Adding Structure to Stop a Dog From Attacking Her Room Mate Dog

By: David Codr

Published Date: November 10, 2016


Gracie (left) is a five-year-old Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier who lives with seven-year-old German Shepherd Ellie. The guardians set up a dog behavior training session with me to stop Ellie from infrequently attacking Gracie.

Gracie was the first to meet me at the door and she was displaying a normal level of curiosity and excitement. But as soon as Ellie came into view, you could see Gracie lower her head and move slightly away. This is a classic sign of deferring and is usually done by dogs who it is not fully comfortable around or does not completely trust the other dog.

Im always concerned when one dog is attacking another, even if its infrequently so I was watching carefully to see how Gracie acted around Ellie. It was a good sign to see Gracie was staying in the entryway with Ellie still there as a dog who is truly fearful of another dog would move completely away and keep a good distance between them and the other dog.

I sat down with the dogs and their guardians to get more information on the situation and their day to day routine. Gracie got up on the couch very quietly and laid there behind one of her guardians while Ellie laid down on the floor a few feet away.

Because of the previous incidents between the dogs, the guardians had made some changes; allowing Gracie to get up on the furniture but not Ellie. This is logical, but can also create a little under the water friction. I would not say that it is the cause of the attacks, but if one dog sees another doing things it cannot do, over time it can be a contributing factor.

I did suggest some additional rules and structure to help the dogs observe the humans acting in the leadership capacity. If the humans as consistent and correct or disagree with the dogs the instant they start (within 3 seconds max) or even better before they do, Ellie will start to identify as more of a follower than she does now.

More than anything else, the dog’s guardians will need to be very proactive and observant when the dogs are together. If Ellie sticks her chin over Gracie’s back, stares at her, invades her space or gets between the humans and Gracie, they need to disagree immediately.

German Shepherds are a generally a strong willed breed of dog. As a result, strong confident and consistent leadership from the humans and appropriate dog training is pretty important. If the dog doesn’t see its humans as authority figures, they can easily get the impression they need to take care of things on their own.

In order to stop Ellie from attacking Gracie, the guardians will need to act as an authority figure in both dog’s eyes. Many humans take for grated that the dogs see them this way, after all we care for, feed and take care of our dogs and their basic needs. But to dogs, our actions speak loudest.

By disagreeing the instant they see Ellie doing anything inappropriate towards Gracie and not stopping until Ellie stops and returns to a calm, balanced, non confrontational state, her guardians will send a message that dominating the other dog is not tolerated.

There are some exercises that can help both dogs by building up skills that will boost their confidence and help develop control. I asked the guardians to put Ellie out into the back yard to work with her individually and see how that changed the dynamic.

It was instantly obvious that without Ellie’s presence, Gracie felt more relaxed and confident. She had a playful bounce to her step and a little exuberance in her movements. It was great to see her acting this way and it motivated me to come up with a solution that would allow this to continue all the time.

The first things I went over with Gracie was a basic Focus exercise.

At first, Gracie was a little unsure and looked or moved away from me. This is likely a coping mechanism that she has developed due to not being completely confident around Ellie. Dogs in this mindset want an escapability so they will often back up or move away when unsure.

Within a couple of minutes it became obvious that Gracie is an intelligent dog who wants to please her guardians. It only took a minute before she was looking up at my face unprompted.

But because this exercise needs a good amount of practice to start generating the results we want, I wanted to make sure that both of her guardians were using the right form and technique.

I recommended that the guardians start out by practicing this exercise with each dog individually. The dog should be able to sit and stay in place without the need of the leash before they consider doing the exercise with both dogs in the same room at the same time (with a good amount of distance between them and one person working with one dog at a time).

After wrapping up the Focus exercise I wanted to demonstrate one more exercise before we let Ellie back in from the back yard. The Stay is probably one of the more under rated or under appreciated exercises out there. Not only is it another great way for a dog to develop more self control, its a great tool the guardians can use when they notice Ellie is doing something that may lead to trouble.

Just like the Focus exercise, the dog’s guardians will need to practice the Stay exercise a few times a day and gradually make it more challenging. Just like working out, you need to stay with it and gradually build up mental muscles.

It will take a week or three of daily practice at both exercises, but if the guardians stay with it every day, they should see Gracie increase her confidence and relax more around Ellie. They should also see Ellie acting more respectfully.

When Ellie came back inside, Gracie stiffened up a bit, she was still much more relaxed than before we started working on the focus.

This change in behavior is likely a result of a boost of confidence from learning a new skill with her guardians while also being without Ellie in the room for a short time.

While I don’t usually like separating dogs, it may not be a bad idea for the guardians to take Gracie out for a short solo walk or some practice at the Focus or another exercise when she starts to look concerned (lowered head or hunched over body, slow movements or a tense body posture).

Dogs get over things by moving forward. So the walk, with its default change of scenery may be a great prescription for Gracie.

Next I went over some non verbal ways of communicating with the dogs. Verbal communication can often add excitement or other unwanted baggage so I showed the guardians how to communicate in a way that is close to how dogs speak to one another.

I recommended that the guardians use this new way of communicating with the dogs, especially when they see Ellie getting dominant or bossy around Gracie. They should also start claiming their personal space instead of letting Ellie push her way into the space between them and the couch.

Nothing wrong with a dog being close, but Ellie needs to start learning how to ask instead of telling. Communicating she needs to give them a 1 foot bubble or personal space, stop pushing or leaning on the humans and a 7-10 foot buffer away form anyone eating will help her practice this follower mindset she will need to stop her from thinking its ok to correct and attack Gracie.

Many dog fights happen due to one or more parties being over excited. A common problem I often have to fix is that many humans confuse excited for happy. But excited is simply an unbalanced state of mind. One thing these dogs need big time is calm and centered energy, albeit for different reasons.

Because Ellie was very excited to get released from her kennel, I spent a couple of minutes going over some crate training and a more structured way to let the dog out of the crate.

Waiting for the dogs to be calm before getting what they want will go a long ways towards preventing additional attacks from Ellie. While the above video is specific to the kennel, the guardians can incorporate a similar pause to any activity that gets Ellie over excited. While Gracie also has some excitement issues, they are no where near as pressing as Ellie’s as Gracie isn’t acting out in an aggressive way.

Now I should say that Ellie was not acting aggressively throughout the session. However, since she has attacked Gracie multiple times, although infrequently, its important that her guardians are proactive and observant for any signs or signals that may leading to another altercation.

One of the things I most admire about dogs is how resilient they are and how well they live in the present. At the end of the session, we headed outside to let the dogs do some business. This was when I spotted some behavior out of Gracie that told me that she was feeling better.

It was great to see Gracie running around with such joy. She was showing off and feeling good about herself. Because Ellie is not an aggressive dog, this sort of behavior is absolutely possible on a regular basis.

It will be important for the guardians to practice the focus and Stay exercise to develop control, add pauses and structure to things that get the dogs excited, claim their personal space and communicate what they do and don’t want from the dogs concisely and right away.

Ellie will be a good barometer for this. If she starts moving slowly, hunches over or self isolates, her guardians will need to make sure Ellie isn’t doing anything controlling or dominant. If she is, an immediate correction is in order. If that doesn’t snap Gracie out of it, a quick walk or practice at the exercises we introduced should help lift her confidence and spirits.

Once Ellie starts to identify as a follower, has developed control and stops getting over excited, territorial or pushy, her outburst attacks on Ellie should stop completely. As Gracie becomes more proficient with the new skills and exercises, her confidence should go up which will also have a positive impact on her relationship with Ellie.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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