When Dogs Collide

distinguishing play vs status squabbles vs real fights

(and what your options are when two dogs cannot get along in the same household)

by Pam Green, © 2009, 2011

Whenever two dogs in the same household seem to be fighting, it is really distressing to the owners/guardians. Sometimes the dogs are just playing rough, sometimes they are having ordinary dominance scuffles, and sometimes there are serious battles. My intention is to help owners distinguish between serious fights that call for intervention or prevention and those ordinary play or dominance issues that the dogs can safely settle for themselves.
These same considerations apply when watching dogs interact at the dog park.

When Dogs Collide

play vs squabble vs serious fight

(dogs in same house not getting along well)

by Pam Green, © 2009

"My dogs are fighting all the time. I am afraid they will hurt each other. What do I do ? Help !"
That's one of the all too frequent calls trainers and behaviorists and rescue people get. It's a concern about two dogs at home and it's a worry about dog interactions at the dog park.

The first step is , as for any behavior issue, to find out more about what is really going on. What is the owner actually seeing happen ? What are the dogs' body language ? After you determine what is really going on, you can consider what to do about it or indeed whether or not you need to do anything about it.

Notice that being able to judge the body language of the dogs is the key skill that you need. First read some of the good books (some of which are reviewed in my BOOKS section) on the subject, then go off to watch dogs who generally get along well together. You can do your dog watching at the home of someone who has a group of dogs who get along well or you can dog watch at the dog park, leaving your own dog home so you can focus on studying the other dogs. Take your videocamera to film dogs playing, so you can watch in slow motion at home. There are also some good commerically sold videotapes on dog body language ; again, watch segments in slow motion repeatedly until you can spot the key elements.

The three general categories of dog to dog behavior that owners may consider to be fighting are rough play, dominance squabbles, and more serious fights. The serious fights are the least frequent, but of course they are the ones that will require the owner to do something to manage for prevention or to possibly intervene during the fight or to , as last resort, consider re-homing one of the dogs involved.

Play and Rough Play

People who have not watched a lot of dog play, either between co-resident dogs or at the dog park, often don't realize that dogs can enjoy very rough play. Some of the games can look pretty wild. Rough play only becomes a problem when one dog wants to play considerably rougher than the other dog and won't gear down (self-handicap) to suit the less rough player's desires. (Most really well socialized dogs do self-handicap because they want to keep the game going, which will only happen if the other dog is also enjoying the game.)

To some owners even the sight of dogs chasing one another , especially a big one chasing a small one, can appear alarming. But "chase me, chase you" is a game almost all dogs love. A variation on chase games is "keep away" , where one dog picks up some object (toy, stick, whatever) and taunts the other to take it away from him. This game can segue into "tug of war", another favorite game for some dogs, with some dogs playing very hard and others letting go easily.

Sure signs of play-chasing are that the body language of both is confident rather than frightened , that the roles of chaser and chased get swapped from time to time, and possibly a few play bows thrown in. Also the dogs are likely to take a break from time to time to catch their breath. Usually the faster or more agile dog can be seen to be self-handicapping by letting the other have a "win" from time to time. (Dogs who fail to self-handicap and fail to let the other dog win occasionally are likely to find that the other dog will become less and less willing to play with them.)

In the game of keep away or tug of war, usually one dog will pick up the object and give a challenging look to the other dog. This can be very subtle. Or the other dog will issue the challenge, again possibly with very subtle body language , including a subtle stalking approach. You may catch this "bet you can't" and "yes, I can" exchange pass between them. Plain chase without object can also begin with this subtle exchange. Dogs who play together frequently may tend to have their signals become more and more subtle, harder for a person to see, because they know each other so well.

The only times a person would be called on to intervene in chase play would be if a less athletically fit dog is at risk of over-doing and thus hurting himself, in which case the person can interrupt to create rest periods, or if a fast chase is taking place where the ground conditions are unsafe for same, eg holes that could injure a leg, dangerous sharp obstacles, etc. Very hot weather could be another reason to call for rest periods, though since dogs tend to be most playful in early morning and in evening, thus cooler parts of day, this intervention is less likely to be needed.

