Dog-on-Dog Aggression (DDA)
Witnessing a dog fight is frightening. It’s violent, loud and appears as though the dogs
Dogs becoming overly aroused during play can result in a dog fight.
involved are trying to kill each other. If you’re the owner of a dog that’s dog-aggressive you must have experienced or are currently experiencing how stressful simple events such as taking your dog for a walk can be. While it may appear as though the dog is trying to kill its adversary often most fights are little more than loud displays of aggressive posturing and they rarely result in serious injuries. When wounds are sustained the resulting injury is usually a lip or ear tear, or puncture wounds to the neck.
When a dog truly intends to kill another its actions are swift and death can occur in 15 seconds or less. Attacks intended to kill often are directed at the victim’s stomach in an effort to disembowel its victim or behind the head at the base of the neck in an effort to sever the spinal column, not necessarily in areas around the face or shoulders.
If you have a dog that’s dog-aggressive your first step in treatment would be to report the behavior to your veterinarian so they can rule out any medical issues. If none exists its recommended that you consult with a veterinarian behaviorist for help.
Assessing Injuries: A dog weighing 70 lbs or more has the ability to crush bone with a jaw that can deliver over 500-700lbs of pressure per square inch. German Shepherds, Rotties and Pits in excess of 700 lbs. Armed with such knowledge it’s helpful to know that even deep tears to the face, neck and shoulder wouldn’t be considered life threatening or those indicative of an intent to kill. However, any injury should be considered serious enough to get qualified help with the behavior.
When left to their own devices most fights – especially among males – will end with a clear victor and loser. The loser will walk away and avoid future conflicts with the victor. In most cases the victor allows the loser to retreat. This is not necessarily true in cases of female-on-female aggression which should be closely monitored and taken quite seriously since females have been known to kill each another. If you have a female-on-female aggression case, or any aggression issue for that matter, it’s important to get qualified help immediately.
The Neutering Debate: DDA is more common among males, however, females fight too although it usually less common. The difference between the two sexes is that altercations among males often is nothing more than loud aggressive posturing displays and hardly anyone ever gets seriously injured. Females on the other hand may fight to the death – particularly if the two females know each other and have a history of fighting each other.
The most common type of altercation involves neutered males aggressing toward intact males. Neutered males smell like females. The scent of an intact male cause many neutered to react negatively toward them since intact males smell male. The scent of an intact male can cause tensions to rise even before the two dogs engage each other because intact males retain the ability to mate and give of the scent of male, which can be considered a threat to neutered males.
While neutering isn’t known to affect the behavior or personality of the dog it can have a profound impact on the way neutered males perceive their intact counterparts. On the medical side there are many benefits such as longer life spans because neutering may help to reduce the risk of some cancers, particularly testicular cancer, mammary cancer (males & females) and pyometra – a life threatening uterine infection. Spaying a female does not have the same effect on reducing DDA as it does with males, although it does have the same health benefits.
Common Causes of DDA: Most dogs squabble over valued resources such as mating rights, food, territory and a safe place to sleep and rear young. Altercations among males is more common when females are present. In fact, in all-male groups they fight less when females are absent. This holds true in most species including lab mice and rats.
One of the most common causes of DDA is lack of appropriate social interaction with conspecifics (members of its own species) during a puppy’s socialization period. Pups not exposed to all sizes, shapes and ages of polite, well-behaved dogs before 12-weeks of age have a greater chance of developing social issues with conspecifics when they mature. Similarly, pups who’ve experienced a traumatic event in the presence of other dogs can be a contributing factor.
Inappropriate play interactions with conspecifics during puppyhood and early adolescence also play a substantial role. Rough play with over-the-top adolescents and adult dogs – or even at the hands of humans – may contribute toward elevated levels of stress/ hyperactivity and can affect the dog’s nervous system for the rest of its life. Rough play has also been blamed for ‘play deficits’, a term coined by behaviorist Jean Donaldson.
There’s compelling scientific evidence that adverse social experiences and resulting stress levels can cause permanent damage to neuro-connectors in the hyppocampus of the brain – the area responsible for storing good and bad memories. Such damage also negatively effects learning and social skills.
To avoid altercations or affect positive change in a DDA case it’s always best to be proactive by socializing the dog early in life with well-behaved, gentle dogs (and gentle humans), neuter the dog and make sure play is polite and gentle during its socialization period as well as throughout its life.
Prevention: When I work on a DDA case careful attention is focused on the dog’s past experiences. This history-taking helps narrow down possible causes/triggers and may reveal exactly where and when the behavior started. This information is helpful because training success often is influenced by the length of time a dog has been suffering.
