Adding Rules and Structure to Stop a Pair of Dogs From Fighting

By: David Codr

Published Date: October 21, 2015

Sydney and Wednesday

Sydney (left) is a one-year-old Border Collie mix who is now aggressive to her room mate Wendy, a three-year-old Lab Corgi mix,who was returning the aggression after both dogs were put on Prednisone to stop some itching. Prior to the prescription, the dogs were the best of friends.

The aggression itself had progressed into a few full blown fights that ended up requiring stitches. After the last fight a few weeks ago, the guardians had kept the dogs completely isolated from one another. Whenever I have a case with dog aggression, I always like to evaluate each dog separately.

Sydney was first up. It quickly became apparent that she considered herself to be in a position of authority. She had started barking when I arrived and didn’t show any signs of letting up a few minutes into the session. I prefer to let the dog bark itself out in this setting, but to speed things along I made a few calming signals and got her to stop and settle down.

When dogs are in a group, the leader is usually the one in charge of security. While I wasn’t called in for this issue, the dog’s self perception and subsequent behavior has an absolute correlation to the aggression between the dogs. In fact there were a few times during the session where it was clear that Sydney was the initiator.

I set about to suggest a number of changes to the guardians to start to change the dog’s perception of its authority. At the end of the day, I want the dog to see the humans as responsible for handling discipline, correction and other authority jobs so that the dogs don’t feel the need to.

Because Sydney is a herding dog, it will be important that the guardians all assume a leadership role in the dog’s eyes. Herding dogs were bred to be independent thinker and problem solvers who correct. Sometimes these dog think it needs to lead and correct things that aren’t its responsibility. Having an assertive leader who is confident and alert / aware of the dog’s behavior and communication is an important element in rehabilitating a herding dog.

I started out by pointing out the dog’s lack of respect for their personal space and how they scent marked the furniture.

When a dog gets in a habit of always being so close to us, it can lead them to become clingy. In some dogs this will  lead to separation anxiety. In other dogs it can trigger protective / possessive aggressive behaviors.

I went over a few different ways for the guardians to claim their personal space. Sydney was persistent, but after a few timely corrections the dog eventually gave up and laid down a few feet away.

Its going to take a few days before Sydney gets into a habit of laying down near her guardians instead of right under her feet. But the more that the guardians enforce this buffer-space and correct her when she forgets, the more Sydney will start to see herself as being in the follower role.

To help accelerate this leader follower change, I demonstrated the leadership exercise I created  few years ago. This exercise will help the dog practice self restraint and build up its respect for the authority of the guardians. It will also help the guardians practice the new non verbal forms of communication I showed them.

It only took me a few repetitions before Sydney understood the exercise. Once that was the case I started coaching all the family members through it individually. The father of the family was up first.

The father was pretty slow on his reactions at first. When it comes to dog behavior, timing is everything. Each time Sydney started to get close to a three foot line from the treat, he needs to hiss. If he waits 1-2 seconds too long, the dog is already past the tree foot boundary its supposed to respect.

He also stopped short multiple times. The idea is to march rapidly right at the dog the instant it crossed the three foot boundary around the treat. You need to almost walk through the dog if its still there. If the marching movement at the dog is sudden and deliberate enough, the dog will back away which is what we want.

The mother of the family was up next.

Because we had practiced the exercise over a half dozen times by the time this above video was shot, Sydney was almost on auto pilot.

Not only did Sydney complete the exercise much faster this time, she was holding her head a little higher. I love seeing positive improvements in a dog’s self esteem and how they carry themselves when they are feeling good about themselves.

Next up was the family’s daughter, Wednesday’s primary guardian.

The daughter was faster in her responses, but will need to work on keeping her hips pointed directly at he dog no mater where it moves to. She was neglected the hiss when Sydney started to go for the treat. This hiss is the way to say “no” loud and clear to the dog. Often a well timed hiss, will stop a dog in its tracks.

Also this video shows Sydney starting to assume the time to get the treat. You can see her start moving as soon as the daughter turns to the side. But the rule is the dog needs to wait for the human to tap the floor next to the treat. If the dog gets up and goes for the treat in the future without getting the tap first, the guardian will need to stand up suddenly and turn to face the dog. If this doesn’t back it away, they should march right at it until it gets at least three feet away.

It was time to switch dogs so I could get a peek at Wednesday. You could see right away that she was a more timid or insecure dog. Her pupils were dilated, she carried her head low and on a swivel with a sort of hunched over body posture.

She seemed to take lead and corrections pretty well, but her lack of self esteem can be a contributing factor to the fights. Often times an unbalanced dog that isn’t aggressive will act that way to another dog if it engages in inappropriate submissiveness. Its almost a case of, if you are that submissive, I’m going to be dominant.

A great way to instill higher self esteem in a dog is to teach it new commands and tricks. To that end I advised her guardian to find a new one to teach her each week. Not only will this result in more confidence and self esteem, it will deepen the leader follower relationship between the two.

I had Wednesday’s guardian run through the exercise with her just to make sure that there weren’t any unforeseen behavior or issues.

Wednesday’s positioning on the other side of the table was consistent with some trepidation. But her body language looked much improved when she was running through the exercise with her guardian.

I suggested that all the members of the family practice the Leadership Exercise with each dog daily for the next two weeks. This will help the humans improve their observation skills, timing and non verbal ways to disagree. The more the humans correct the dogs and the dogs practice restraining themselves and looking to the humans for permission, there they move into the follower position.