Note : while most dogs will avoid running into a person, some dogs are not so careful. Be prepared to move yourself out of the way of dogs who run with ballistic force.

To see a chase game, Monty chasing Fox who is playing keep away with a Kong in her mouth, click Chase Game to open in a new window. This clip is about 500 kb, so it will take a couple of minutes to download if you are on dial-up, but you can switch back to this window to continue reading while it downloads. I'm rather pleased with this little production, as I combined two clips and added titles and MIDI music. (I don't think Lucas or Spielberg are worried about me however.) Download instructions are given at the end of this article.

a chase game
Chase Game : Fox with Kong in mouth challenges Monty to catch her
Fox is faster and much more agile than Monty
He has no chance at all to catch her , but he enjoys trying..

Play fighting games involving body wrestling can look like a fight , especially when combined with what could be termed jaw wrestling or tooth fencing. The dogs use their paws and bodys to pin or roll one another and use their jaws and teeth to grab at one another. If you look closely it becomes obvious that they are trying to "score points" rather than to injure one another. The jaws are often wide open and aimed at some target on the other dog's body, then quickly switched to "hit" with a light grab (hard enough to be felt by the other, but rarely hard enough to hurt) on some other target area. This aspect is similar to a fencing match in humans. Paws and body are used more like human wrestlers. Often there is play-growling, but the tone of the growl is different from a serious threatening growl, just as the type of growling most dogs do when playing tug-of-war differs from serious growling. (Real fights tend to have very angry sounding snarling as the only vocalization.)

Sure signs of play-fighting include confident body language, role reversal (as to which dog seems to be "dominant"), play bows , and occasional rest breaks. The tempo of the action is also different from a real fight. When dogs differ in size or strength or life stage, quite often you can see that one is self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is most obvious when the fencing game is played with both dogs lying down, thus the action is primarily with neck and head.. On the rare occasions when one dog bites too hard, the other yelps, and the play either breaks off or suddenly gets a lot more restrained.

To see a good natured play biting game, in which the larger dog Monty is lying down and encouraging Fox to play-attack him, click Bite Game. to download this clip in a new window. This clip is about 250 kb and should download in about 90 seconds on a dial-up. Unfortunately this clip is a little dark and has a blue cast ; some movie viewers will let you adjust brightness and/or color balance.

For those of you with a faster internet connection or for those with a bit of patience, I've made a version with better lighting and contrast and added a bit of MIDI music. This version is about 900 kb, so it will take almost 4 times as long to download, about 6 minutes over 28 kbps dial-up. To open this in a new window, click Bite Games (better version)
Or download it to your hard drive and open it in whatever player works : on a Mac, click-hold on. bite_games-brite-boxer.mov and choose "Download Link". (in Windows, right-click and choose "Download Target"). I was not able to extract good quality still frames from this video; I was just not sufficiently close-up with my camera. So, below, I include other bite game photos.

Here are two still photos showing role reversal. Fox, the little Queensland bitch, normally is very dominant over Velvet, the Bouvier bitch. But Fox frequently throws herself to the ground in order to get Velvet to play with her.

Velvet and Fox playing jaw wrestlng. Velvet and Fox play-fighting ; Velvet rolls Fox

Reasons to intervene would be similar to those for chase games. However there is one added more serious reason that can apply : some dogs are perhaps a bit too "hot tempered", or simply tend to escalate excitement too far, and can switch from playing by the rules to escalate into a real fight. This is usually accompanied or predicted by an angry note in the dog's bark or growl. Some breeds, especially terriers and breeds bred to fight, are easily switched from play to genuine fight. So these probably should not be allowed to play fight.

Play fighting may actually help to maintain the stability of the hierarchy between two dogs because it surely keeps them aware of one another's abilities, thus keeping them aware of which one would be likely to win in a real fight. Also because they enjoy playing together, it builds mutual affection, thus reduces willingness to actually hurt one another. At least this is what I would guess to be the case. (Note : dogs playing games with humans also tends to build mutual affection. Any mutually enjoyable shared activity probably promotes mutual affection.)

