DOG ON DOG AGGRESSION in the Multi Dog Household

Dogs that disagree with each other usually bark, growl or snap, and almost never make contact. When they do, there is usually a nick on an ear or the top of the head or shoulders.

If the issue sparking the dispute is not going to be an ongoing problem, the dogs then solicit one another for play or grooming and they go slowly so that they are understood. This is not the same as mere tolerance of each other’s presence. Hanging or biting on the neck are not normal dog to dog behaviors. They are behaviors that are associated with predatory events.

Fences are not sufficient to separate dogs that have a dispute if they can still see each other or otherwise continue to interact. All fences do in such cases is to raise the stakes without penalty. The dogs can and do increase their threats to a level that would not otherwise occur if there were costs in terms of physical responses from the other dog. Accordingly, in such situations, fences make inappropriately aggressive dogs worse, and better at being inappropriately aggressive, quickly.


Canine Behavioral Signaling vs. Dominance/Submission

There are no truly “submissive” or “dominant/alpha” dogs and by putting these labels on dogs we blind ourselves to all of the interesting information that the dogs are communicating with its species-typical postures. Dogs that roll on their back are signaling that they are withdrawing from active, solicitous interaction. If their limbs and tail are flaccid and their neck is fully exposed, they may invite/tolerate more passive interaction (e.g. sniffing, petting) from others. If they tuck their tail and put their paws over their chest and groin, they do not wish to interact, period. A normal dog recognizes this and withdraws, not because the first dog “submits” to them, but because they are capable of responding appropriately to the signals. An abnormal dog recognizes an opportunity and moves in for the kill. Often people say they thought the dogs had worked it out and one was submitting and that’s when the serious emotional and physical injury occurred. To allow dogs to continue in such distressing social situations is to make the aggressor more confident, no matter how abnormal (or normal) they are, and to make the normal, deferential dog a victim. Unfortunately, if you buy into the myths of alpha and submission, you would read the signals incorrectly and further reinforce these relative aggressor/victim roles. Higher ranking dogs seem to engender peace. High ranking dogs are those whose behaviors are appropriate given a number of contexts. They feel the need to challenge no one because they do not have to do so.

Social Responses:

Normal social responses are the outcome of a complicated signaling dance involving deferential behaviors that help map routes where all needs can best be met. This assumes normal behavior. Activity levels must be considered. Listen to dogs; they do a better job of interpreting abnormal dog behavior than we do. After all, they speak fluent dog.

Would anxiety be made worse or better if everyone is a ball of unexercised energy? WORSE.

Would anxiety be made worse or better by being turned out in an exuberant group? WORSE

Would dogs have a harder or easier time reading each other’s signals in the dark? HARDER.

Would signal translation difficulties make anxiety worse or better? WORSE.

Taken logically, everybody can ask themselves these types of questions and better assess the risks in any multi-dog situation or household.



Treating interdog aggression involves acknowledging and rejecting the myths discussed above. More often than not, the aggression is not because of a determined upstart who is challenging the status of some older or more dominant dog. It is because the abnormal dog undergoes as part of social maturity and wants that dog gone. It’s the aggressor who is inappropriate. This is the dog that people usually reward so that they can keep their status is usually aggressive out-of-context and without provocation, and that reinforcement of these behaviors only makes the situation worse, not better. Caught early enough, the aggressor can be treated with behavior modification designed to teach him or her to allow the other dog to exist. Behavior modification can be as complex as desensitizing and counter-conditioning the dogs to each other using treats and good head collars that can close the dog’s mouths (e.g. Gentle Leader). Or it can be as simple as letting the victim have free range during the day and locking the aggressor in a spare or lesser status room.


Aggression is based in anxiety and anti-anxiety medication has huge applicability here for both the victim and the aggressor. The victim must be protected – at all costs – from the aggressor. The victim needs to have a sense of control and safety. This can be provided in part by putting a bell on the aggressor’s collar so that the victim always knows where the aggressor is. Predictability lessens aggression. Dogs should be supervised and when this isn’t possible, kept completely separate.

If their relationship does not improve, what are the choices? You can place of the dogs. If you place the aggressor, it is safest if she or he goes to an only-one-dog home. It is usually easier to place the victim, which no one wants to do. If owners decide to keep both dogs, and treatment with behavior modification and medication has failed, those dogs will have to live completely separate.

This means separate rooms for sleeping, rotations on walks and in the yard, and separation by at least double gates – the canine equivalent of a no-fly zone – for feeding and daily activities. The dogs cannot be permitted to threaten or otherwise endanger each other. This situation has a zero-tolerance zone for mistakes, so doors must have a working lock so that children cannot accidentally unlatch it. (Highly placed hooks and eyes on both sides of the door are ideal for this). Is this hard? Of course, but if you are highly motivated you can do it in a way that is safe and humane for all parties


Patricia McConnell


Reprinted by Shaggeypaws