A DOG-EAT-DOG WORLD A Look at the Challenges of Intra-Pack Aggression By Pat Miller
Knowledgeable dog people are quite aware that not all dogs get along with each other, despite the fact that canis lupus familiaris (domestic dog) is a social species. Hey, we humans are a social species, and we certainly don’t all get along! Dog-dog aggression is unhappily common in our world. As a professional behavior consultant who works with aggression cases, I probably see more than my fair share of it. By far the most difficult and most distressing presentations of dog-dog aggression are intra-pack aggression cases: dogs in the same family who aren’t getting along with each other.
I’ve had a spate of these clients in recent weeks. Even our own Lucy and Missy, a Cardigan Corgi and Australian Shepherd who don’t always get along seamlessly, seem to have experienced an increase in relationship tensions this winter. I can’t give you a tidy explanation as to why, but I’m beginning to put more stock in the explanation jokingly offered by my colleague, Jennifer Swiggart, CPDT-KA, PMCT, at Loudon County Animal Care and Control, when she called it “snow aggression.”
Stress Happens We do know that aggression is caused by stress. With the very rare exception of idiopathic aggression, at one time called “rage syndrome,” Cocker rage” or Springer rage” and grossly overdiagnosed in the 1960’s and 70’s, aggression is the result of a stress load that pushes a dog over his bite threshold. You can compare it to incidents of “road rage” in humans. When you read about the man who pulls out his .38 revolver because someone cut him off on the freeway and blows away the unfortunate offending driver, you can bet there was more going on for him than just a simple traffic violation. This is the guy who was likely laid off his job, lost his retirement investments to Bernie Madoff, had his wife tell him this morning that she was leaving him, and just got notice in the mail that the bank is foreclosing on his McMansion. Getting cut off on the freeway is simply the last straw – the final stressor that pushes him over his “bite threshold.”
So it is for dogs. When tensions increase between Missy and Lucy, I need to look for possible added stressors in their environment that are pushing them closer, and yes, sometimes over, their bite threshold. From that perspective, “snow aggression” is a real possibility: with recent record snowfalls reaching a total of 50 inches here, the resulting decrease in exercise opportunities as well as higher stress levels of human family members who aren’t fond of snow (guilty!) can certainly be stressors for the canine family members.
To resolve aggression issues between your own dogs, you’ll want to identify not just the immediate trigger for the aggression – fighting over a pig ear, for example – but also everything in your dog’s life that may be stressful to him. The more stressors you can remove from his world, the farther away he is from using his teeth – the canine equivalent of pulling out a .38 revolver. Triggers It’s often relatively easy to identify the immediate trigger for your dogs’ mutual aggression. It’s usually whatever happened just before the appearance of the hard stare, posturing, growls, and sometimes the actual fight.
Tension over resources is a common trigger. Dog #1 is lying on his bed, happily chewing his deer antler, when Dog #2 approaches. Dog #1 tenses, signaling to #2 Dog, “This is mine and I’m not sharing.” In the best of worlds #2 defers by looking away, saying in canine speak, “Oh, no worries, I was just passing through.” When things go wrong, however, a fight breaks out. Dog #2’s approach was the trigger, sometimes even if the he had no interest in the chew item – if Dog #1 launches into full combat more without proper warning, or if Dog #2 failed to notice or failed to heed the warning. Remember that resources aren’t just food and high value chews; a guardable resource can be a high-value human, a coveted bed, a spot on the sofa, or access to a doorway. The stressor in these cases is fairly obvious – the dog’s anxiety over the possibility of losing or having to share his treasured possession.
Some other triggers may be less obvious. If a dog is in pain, but not showing it, the mere proximity of packmate who has inadvertently bumped her in the past could be a trigger. Dogs can be notoriously stoic about pain, especially slowly developing arthritis, or unilateral pain; if both hips hurt, it doesn’t do any good to limp! The undiagnosed arthritic dog may become defensively aggressive in anticipation of being hurt by a livelier canine pal, trying to forestall painful contact in what looks to the owner like “unprovoked” aggression.
