In the past, rivalry between housemates was explained through the dominance theory, which states that there is a set pecking order between dogs and people in the household. Research shows us that domestic dogs do not act like wolves and have a fluid social structure. They are not pack animals and do not establish a dominance hierarchy.
Dogs communicate with each other using subtle body language and this can reduce conflict and promote cooperation among group members. Conflicts arise between household dogs when there are miscommunications, personality differences, and competition for resources.
Initially, dogs may only snarl, growl or snap without injuring each other. Sometimes, however, the conflict may intensify into prolonged bouts of dangerous fighting which may result in one or both dogs being injured.
Getting professional help
Ongoing canine rivalry is potentially dangerous since the dogs could be severely injured, as well as family members, if they become the object of redirected aggression when the dogs are fighting.
Because resolving rivalry problems requires managing the dogs somewhat complex behaviours, it’s often necessary for owners to obtain assistance from a professional animal behaviourist (see When to Seek Professional Help). Animal behaviourists are trained to observe, interpret and modify animal behaviour.
Dealing with rivalry problems
If the dogs involved are intact males or females, spay or neuter both dogs. Competition can be more intense between intact animals.
Never, under any circumstances, attempt to break up a fight between dogs by grabbing their collars or inserting any of your body parts between them. If you feel you must break up a fight between dogs, do so by squirting them with a hose (outdoors), by making a loud noise (clanging two pots together), throwing a towel or blanket over them or squirting them with water from a squirt bottle (indoors).
With the help of a professional animal behaviourist, elicit and reinforce non-aggressive behaviours using counter conditioning and desensitization techniques. These procedures must be designed and tailored to specifically meet the needs of each individual case and require professional in-home help. Some form of management, keeping the dogs separate as you work on the problem, might be necessary.
You should be aware that if you respond to this type of problem inappropriately, you run the risk of intensifying the problem and potentially causing injury to either yourself, your dogs or both.
Punishment will not solve the problem
Punishment can actually make the problem worse. We encourage you to seek assistance from your veterinarian regarding:
- Spaying and neutering your pet
- Evaluating the health status of your dogs
- A referral to a professional animal behaviourist
Rivalry and fighting problems can usually be resolved so that you and your dogs can live together in peace.