Dog-Dog Aggression – Do We Know What’s What?

We’ve spent the last several weeks preparing for a two day seminar we’ll be giving with colleagues Dr. Marc Bekoff and Ms. Nancy Williams for Professional Animal Behavior Associates, Inc., in Guelph, Ontario Canada.  The theme is Dog-Dog Interactions:  The Good the Bad and the Ugly.

Dr. Bekoff has the lucky spot – speaking mostly about the “good” side of these relationships.  Suzanne will be talking about what motivates dog-dog aggression, Dan will be speaking on methods and inherent difficulties in assessing and evaluating dog aggressive dogs, and Nancy holds the anchor spot, speaking on behavior modification techniques for these problems.

What we’ve realized while preparing for the event is how little we know about relationships between dogs, how they develop and the factors that influence what sort of relationships develop. 

The literature mostly seems to still be stuck in “dominance” mode, attributing many problems to instabilities in social hierarchies, despite the fact that this attribution does not account for what we see with many of these problems.

For example, many of our cases have involved pairs of unrelated spayed female family dogs, in which one dog was already acquiescing to the other, attempting to avoid conflict, but the aggression from the attacking dog continued.  We started calling these dogs “bullies” because that’s what their behavior reminded us of. 

That’s not the way normal, healthy relationships between dogs should work.  The function of submissive and avoidance behaviors is to prevent or stop threatening and aggressive behavior. When one dog continues to be aggressive despite the display of these “cut off” signals from the other dog, something isn’t right.

Now, imagine implementing one of the more traditional procedures which is to support the “dominance” of one dog over another.  That just plays right into the “bully’s” model of the world.  The “bully” is learning that being “queen of the hill” must be the right way to behave.

In reality, some “bully” dogs are quite anxious and have learned to use aggression to suppress behaviors from other dogs that frighten them.  In other cases, the “bullies” just don’t seem to know how to respond appropriately to normal canine social signals, for reasons that often aren’t clear.  And in still others, the “bully” had never learned how to interact appropriately. 

The take home message is that dog-dog relationships are complex, and assigning them over-simplified labels such as “dominance”, or “resource guarding” can be misleading and interfere with gaining a clearer and more productive understanding of these problems.  It’s much more helpful to just describe the behaviors, the contexts in which they occur, and what elicits and also what inhibits or prevents conflict between the dogs.

A related topic is the role that owners play – or don’t play in the creation of these problems and in their resolution. For example – is it helpful or relevant to hand feed regular meals to a puppy that is being aggressive toward other puppies in a class setting?  We have a hard time seeing the relevance – but that’s a topic for a future article.

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