While many of us no longer use the term “dominance aggression,” we do talk about “status-related aggression.” This can be a common cause of aggression between two dogs in the same family when there is unrest in the hierarchy, and neither dog is willing to defer to the other. Note that this type of aggression is more about deference – or lack thereof – than it is about dominance. A truly high-ranking member of the social group, like our Scottish Terrier, Dubhy, doesn’t engage in scuffles – he doesn’t have to!
When you have identified your dogs’ triggers, you can manage the environment to reduce trigger incidents and minimize outright conflict. This is critically important to a successful modification program. The more often the dogs fight the more tension there is between them, the more practiced they become at the undesirable behaviors, the better they get at fighting and the harder it will be to make it go away. To say nothing of the increased likelihood that sooner or later someone – dog or human – will be badly injured.
Stressors Stressors, on the other hand, can happen anytime and be anywhere – or everywhere. Remember that it’s the sum total of a dog’s stressors that push him over his bite threshold, so the more of these you can identify and get rid of, the more you’ll ease tensions between your canine family members. When I sit down with a client for an aggression consult we create a complete list of all the stressors we can think of for the dog or dogs in question. (See Sidebar: Sample List of Stressors and Strategies) Then we discuss possible strategies for making stressors go away, and assign one or more strategies to each of the listed stressors. These strategies are: A. Change dog’s opinion of the stressor through the use of counter conditioning and desensitization. B. Teach the dog a new behavioral response using operant conditioning C. Manage the dog’s environment to minimize exposure to the stressor D. Get rid of the stressor E. Live with it (most appropriate for low-level stressors)
Next, I help the client create action plans for two or three of the stressors on the list to address first (management plans go into place immediately for all) starting with the one the client is most concerned about – in this case, the dog-dog aggression.
Aggression Modification My first choice with most clients is Strategy A – changing the dogs’ opinion of each other through counter conditioning and desensitization. This involves the use of controlled set-ups – with both dogs on leash at threshold distance (that distance at which they see each other, are alert and a little concerned, but not highly aroused). If one dog’s threshold distance is less than the other’s and the second dog shows no concern at all, start your program at the greater distance – you will eventually decrease the distance to the point the second dog is concerned as well. (For a complete description of this process, see Sidebar: Counter Conditioning and Desensitization)
A second option is Strategy B – teaching a new operant behavior in response to each other using the “CAT” procedure (Constructional Aggression Treat) developed by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz and Kellie Snider (for her master’s thesis) at the University of North Texas. While one of the challenges of a CAT procedure for dog-dog aggression is getting the dog to generalize to lots of different dogs, when we’re working with intra-pack aggression, the two dogs in question only need to learn to like each other, so the generalization piece isn’t necessary.
Still another Strategy B operant approach is the “BAT” procedure (Behavioral Adjustment Training - http://ahimsadogtraining.com/blog/bat/) created by trainer Grisha Stewart, MA. CPDT-KA, CPT, at Ahimsa Dog Training in Seattle, Washington. BAT is similar to CAT, but uses a variety of environmental reinforcers rather than exclusively the location and movement of the other dog. Again, since the dogs only need to learn to like each other, the generalization piece of the BAT operant learning protocol is not a barrier to success.
If one or both of the dogs are ready to do battle on sight, they must be strictly managed and kept separate from each other except when you’re doing your controlled modification procedure with them. If the aggression is more predictable and situational, the dogs can be together as long as you can manage and prevent the trigger(s) from causing conflict.
