When applied animal behaviorists get together, we are all looking for new information and ideas so that we can always meet our collective goal of improving the relationships between people and animals. At every conference I have ever attended, there are two questions that remain unsatisfactorily answered for many of us. One of these is: Does anyone have any new ways to try to pill a cat? The other is: Has anyone tried anything new and successful for treating aggression between two female dogs living in the same home? Out of all the behavior problems that I see, this particular issue is the one at which my success rate for solving the problem is the lowest, and this is the experience of every other behaviorist I know. There are several ways to approach this problem, but it is important to know that solving this problem involves a big commitment of time and energy, and that there are no guarantees.
The problem must be recognized before it can be improved. The signs that could indicate that there is a serious problem between one or more dogs in a household are many. They include: One dog regularly pushing another aside for attention, guarding food or toys from one another, the dogs are frequently up on their back paws while playing, the dogs are watching each other intensely or giving each other hard stares, the dogs maintain stiff postures when around each other, one dog bullies another by taking away all the toys and bones, one dog slinks around the house avoiding another dog or is kept from moving certain places in the house by that dog, the dogs threaten each other with growls, tooth displays and snapping or the dogs are actually fighting with each other.
Fights between female dogs in the same household are among the most injurious and long lasting. Fatalities can even occur, since many of the worst fights go on so long with neither party doing anything to stop the aggressiveness. In cases in which fights or other aggressive tendencies are occurring between members of the same household, it is essential that steps be taken to prevent any subsequent injuries and to protect and maintain a high quality of life for both dogs and humans. Each case is unique and therefore the specific treatment must be customized, but some general strategies apply. When dogs are having trouble getting along to the point of exhibiting aggressiveness within the household, treatment involves three approaches.
The first strategy is to manage the situation for safety so that there are not opportunities for threats, fights, or injuries. Such management may include walking dogs individually, feeding them separately, and taking away objects such as bones or rawhides that cause conflict. Avoiding trouble in these or other ways is not a cop out, but rather an active training tool that helps keep dogs out of the habit of performing unacceptable behavior. Prevention is an essential part of the process because every fight is a huge setback that only makes the problem worse and harder to change.
The second strategy is to teach all of the dogs that the way to get what they want in the house is to be polite and patient rather than being pushy and demanding. If you consistently reinforce polite, respectful behavior, the dogs exhibit more of it. Conversely, when the rude, disrespectful behavior is not reinforced, less of it will happen.
The third strategy is to work extremely hard so that every dog in the household becomes rock solid at performing basic behaviors on cue. In a house with any tension that could lead to aggression, there can be no trace of the attitude that, “Oh well, maybe she’ll listen and do it right next time.” That way of thinking is a luxury that exists only in households completely free of aggression and any possibility of it occurring. The cues that dogs must be able to respond to in any situation no matter how many distractions exist are “Sit,” “Down,” “Stay,” “Wait,” “Come,” “Back Away” and “Leave It” (which many trainers call “Off.”)
For now, this three-pronged approach is the best we’ve got. Hopefully, trainers and behaviorists will continue to try new techniques that will make resolution of the problem of two female dogs fighting in the home a more frequent occurrence.
-- Karen London