I added a leash to a post in the far side of the room and suggested that the guardians use it along with a similar leash anchor on the other side of the room at least once a day for a good 30 minutes or more.

By getting the dogs into the same room together, they can practice simply being around one another and the guardians can be on the lookout for any confronting communication signs; lowered head with an extended direct stare, raised hackles, tail going straight up, frozen movement, fast or slow breathing, etc.

It will be important for the guardians to identify the communication triggers and disagree with them immediately. The exercise will be useless if it results in an outburst. A big part of the rehabilitation process will be to regularly to get the dogs in the same room to practice being together without incident.

We switched up the dogs again so I could teach Sydney’s guardian how to get her to stay away from the door when people knock or ring the bell. We ran through it a few times, changing things each time to help the guardians defend the access to the door.

The resistance Sydney put up against her guardian’s claiming of the door, tells me that she is the dog that will need the greater amount of work to stop the dog on dog aggression. This was confirmed when one of the guardians told me that the last fight was initiated by Sydney’s staring then charging at Wednesday.

To help the guardian exert more influence on the exercise, I got a tennis racquet out of my car. The tennis racquet can become an extension of your arm which helps with a dog who tries to use its athletic ability to defeat its handler.

The tennis racquet was a big help, but the father’s delayed responses when Sydney crossed onto the hard wood floors opened up a challenge opportunity. This was amplified by his stopping short of the dog once he did move forward. While its natural to not want to bump or step on your dog, in this exercise the dog needs to think “If i don’t get out of the way, I’m getting run over.” This causes the dog to move back long before the human gets close.

You can also see the importance of position. A few times when the father starts to open the door, he tilts his hips slightly, and that is exactly when Sydney moves forward. Recognizing these tells can help a guardian move quicker as you almost see it before it happens.

I spent some time with the dogs in the living room to see how they responded  and reacted to one another. Most of the experience was the dogs showing avoidance towards one another and there was a little heaviness to the room so I decided to take them out for a walk.

I fitted both dogs up with a Martingale collars and showed the guardians how to apply the special twist to the leash to give them more control and stop any pulling.

The guardians had been letting the dogs walk in front and pretty much anywhere they wanted with retractable leashes. Because a dog who walks in front of a human sees itself as literally leading that human, that’s one position this family will want to avoid with both dogs.

A big part of their rehabilitation will be walks together with both dogs at a heel. This way they are together and both in a follower position as the human sets the pace and leads them. This is another experience we can set up to allow the dogs to practice being together.

I took both leashes and demonstrated how to walk and correct the dogs with the Martingales before having the guardians walk the dogs individually to start.

Even with the Martingale, Sydney pulled quite a bit. The guardians will need to improve their timing and correction technique (pulling straight up) and keep the line from getting tense. All of them pulled the dogs back on the leash a few times. But the trick is to disagree with a quick tug the second the dog gets too far front, then let the leash go slack again.

Both dogs need work on the leash as night is practiced in the heel. I suggested that guardians walk each dog separately a few times a day to practice the heel and putting the dog into a sit. Its important both dogs practice sitting outside on the leash as neither did it very well. This command is vital so that you can give your dog this command when it sees something that starts to get it excited.

But after a few passes, both dogs were proficient enough for the guardians to walk them together. The daughter was up first.

She will need to practice her corrections when the dogs move in front. Because they are trying to essentially regain their leader (out front) position, some dogs really resist and keep pulling to the front. This usually continues until the guardian learns to correct with a quick tug the second before the dog moves in front.

A trick is to try to keep your arms hanging straight down but completely relaxed. When the dog gets out of position, correct it right away, but always go back to a loose leash immediately after.

The father went next and the dogs were the calmest and most relaxed they were the entire session.

When we got back from the walk, we went over the game plan:

  1. Master the Leadership exercise and practice claiming personal space until the dogs do both very well.
  2. Spent time in the same room tethered on leashes on opposite sides of the room. Practice this until the dogs go through a full week with no staring or aggressive behaviors occurring.
  3. Master walking at a heel individually, while also walking both dogs together daily.
  4. Start teaching the dogs a new command or correction every week for two months.
  5.  Increase time in the same room together and longer walks together.
  6. Introduce the muzzles in positive ways with the dogs separated until they are both completely calm and confident in them.
  7. Walk the dogs together and practice having them tethered on the leash together while muzzled. Continue until the dogs are calm and confident while wearing muzzles around each other.
  8. Start adding a social interaction time together in the back yard after walking together with both dog’s muzzled. This should be continued until the dogs start to interact with one another in a positive casual way. If either dog shows dominant or aggressive behavior it should be corrected immediately and placed on a leash as needed.
  9. Increase social time together after walks, but only practice together-time AFTER a walk together.
  10. After the dogs are up to over an hour of together time without any incidents for a consecutive week, then inside together-time can start. Dogs should be muzzled and in the largest open room as possible to ensure they don’t feel cornered or confined. Initially this inside together-time should only be done after a walk together.
  11. After a week or no indoor together-time incidents, then the dogs should be ready for being together for longer periods of time, but still muzzled.

After the dogs have successfully completed these steps, they should be on the road to togetherness again. But as there can be many contributing factors involved in any aggression case, the guardians will need to remain vigilant and separate them any time they see one dog challenging, dominating or being aggressive with the other.

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