All is Calm There are a host of other things you can do to lower general stress in the environment. Of course, a complete medical workup, including a full thyroid panel (See Help for Hypothyroidism, June 2005), is de rigueur for any significant behavior problem, and especially for aggression. Any medical condition that causes your dog to feel out-of-sorts is a massive stress-contributor. Trying to modify aggression while your dog suffers from an untreated medical condition is akin to pushing a behavioral boulder uphill. You must rule out or identify and treat any medical contributors to your dogs’ behavior in order to full benefit from your modification efforts.
Exercise can be immensely helpful in minimizing overall tension. Not only does physical activity use up excess energy that might otherwise feed your dogs’ aggressive behaviors, (a tired dog is a well-behaved dog) but also during exercise your dog’s body releases various chemicals that generate a feeling of well-being, including endorphins and norepinephrine: an exercised dog is a happy dog! Happy dogs are simply less likely to fight.
Even the food you feed your dog can have an impact on his behavior. Poor quality protein can interfere with a dog’s ability to make use of the serotonin that occurs naturally in his system. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and sleep, and also affects memory and learning. The foods that Whole Dog Journal recommends use high-quality protein, and can contribute to your dogs’ behavioral health as well as their physical health.
Basic training enables you and your dog communicate more easily with each other (which is less stressful for both of you), and helps your dog understand how his world works – which makes his world less stressful for him. A good training program emphasizes structure and consistency, both of which make a dog’s world more predictable. Predictability equals less stress; unpredictable is stressful.
If you’ve ever had a massage, you know how calming touch can be. Dogs aren’t that different from us; you can calm and soothe your dog with physical touch, both through canine massage. If you combine your calming touch sessions with aromatherapy – burn a lavender candle while you massage – you can your dog’s “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” association with the lavender scent to help him be calm in more stressful environments by spritzing the scent on a scarf that you tie around his neck, or on the bedding of his crate.
Other environmental stress reducers can include products such as Comfort Zone™ (also known as Dog Appeasing Pheromone, or DAP) – a synthetic substance that mimics the pheromones emitted by a mother dog when she’s nursing puppies, intended to keep the puppies calm; Through a Dog’s Ear – a set of CD’s consisting of bio-acoustically engineered soothing classical piano music which has been shown to reduce dogs’ heart rates (available at www.dogwise.com); the Anxiety Wrap™ - a product that helps dogs (and cats) overcome their fears and anxieties using the gentle technique of Maintained Pressure – similar to the effect of swaddling for a human infant (www.anxietywrap.com), or even a snug T-shirt, which can have some of the same effects.
Management Intra-pack aggression can feel overwhelming. It can, in fact, be dangerous, if fights erupt regularly and you try to intervene. Many an owner has been bitten trying to break up fights between her own dogs. The stress that the constant tension generates can damage the quality of your own life, as well as your dogs’.
When a situation feels beyond your ability to cope, your first best option is to find a qualified positive behavior consultant in your area who can help you implement appropriate management and modification procedures, to keep everyone safe and to start making change happen in your dogs’ mutual relationships. A consult with a veterinarian who is well-educated in behavior, or even a veterinary behaviorist, should also be on your list, not only for that all-important medical workup, but also for the consideration of psychotropic behavior modification drugs, if and when appropriate, to help your dog’s brain be more receptive to your modification efforts.
If you feel you’re done your best and peace isn’t in the cards for your pack, it’s okay to admit that some dogs will never get along, and you have had the misfortune to adopt two who don’t. If that’s the case, your options are: • A lifetime of scrupulous management • Rehoming one of the dogs • Euthanasia
Some trainers say, “Management always fails.” In truth, management does have a high risk of failure, perhaps with potentially dire consequences. The risk is even higher if there are children in the home – not only because they’re more likely to forget to close doors and latch gates, but also because they are at greater risk of injury themselves if they are in the vicinity when a fight happens. Still, I know of several dog owners who have successfully implemented lifetime management protocols for dogs who didn’t get along, and felt that their own quality of life, as well as that of their dogs, was above reproach. Rehoming can be a reasonable option, especially if the dog being considered for placement has no other significant inappropriate behaviors, and if he can be rehomed to an “only dog” home, or one with dogs he’s known to get along well with. Of course, it can be challenging to find an experienced, appropriate home for a dog with a known aggression behavior problem, but it may be possible, particularly if he’s otherwise wonderful.