However, no matter how compelling a dog’s history may be the most important task is changing the dog’s behavior going forward. On that end prevention and management plays a key role in the training process. This means the owner must make every effort to prevent future altercations. In almost every case I work with owners report multiple encounters, some as many as several times per week. It’s critical to the dog’s re-learning process to make every effort to keep the dog calm (and safe) by avoiding such encounters.
This can mean walking the other way when a dog is approaching; running away; walking the dog during off hours when other owners are not out walking their dogs; providing appropriate confinement so the dog does not escape through an open gate or jump over a low fence; fitting the dog with a harness such as the Easy Walk no pull front clip harness; fit the dog with a head halter such as the Halti; scanning the environment for other dogs; asking individuals who are out walking their dogs if they don’t mind staying put while you get your dog to a safer area and more. In short, the owner will become the point man, the look-out guy who keeps an eye out for possible danger and work toward avoiding it. While calling to a stranger, “Hey! My dog is aggressive toward other dogs. Could you just stay right there while I get him out of here?” may be a bit embarrassing for some, I’ve never heard anyone on the other end complaining. In fact, most people say thank you. I know your dog will thank you.
Repeated encounters can create elevated corticotropin (fear hormone) levels. Most often it takes nearly 48 hours for elevated levels to stabilize. This may explain why some dogs become hyperactive or destructive 1-2 days following a thunderstorm, or why fights seem to closely follow another. If your dog appears to get into one altercation after another these elevated corticotropin levels may be a contributing factor. This is why it’s so important to avoid future encounters.
Environment: Environmental triggers (or antecedents) play a huge role in how your dog reacts toward or in relation to certain objects and areas. For example, if most fights occurred while on-leash, anxiety or hyperactivity may begin surfacing the moment you pick up a leash. Often this hyperactivity is misinterpreted as happiness when a dog is actually experiencing a tremendous amount of stress-related excitement. Such excitement can quickly teeter over into aggression. An example is two hyperactive dogs playing together in a dog park and who chase each other to the point of exhaustion or roll each other and engage in over-the-top dominance rituals. Often these are the dogs that end up in a fight at some point during the session.
Other environmental factors may be related to traumatic events that took place a certain locations. For instance my German Shepherd becomes hypervigilant the closer we get to a certain baseball field near our house – the site of his last altercation two winters ago.
Human Body Language: The owner should learn to concentrate on their behavior. Are there particular areas where you get stressed while walking your dog? Do you panic or start to lose patience in specific areas of your town or street? When you see another dog? Quite often our own behavior negatively affects our animal.
Pack Mentality Myth: There are some trainers and animal enthusiasts who place great emphasis on “pack leadership” and “pack mentality.” In order to truly understand what such terms mean we must first learn a bit about canine social structures as it pertains to our pet dogs.
As a general rule domestic dogs or even feral dogs don’t have complex social structures or hierarchies such as those observed in their wolf cousins. In observations of free roaming dogs, particularly in a 1989 study (Daniels and Bekoff) of over 154 free-roaming dogs in Newark, New Jersey, compelling evidence supported the hypothesis that even free-roaming dogs lack organized or complex social structures – or what some may term “pack mentality.”
The term pack mentality is an impressive term, but it’s also quite vague. And the term has nothing to do with humans. I’m waiting for a study involving feral humans and dogs to be published. When that scientific paper is available perhaps we can use the term pack mentality to describe how dogs view their relationships with their pack-humans. The word mentality means “character or disposition,” so when someone uses the term pack mentality to describe how the dog interacts with humans the term lacks any observable information pertaining to actual leadership skills and everything to do with the overall emotional state of a group of dogs. In my opinion, the term pack mentality is an impressive, colorful and imaginative term, but it lacks little scientific evidence it even exists.
What such individuals may be trying to convey – and rather poorly – is the concept of leadership, which has nothing at all to do with pack mentality (disposition or character).
Recently a woman asked me how could she go about teaching her dog that her baby is the pack leader. I’m thinking dogs don’t have complex pack structures, the child is not a dog, doesn’t look like a dog, smell like a dog, act like a dog, play like a dog, communicate like a dog, doesn’t compete for the same resources as a dog…. When I asked to see how she was trying to achieve it now she poked the dog in the neck (for no reason). She along with countless others have been mislead into thinking that humans must act like dogs or use scary tactics in order to convey the concept of leadership. Complete hogwash!
