs tested without food reward in the presence of a rewarded partner compared with both a baseline condition (both partners rewarded) and an asocial control situation (no reward, no partner), indicating that the presence of a rewarded partner matters. Furthermore, we showed that it was not the presence of the second dog but the fact that the partner received the food that was responsible for the change in the subjects' behavior. In contrast to primate studies, dogs did not react to differences in the quality of food or effort. Our results suggest that species other than primates show at least a primitive version of inequity aversion, which may be a precursor of a more sophisticated sensitivity to efforts and payoffs of joint interactions.


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