No one wants to think of euthanizing an otherwise healthy member of their canine family. Still, if you’ve done all you can reasonably do given the limits of your abilities and resources, and you’ve not been able to create a safe environment for your family and one of the dogs can’t be rehomed, then euthanasia is not an inappropriate decision. It will be terribly painful, and you’ll always feel guilt and regret about not finding the solution to the problem, although perhaps not as much guilt and regret as you would if one of your dogs badly injured or killed the other, or worse, a person.
It’s now 43 degrees outside, and for the first time in many weeks the snow is melted enough I can actually take my dogs for a long hike around the farm. Since rehoming and euthanasia aren’t options I’ll consider for Lucy and Missy, I’d best finish this sentence, turn off my computer, and take our dogs out to stretch their legs. I’m looking forward to a very peaceful, aggression-free evening.
SIDEBAR: Sample List of Stressors and Strategies Here are some examples of things that might be on your dogs’ stressor lists. There are many other possibilities. The letters listed after the stressors indicate the strategies (also listed below) that are most appropriate for each one. My clients lists usually number between 10 and 20 identified stressors. Be sure to include even those things that may cause mild stress – the more stressors you can remove, the better. 1. The other dog (A) 2. People passing by outside the living room window (A/C; block access to window) 3. Threats to his resources (A/B/C) 4. Doorbell ringing (A/B) (See Knock, Knock, issue?) 5. Car rides (A; [See Riding in Cars With Dogs, October 2006]/E) 6. Trips to the vet hospital (A/E) 7. Nail trimming (A: [See Touch Me, Touch Me Not, August, 2004]/B; teach him to scrape his nails on an abrasive surface) 8. Thunder (A/C; possible use of appropriate anti-anxiety medication[www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHHiJL-OpBE and www.shirleychong.com/keepers/nailfile.html /E) 9. Fireworks (A/C; possible use of appropriate anti-anxiety medication/E) 10. Arthritis (C; possible use of pain-reducing medication) 11. Recurring ear infections (D; explore medical treatment and diet – may result from dietary allergies) You probably have an article reference? 12. Underground shock fence (D; See Simply Shocking, February 2003)) 13. Prong Collar (D) 14. Use of physical and harsh verbal corrections (punishment) (D; See We’re Positive; January 2007) 15. Owner stress (C/D)
Strategies A. Change dog’s opinion of the stressor through the use of counter conditioning and desensitization. B. Teach the dog a new behavioral response using operant conditioning C. Manage the dog’s environment to minimize exposure to the stressor D. Get rid of the stressor E. Live with it (most appropriate for low-level stressors)
SIDEBAR: COUNTER CONDITIONING AND DESENSITIZATION Counter conditioning and desensitization (CC&D) for intra-pack aggression involves changing your dogs’ association with each other from negative to positive. The easiest way to give most dogs a positive association is with very high-value, really yummy treats. I like to use chicken – canned, baked or boiled, since most dogs love chicken and it’s a low fat, low calorie food.