Sue Sternberg describes a style of play she describes as "body slamming" where the dogs push or slam into each other in a very rough way, with hard impacts. This could take place during chase games or as part of play fighting. If both dogs like this style, then they can enjoy it., but if only one dog likes this style, the other is likely to become afraid or annoyed. Dogs who do not like this style are not compatible with those who do, as they will find it frightening and may feel they need to defend themselves or they may get angry at being pushed or slammed and will retaliate with a fight. Another caveat : any person on the playing field probably needs to be watchful, because some of these dogs don't seem to care who or what they run into or slam into. Certain breeds can be seen at the dog park to be especially likely not to watch out for people in their path.

Sternberg also describes a style she calls "scare and be scared" in which a dog will poke at another and then jump back. I'd put this into the play fighting category. I also see dogs who I'd say are "playing Ambush". One dog drop down as if they were hiding in ambush behind a bush, even though that screening bush is not actually there ; the ambush dog lies in wait until the other dog comes close enough and then springs out and chases. The other dog almost always notices the ambush dog going into ambush mode and will go along with the pretense. I'd consider this part of the chase category, part of the hunting repetoire.

You may also see a lot of herding behaviors whenever one or more of the dogs is from a herding breed. The most basic herding move is to run an arc to get ahead of another dog and cut off his line of travel. Running circles around another dog or dogs or people is also a basic herding action. Sometimes there is real conflict when both dogs want to be the herder and neither will take a turn at being the herded one. Obsessive herders such as Border Collies and Kelpies are more likely to insist on being the herder rather than the herded. If this is causing problems, the human could intervene. Ideally the obsessive herders should play with dogs willing to be herded.

"Humping" , ie one dog mounting another, can also be a part of play or a part of testing or claiming dominance or maintaining the dominance hierarchy. Don't think that only male mount females, because self-confident bossy type bitches will often mount males or other bitches. (Mounting is not usually sexual except for intact males mounting in heat bitches.) Usually if the dog being mounted has a real objection and snaps or snarls at the mounting dog, that dog will break off, though he/she may try again soon. If one dog is really persistant and the other clearly objects but not strongly enough to get the mounter to desist, I'd intervene and probably put the mounter in a crate to chill out.

Here's a photo of one bitch "humping" another ; in this case little Fox is very much dominant over the larger Velvet, but this photo is as much a case of play as it is of serious dominance, because their relative status was long established, not open to dispute.

one bitch mounting another

Dominance issues, dominance squabbles.

More intense than play fighting are the types of encouter I call "dominance squabbles" or "dominance scuffles" or "status squabbles". These are restrained fights that are intended to have a winner and a loser (unlike play fighting where roles switch back and forth) but that are NOT intended to cause serious injury. It's as if the dogs had agreed to determine who could win an all out battle but also agreed that they don't want any injuries that would make either dog less effective in the next pack hunt. Dr Ian Dunbar DVM calls this "fighting by the Marquess of Dogsburry rules." Dr Dunbar also asks troubled owners to count up the number of "fights" and count up the times one or the other dog has had an injury : a very low "bite to fight ratio" is pretty good proof that you don't need to worry about the situation and probably a good indicator that the conflicts are simply dominance scuffles. There is usually no injury beyond a lot of slobber on the dogs' necks and possibly a minor (and usually accidental) puncture to an ear or a lip.

These scuffles are what I call "full of sound and fury, signifying dominance". These incidents have sound effects that include a note of anger and the action tends to be much faster paced than the action in play fighting.

Ordinarily one expects that it takes only a few dominance scuffles to establish a hierarchy and from then on only the very occasional one to maintain that hierarchy. Most hierarchies are maintained with much more subtle interactions , such as a hard stare, a very low growl, or body posture that is tall and foreward by the dog claiming dominance, followed by the response of the yielding dog being averting gaze or turning head away, body posture lowered and/or leaned backards, and possibly even the active submission response of dropping to the ground and exposing groin or belly. Often it is even more subtle, so much so that most people don't even perceive anything happening.