Dogs respond to the individual who controls the good stuff such as treats, food, toys, etc. Period. If you’re looking to establish what we call “leadership” you can easily do so by controlling valued resources and having your dog work for them (reward-based training). Also, you establish leadership by setting up boundaries and rules. When you control the good stuff your dog will look to you for what happens next. Some may call this leadership. I call it a smart dog who learns how to get the good stuff… usually with the least bit of energy output.
In human homes there are many resource-controllers and those roles change constantly. Depending on the time of day these individuals can be switched with another. My husband is disabled and stays at home. I’m the one responsible for making the dogs work before taking them for walks and feeding them. For those two things I can get my dogs to do quantum physics. It doesn’t matter if my husband calls them to him, it doesn’t matter if he grabs a squeaker toy to distract them – they only have one goal: to get me to walk them and give them the good stuff. When I leave, however, my husband controls the good stuff. When I walk through the door at night resource-control roles change again.
Another pack mentality myth is that the pack leader walks in front. Really? It does? Take any two dogs for a walk at one time and its easy to see there is no strict protocol between the two in regards to who is out front, unless you have a mushing team. This protocol is equally as weak in free-roaming dogs unless a female is in heat. The concept that a dog has to walk on your left side while making eye contact with you (heel) was developed by humans to keep the dog from being distracted by its environment, not because it lowers its status. In fact all forms of training iare human inventions.
Learning patience at doorways should be included in training to help the dog learn how to control itself when excited and so it doesn’t dart out the door and get hit by a car, not because there’s a hierarchical battle taking place. My dogs always walk out of the door first, but I taught them to be polite enough to wait for me until we can descend the stairs of my porch to walk.
Generalizing: If the dog’s level of aggression has been escalating over time toward a particular size/color of dog and it begins bleeding out to other breeds there’s a pretty good chance the dog has begun to generalize its fear. While dogs are poor generalizers when it comes to figuring out what we want from them they are exceptional at generalizing fear. For example, a dog who was bitten by a small white dog during adolescence may begin reacting toward blowing white bags in the street when it’s an adult. Similarly, one who experienced multiple encounters by a dog on leash may begin to aggress toward strollers or other moving objects that are connected to a human by a tether of some sort.
Set Goals: Set realistic goals and establish short-, mid-, and long-range goals. For example, John’s long range goal is he wants Rover to play with familiar dogs. There’s a very good chance Rover may develop enough skills to play with familiar dogs, but that may not be feasible until two or more years from now. Rover will first need to achieve short-term goals such as walking calmly in the neighborhood without becoming hysterical when he sees a dog two blocks away (short-term goal); Then work toward the point where he can focus on his owner or a task such as touch while walking past dogs that are less than a block away (mid-range goal); Then to teaching him how to come to his owner or walk away when he’s getting stressed when interacting with a familiar dog (long-range goal). There are many steps in between. Many goals and none of them should ever be rushed.
Learn Dog Language/Practice New Skills: There is no miracle cure for DODA. Working with such behavior takes time. You will have to work toward very small victories and build on those until larger ones can be achieved. As far as I’m concerned, I feel learning canine body language is vital to training success in so many areas. I’m not saying you need to get a PhD in ethology or evolutionary biology, but learning some basic body language signals can go a long way in understanding your dog’s emotional state. A behaviorist or knowledgeable professional dog trainer can help you gain these skills or you can teach yourself by reading books by experts such as Stanley Coren, Patricia McConnell, Turid Rugaas and Roger Abrantes.
Even when a dog appears to spontaneously engage in fighting there are clear warning/calming signals he may be sending out indicating elevated stress levels long before he reacts. Such signals may be as subtle as licking the lips, a head turn, ear twitch, yawning or sniffing the ground. Having knowledge of what to look for can arm you with knowledge that can go a long way in helping to prevent encounters and help you rebuild some of the trust that may have been lost in your relationship.
Establish the Dog’s Threshold: When trying to predict when your dog will react it’s helpful to establish its threshold as a starting point for retraining. Threshold is the point of reactivity – the point where the dog reacts. When working on cases it’s imperative to keep the dog below threshold at all times and systematically increase its tolerance to stressful stimuli while it’s experiencing something pleasant. As an owner you play a vital role in keeping your dog below threshold by observing his body language. This may provide you with clues to your dog’s emotional state.
Types of Training: Your trainer may choose several techniques to work with your dog. If they have experience with stressed dogs they likely will rely on two powerful learning techniques: classical conditioning (or Pavlovian conditioning), which is pairing a pleasant experience/sensation with something fearful; and operant conditioning (B.F. Skinner) which is based on the concept that every action has a consequence. This particular form of learning is the central core of clicker training. In all positive training techniques desirable behaviors reap positive rewards and negative behaviors get nothing.