Here’s how the CC&D process works: 1. Determine the distance at which your dogs can be in each other’s presence and be alert or wary but not extremely fearful or aroused. This is called the threshold distance. If one dog has a greater threshold hold distance than the other (often the case), work at the greater distance. 2. With you holding Dog #1 on leash, have your helper appear with Dog #2 at threshold distance “X”. The instant your dog sees the other, start feeding bits of chicken, non-stop. Your helper will feed chicken to her dog, too, the instant he notices your dog. 3. After several seconds, have the helper step out of sight with Dog #2, and you both stop feeding chicken. 4. Keep repeating steps 1-3 until the sight of the other dog at distance “X” consistently causes both dogs to look at their handlers with a happy smile and a “Yay! Where’s my chicken?” expression. This is the physical presentation of the dogs’ conditioned emotional response (CER); each dog’s association with the other at threshold distance “X” is now positive, so they can deliberately look at you to get their chicken, rather than staying intensely focused on each other. 5. Now you need to increase the intensity of the stimulus by increasing the length of time Dog #2 stays in sight. Continue to feed chicken when they are in view of each, occasionally pausing to let them look again, and immediately feeding chicken when they do. 6. When length of time seems to make no difference to either dog – you’re getting a consistent “Yay, where’s my chicken?” response regardless of how long Dog #2 stays in view, increase intensity again, this time by increasing Dog #2’s movement. Have the handler walk back and forth with her dog, still at distance “X,” slowly at first, then with more energy, even adding in some other behaviors such as sit, down, and roll over. 7. Now you’re ready to starting decreasing distance by moving Dog #1 a little closer to the location where the Dog #2 will appear. When you obtain consistent CERs from both dogs at each new distance you can decrease the distance a little more, until both dogs are happy to be very near each other. 8. Then return to your original threshold distance and increase intensity stimulus by having Dog #2 move around more and more, as you gradually decrease distance and obtain CERs from both dogs along the way, until they are delighted to be near each other. 9. Now go back to your starting distance and increase intensity again, by having both dogs move more naturally as the distance decreases, offering CERs at each new distance before you come any closer, until they can be within six feet of each other, moving around, still relaxed and happy about chicken. 10. Finally, find ways for your dogs to engage separately in mutually enjoyable activities together. If they both enjoy car rides, take them for a drive, but be sure they are seat-belted or crated far enough apart to avoid any tension. If they love hiking, take them on “parallel” walks, one with you, one with your training partner, with humans between them at first, and eventually with dogs between humans when you’re sure their emotions are appropriate. Parallel swims, for dogs who love the water, can work well too.
When you feel the dogs are ready to finally interact with each other again, be careful not to undo all your hard work. You might first let them greet through a barrier, such as a baby gate or exercise pen. It’s useful desensitize both dogs to a muzzle over the period you’re desensitizing them to each other (in separate sessions), so the first time you’re ready for them to actually interact together you’re confident they can’t hurt each other. (www.abrionline.org/videos.php; Jean Donaldson “Conditioning an Emotional Response”)
The more intense the relationship between the two dogs, the more challenging their behavior is to modify. The more negative interactions they’ve had, the more injuries, the longer the tension has been going on, and the stronger their emotions, the longer it will take to reprogram their response to each other. If they were good friends at one time, it’s likely to be easier than if they’ve always been aggressive with each other. Always remember to seek the help of a qualified positive behavior professional if you don’t feel competent and confident about working with your dogs on your own.
WHAT YOU CAN DO 1. Manage your dogs’ environment so they don’t have the opportunity to continue aggressing with each other. 2. Identify your dogs’ stressors and eliminate as many as possible to keep them further from their bite threshold while you modify behavior. 3. Seek help from a qualified positive behavior professional sooner rather than later if you’re out of your depth. Aggression is a serious matter!
Peaceable Paws LLC Pat Miller, CPDT, CDBC 301-582-9420 www.peaceablepaws.com
Pat Miller is a Certified Dog and Horse Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. She offers classes, behavior modification services, training clinics and academies for trainers at her 80-acre Peaceable Paws training facility in Fairplay, Maryland (US), and presents seminars worldwide. She has authored “The Power of Positive Dog Training,” “Positive Perspectives,” “Positive Perspectives 2,” and “Play With Your Dog.” Miller is training editor for The Whole Dog Journal, writes for Tuft’s University’s Your Dog, and several other publications. She shares her home with husband Paul, five dogs, three cats, five horses, a donkey and a potbellied pig.