When two (or more) dogs that you love and live with are fighting it is an extrememly upsetting problem. Owners that experience this problem come to me with more desperation than most. Dog fights are disturbing things to witness and when the dogs involved are your own ther are few things more troubling to experience. Here are some common ways to deal with dog aggression within the home, and each of these methods is fueled by a potential reason for the aggression.
Hierarchy-based solutions are very popluar, which is unfortunate in my opinion. The fact of the matter is that to assume that “dominance” or social hierarchy has anything to do with your dogs fighting doesn’t help you get to a solution. What usually happens instead is the tyrant in the house (the one that is starting the fights, and there is usually one) gets mistaken for the “alpha” and the owners are instructed to support this dog in his position on the totem pole. Then the tyrant is reinforced and built up, while the poor dog that’s been getting beat up just gets pushed into the background. This only empowers the aggressor, if it has any affect at all. Having one dog always go first, eat first, etc. doesn’t change anything in my experience.
Letting the dogs “work it out,” is an appalling but still popular choice. A lot of trainers will instruct owners to just turn the two conflicted dogs loose together and let them work it out on their own. You are risking injury and even death if this is your choice. They are dogs. If they are fighting then they are hoping one dog will pick up and move out; if that doesn’t happen the fights will become more severe until serious injury or even death occur. Do not let them work it out on their own!
Corrective techniques, as always, are out there. Many trainers will have you bring the two dogs near each other, and correct them (with tool of choice, be it electricity or not) if they try to aggress or even if they try to interact. As discussed previously on my blog, adding aggression to aggression is never a good choice. These are living breathing things that have their own feelings and emotions; respect their autonomy or risk their problems worsening.
Making more rules for everyone, and insisting that eveyone follow these rules is the way I tend to go if the dogs are having simple arguments that are not resulting in injuries. Everyone must sit and wait at doorways, everyone must sit and wait for food, and everyone must listen immediately to the sound of their name. The first dog to sit and wait for anything gets that thing first, regardless of whether or not that dog is the aggressor or not. In addition to that, if there are clear “things” causing the fights (thresholds, sleeping spaces, chew bones, toys, etc.) these things are removed from the environment when possible. If the things can’t be removed, the dogs are never allowed to access these things at the same time. Simply managing the houshold better can usually solve minor fighting issues.
I will also introduce some classical conditioning exercises for more serious fighting (injuries happening, clear increased stress and fear in the dogs) cases. In these scenarios the dogs are taught to enjoy or at least tolerate each other’s company again.
When severe injurious fights have happened multiple times I often feel that the relationship between the two dogs is too damaged to repair entirely. This is one of the few scenarios in which I will ask owners to consider rehoming one of the dogs–and it is the attackee not the attacker that I suggest rehoming. Of course I never insist or demand in any way that this is what is done, but I will bring it up if the fights are severe enough.
Lifetime separation is of course an option and I have known many people (and savvy dog people, many of them) to choose this. It is not a fun lifestyle but is often best for everyone involved.
This is a topic that deserves its own textbook, but I hope this post has helped you understand the issue of dogs fighting with family member dogs a little better.