When dominence squabbles are frequent and the hierarchy never seems to get resolved, it's likely that the humans are unwittingly keeping the issue open , often by giving support to the dog who would otherwise be the submitter. The classic case of this , published by Dr Benjamin Hart DVM over 30 years ago, was continued conflict between two dogs who had become part of a merged family when their respective owners married. Each of the spouses undoubtedly tended (perhaps unwittingly) to favor their own dog and support that dog. While Hart counseled them to both support the more dominant dog, the actual resolution of this case occurred when the couple split up, each one taking his/her own dog away. (And, years later, the ex-wife is one of my Bouv rescue buddies, so that's how I have the inside story.)

Alternatively the issues may not get resolved because the two dogs are too evenly matched. The younger of the two may have been submissive until apporoaching social maturity (usually between age 2 and 3) and becoming an even match for the previously dominant elder dog. Or the previously dominant elder may be slowly failing physically or slowly becoming less assertive in personality, but isn't ready yet to retire from the top spot.. (However often an older dog will seem to retire into "elder statesman" status without any big fuss being made over the change of regime.)

Even if the squabbles seem more frequent than you would like, but the dogs are not injuring one another beyond the occasional punctured ear (easily happens and bleeds a lot) or punctured lip (often a dog puncturing himself ; can bleed a lot), I probably would not intervene (Note : attempting to intervene can get you bitten by accident or can prevent the issue from being resolved by the dogs.) . Or alternatively crate both dogs to cool off or put both on half hour down stays in one another's presence. Then institute and consistantly pursue a course of house rules in which all dogs must behave calmly and be deferential towards you, the human, in order to get anything they want or would enjoy. Teach them that dogs who are calm and polite get things faster and more surely than dogs who are quarrelsome or excited. This is Pat McConnell's overall method of pack management ; see her booklet "Feeling Outnumbered?" (And it suddenly occurs to me that this is good strategy for parents towards their human children too.)

It's also a good idea to try to avoid having several highly excited dogs together in a very small space, because that can ignite a squabble as the dogs bump into one another. Thus do your leashing up for walks in a larger room rather than small room or hallway, and also practice the calming sit at doorways, etc. Separate dogs for their meals before you start loading the food into the bowls.

Serious fights

I hate these and everyone I know hates these.

These are the fights that are likely to result in injury sufficient to cause visits to the vet for one or both.. In some breeds (mostly terrier breeds or bully breeds) the intention and result can be lethal.

The action is fast and any sounds are quite angry. It's a lot more intense than most dominance scuffles. Bites are usually sustained in duration, possibly with head shaking resulting in skin tearing on the bitten dog.

Serious fights are usually between two dogs of the same sex, and most likely between reproductively intact dogs of same sex , especially if there is an intact dog of opposite sex in the household. With the exception of breeds with a heritage of being bred for dog fighting, it's abnormal for a male dog to be willing to really hurt a female dog. While everyone assumes that male to male fights are more likely, and indeed they may actually be more frequent, almost all truely experienced dog people will affirm that the truely epic battles and irresolvable emnities are between two bitches who genuinely detest one another. Two bitches who are determined not to live together are that fury unto which hell hath no equal. Bitch to bitch emnity is most likely to have its beginning when one or the other (or both) are in estrus. (This probably comes from the wolf heritage, as in the wolf pack only the highest ranked bitch gets to breed ; when any other bitch comes into heat , the Alpha Bitch drives her away into exile until she is no longer in heat, no longer fertile. The wolf pack can only afford to raise one litter.)

(Note : in multiple dog households , the highest ranked male and highest ranked bitch tend to form an alliance and come to one another's aid when that one is engaged in a same sex quarrel. In any case, in multiple dog situations, the first thing you want to do when two dogs start a fight is to try to get the rest of the dogs out of the way, preferably into another room with closed door. The last thing you need is for a two dog quarrel to turn into a mob riot. It helps to really know your dogs, as some will join into battle at slight excuse and others will avoid the combat if they possibly can. )

These situations call for owner intervention and ongoing management to prevent oppertunities for another fight from ever occuring again.

