This week, my sister’s dogs inspired me to write about a behavior issue. Her dogs suffer from sibling rivalry—or dominance status aggression.
My sister’s dogs are bundles of sweetness. And if you saw them curled up together on their bed, spooning like lovers, you would never guess they’ve had some brutal fights.
Although this doesn’t seem like a health topic, it is. A dog fight can seriously injure your pets, and you.
Dominance status aggression (DSA) is a broad topic. It’s a form of aggression that can show itself in many ways. But I’ll only cover one type of DSA in this article.
I’m talking about two dogs that have lived together for a while and generally get along well, but occasionally have an all-out brawl. One dog is consistently the aggressor. And the aggression usually takes place when you’re around.
I’m not talking about dominance aggression that exists between dog and owner, or two strange dogs, or dog and strange person. Those are topics for another time.
This week I’m only talking about your dogs that can be best friends one minute, and fierce enemies the next. Or so it seems.
Why do dogs that seem to love each other fight?
There is so much about animal behavior to understand before you can fix a dangerous problem. I won’t cover it all here.
But I can share enough information to help you see the problem and hopefully get the help you need to fix it. Or maybe even fix it on your own.
One thing you probably know about dogs is they’re related to wolves and they have the same pack mentality as their wild ancestors. It’s essential to the survival of the wild pack animal to have a social hierarchy.
The same holds true in a multi-dog household. If you own more than one dog, one of them will be dominant (the alpha). Depending on your dogs, it may be obvious to you which dog it is, but not always. Some dogs need to be clearly dominant. Others don’t.
You must recognize the dominant dog’s role in the pack to understand and accept your role in the problem.
That’s right. Your dogs will fight if you have somehow muddied the relationship between them. And I will tell you that even the most dedicated, loving and well-intentioned dog owner can inadvertently create tension between their dogs.
How does this happen? It’s simple. We as humans have a preconceived idea which of our dogs should be the pack leader.
It’s the dog we had first, the oldest dog in the house, the one who’s most frail, or the one we’re simply more attached to.
But dogs have their own way of working this out. Which dog will be dominant is based on several factors including sex, age, health, and personality. The dogs will decide for themselves who is the alpha dog or pack leader.
It’s instinctual. Nothing you do can change this. Imposing your own ideas of what is fair will only confuse your dogs.
So if you are continually yelling at the alpha in your house because he’s taking toys or snarling at the other dog, you are confusing both of them and their social hierarchy.
This creates friction between the dogs… especially when you’re around. If your dogs are exhibiting dominance status aggression, you will notice it mostly happens when you are there. When you aren’t home, they probably don’t fight.
If you are giving your old, frail or favored dog the most attention and the best treats and toys regardless of his status in the pack, you’re encouraging the true alpha to put the less dominant dog in its place. You’re encouraging a fight.
If you then yell, scold or punish the offender for fighting, you’re perpetuating the problem.
Dominance status aggression can also come out of nowhere when a young subordinate dog becomes socially mature or a previously dominant dog gets sick or old. In this situation, the social hierarchy changes. There can be scuffles if the owner doesn’t recognize the change and favors the now subordinate dog.
How can you diffuse the tension?
The solution to this problem is difficult for most owners to implement. But it’s essential you try.
You must favor the dominant dog whether it’s the dog you think should be dominant or not. Favoring the alpha means, they get the coveted toys. They walk out the door first (before subordinate dog). They get the best spot (closest to you) on the couch or bed.
If dominant dog has to sit for his food, subordinate has to work harder. He has to sit and wait for a moment before he gets to eat.
I can tell you from my experience it’s so difficult to do this when you have an older dog that’s been in your family for years and you bring a new dog into the mix.
My female Lab was 10 years old when we rescued our 5-year-old male Greyhound. He came in to our home like Simba in The Lion King. He was big, confident, and healthy. She was not. Logically, he was the alpha. But she was so special to me.
I couldn’t resist giving her more attention than him at first. He confused her. She was afraid of his quick movements. She was old and didn’t walk so well. And he would push her out of the way every time she came near me.
That made me angry and made me want to shower her with even more attention. I did. And it caused problems. They fought… and it was my fault.
You must resist the urge to control the pack order. Let the dogs decide who the alpha is and support that dog’s position in the pack.
Favor the subordinate dog when the alpha’s not around. Take subordinate dog out of the house and lavish attention on her then. Or give her extra attention when alpha dog is playing outside, and she’s in the house. There are ways to make her still feel equally (or more loved) without the alpha feeling their position is being threatened.
And if a fight breaks out, leave the room because you are the fuel. Once you’re gone, the reason to fight has gone.
And never, ever punish or yell at either dog for the conflict. This will only confuse them more.
If one or both of the dogs are intact, spaying or neutering can ease the tension too. Raging hormones are no help if your dogs are showing any signs of aggression.
Of course, you are always the supreme leader of the pack. All canine members of the household must know that. If you maintain your position as leader, you will give the alpha dog the messages he needs to lead the canine pack.
You maintain your alpha role by training your dog to obey basic commands and being consistent in your expectations of their behavior. They should work for what you give them meaning they must respond to a command before they eat, go outside, get attention, get a treat.
It does NOT mean you hit them, yell at them, or roll them on their backs to get them to submit.
It may be very difficult at first to implement these suggestions. But sending a clear message to both of your dogs who the alpha is will allow for peaceful coexistence.
Otherwise, the tension caused by your dogs’ confusion will continue to result in fighting. And when dogs get used to a behavior, good or bad, it becomes more difficult to change the behavior. You’ll find that the severity of the fights will also escalate.
Change your behavior and you will see very quickly how it changes your dogs’ behavior.
If these suggestions aren’t working or you find the fighting is escalating, talk to your vet for a referral to an animal behaviorist who can help.
Also, there could be something else going on. Many things can trigger aggression, not the least of which is illness. So don’t ignore an aggression problem.
Have you ever experienced dominance status aggression with your dogs? Tell us how you worked it out in the comment section at the top.