INTERVENTION, ie breaking up a fight, can be very dangerous to the intervenor whatever method you use. Because the dogs are quite angry, anyone who puts their body parts anywhere near the line of fire is likely to be bitten. The dogs are going for one another so intently that they really don't recognize anyone who gets in the way and thus will bite you simply because you get in the way. Even if you do get hold of one and manage to bodily move it away from the other, you may be bitten out of what behaviorists call "re-directed aggression". So do NOT stick your hand or any other valued body part anywhere near the flashing fangs. For the story of how I got my first dog fight bite scar see "My First Bite"

For PREVENTION of further fights, you can try the methods described in Family Feuds.

It's also helpful to identify the triggers for fights and then try to avoid those trigger situations or prevent fights by temporary separation of dogs. If the fights typically break out over some particular type of resource, either remove that resource from the dogs' lives forever or give the resource only when the dogs are separated into different spaces (eg by crating one or both) until the resource is used up or gone. For example, if fights break out over bones or pig ears, you can either never provide these (it's a proven fact that dogs can survive an entire lifetime without real bones or pigs ears) or else crate the dogs and give the item only while they are crated. If fights break out over petting rights, then you have to follow Pat McConnell's scheme of teaching dogs that petting only happens when both dogs are sitting and acting very very calm.

It's also important to recognize that fights are more likely when one or both dogs are "aroused", ie in a state of excitement, and even more likely when excited dogs are bouncing around in a small space, such as hallway or bathroom or utility room. So the key here is to have exciting events take place in larger spaces and to teach dogs that the anticipated event will not actually procede until all dogs are sitting (or lying down) and behaving very calmly.

Times that are normally very exciting to most dogs are anticipation of being fed, anticipation of being walked, anticipation of going for ride in the car. Now your dogs might have a few more on that list, such as anticipation of herding, so you have to figure out what is on each dog's list of highly exciting events. See my article Going for a Walk as an example of training dogs to be calm while anticipating an exciting event. For feeding time, I use the other method of first separating all dogs into individual areas (eg into crates , into bathroom, etc), then going to fill bowls and distribute same. The dogs are allowed to be excited and bark like fools, but there can be no fighting because they are in separate areas. I would be separating them anyway for meals because I want to be sure that each eats his own food and not another's and I want to know if anyone is feeling low appetite as that can be a sign of illness.

If prevention does not work, then you really have only two choices left to MANAGE (prevent oppertunities for occurance of the problem) : (1) to live in "a house divided" (dogs live apart but both remain in your household) or (2) placing one of the dogs in another home.

There are two ways to do "a house divided".

The safest way is to have the two dogs live in completely separate areas of your home or property or to "play musical dogs" by rotating the two as to which is in the house and which is in a kennel run or other separate dwelling. In either case, all human family members must be totally committed to the program of separation and must be capable of zero-mistake vigilance about keeping the two apart. That means that if you are rotating dogs, dog A who is going to be put out of an area must be secured (eg crated) while B comes in and is secured (crated) so that A can be taken out of the area before B is released into the area. Breeders often have to do this, dividing their dogs into two or more internally compatible groups and rotating the groups for house time. Breeders have more same sex conflict issues because they usually have two or more intact dogs of one sex and at least one intact dog of opposite sex, and that tends to promote conflicts. For the rest of us, who have our dogs essentially for companionship, this is not a great way to live but it may be less terrible than giving up one of the dogs to another home.

The second way is to have one or both dogs wearing basket muzzles whenever they are in the same area. Further , it is wise to secure the muzzles onto the dog's head by back-tying the behind the ears strap of the muzzle to a body harness so that the dog cannot remove the muzzle with its paws or scrape the muzzle off against an object. Unless it is a case of one dog consistantly attacking the other one who would never ever start a fight, it is necessary to muzzle both dogs. This is not a great way to live. I've done it for a few periods when needed to allow a foster dog who was instigating fights with one or more of my own dogs to have the priviledge of part time house time. I really wouldn't want to do this for years on end.

The last resort (for most people the last resort) is to place one of the warring dogs in another home. This is feasible when one or both of the warriers are otherwise very nice dogs to live with and have no other significant problems besides same-sex aggression or dog-to-dog aggression. Often one dog is a lot nicer to live with than the other. The nicer dog is the one who is going to be easier to place, easier to find a responsible home for. Sometimes one of the dogs is really not all that easy to place, perhaps because that one is difficult to live with in other ways or perhaps because of age or health issues. So separating the dogs by placing one of them can easily mean that you have to give up the dog you would rather keep and keep the one you'd more willingly part with. Whichever dog you place will need to go to a home where there is no other dog of same sex and possibly will need to go to a home where there is no other dog. And you will have to make damn sure that if the dog is not working out well in the new home that the adopters will bring the dog back to you rather than discard it at the shelter or pass it on to someone else. You have to accept some continued responsibility for this dog's welfare.

Pending placement, of course you will have to be doing some form of "a house divided".

Note : whenever I am placing a dog into a home where there is another resident canine, I always caution my adopter that it's possible that the two dogs will not be compatible and that if that occurs I expect them to bring this newly adopted dog back to me. No shame and no blame. This is an area where humans propose but dogs dispose. The resident dog may very well NOT want a packmate. ("I didn't want a little brother for Christmas, I wanted a pony" would be the human equivalent. ) It's possible that your dog doesn't want a doggie playmate, but wants more play interaction with you or other human family members. Or your dog may want playmates but not roommates ; if so, either make playdates with another compatible dog (your home or their home) or take your dog to the dog park.

An unacceptable method :

The final and unacceptable method of separating fighting dogs' lives is of course the Final Solution of having one or both dogs KILLED, ie EXECUTED. Notice that I do NOT say "euthanized" because this is a death that is not "good", not beneficial to that dog in any way. In my view this solution is only morally acceptable when the dog in question is so difficult or dangerous that no adopter in her right mind would be willing to live with that dog. But in this case, the moral solution is to keep the unplaceable dog and place the other one. If both of them are so disagreeable or so unable to adjust to another home that you cannot place either one of them, then you are truely up the proverbial creek and you have to decide whether "a house divided" in which each dog spends alternate days in a secure kennel run rather than in the house is a better life for those dogs than being killed would be. If you think I am saying that killing a dog for this reason is morally unacceptable UNLESS the dog is deadly dangerous to other family members, yes, you are hearing me correctly. Note that taking a dog with any dog-aggressive tendencies to a shelter is the same as having the dog killed : the shelter will quickly lable the dog as "unadoptable" and will kill it, rather than taking the extra effort to find it a home as an "only dog". Or they might place the dog into circumstances where another dog, an innocent dog, is maimed or killed or a person trying to intervene is seriously injured. If that happens, almost any adopter will either have the dog killed by their own vet or will return the dog to the shelter to be killed.

before you get that second, third, or nth dog

minimizing risks of incompatibility

Of course a neutered male and a spayed bitch are 95% or more sure to get along peacefully, unless we are dealing with one of the dog fight breeds. So your second dog should be of opposite sex to your first one, and at least one of the pair must be altered. It's also helpful if the two are a couple years apart in age and a couple levels apart in natural tendency to seek higher rank.

Finally, since there is no third sex, once you have more than two dogs you really have to pay attention to how well a proposed addtion to your pack will get along with everyone else. The more dogs you have, the more different ways any two can quarrel, and the more different ways that more than two can get into a brouhaha. And the more dogs you have, the worse the risk of injury to a dog or a person if a serious fight breaks out. Also be aware that the top ranked male and top ranked female (the alpha couple) will tend to back one another up, especially if the top male is in a fight with another male the top bitch may well pitch in to help her consort win.Be aware that styles of leadership vary greatly amoung dogs. Some dogs are very very benign packleaders and such dogs tend to keep a peaceful pack. Some dogs are inclined to be tyrants, especially towards those of their own sex, and this tends to make a less peaceful pack.

Be aware that just as each addition to a pack can disrupt the existing stable hierarchy, so too can a departure from the pack, especially if it is one of the high ranking dogs who leaves (perhaps especially if a benign leader dog dies).. The addition or departure of a human family member too can be disruptive.

The more of a calmly benevolent but always in charge packleader you the human are, the more peaceful your dog pack is likely to remain. It also helps if all dogs get plenty of exercise for their bodies and their minds, so that the rest of the time they are pleasantly tired and thus not inclined to go looking for trouble with one another.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 5/30/09 revised 7/19/2011, 10/26/2017
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