Managing Aggressive Dogs Behavior in the Family (2023)

Managing Aggressive Dogs Behavior in the Family (2)

Aggression between several dogs in the household can lead to serious injury or death of one or more members of the canine family.

  1. manage, manage, manage. Without management, tension between your dogs is likely to increase, making change exponentially more difficult.
  2. Remove as much stress as possible from your dogs’ lives.
  3. Implement an appropriate behavior modification plan to improve your dogs’ relationships with each other.
  4. Enlist the services of a qualified non-violent behavior therapist if the aggression is severe and/or if you have doubts about your ability to keep everyone safe by working on intra-family aggression issues.

I cringe a little every time I get a call from a potential client about aggression between their own dogs in the home, but in the last year, I have become more aware of this situation. The number of families who have called me for help with aggression between dogs within the family has skyrocketed — and that number includes three families who have called me because one of their dogs killed another of their dogs. In the 21 years of Peaceable Paws’ existence, I have never received such a call. To receive three in just a few months astounds me.

This behavior is sometimes referred to as “in-cage” aggression. In recent years, however, we have moved away from the concept of Canis lupus familiaris as a true pack animal and have come to understand that a collection of several dogs — whether loose “street dogs” or kept in a home — is usually a loosely organized social group of unrelated dogs and not a true “pack.” Members of your family, yes, of course. But a true pack, that is, a group of closely related dogs — mother, father and several puppies who have not yet fended for themselves…. no. Hence my new term: intrafamilial aggression.

Whatever you call it, it’s no fun to live with. Until a few years ago, when old age took our 13-year-old Australian Shepherd, Missy, from us, our lives were a constant management challenge. When we adopted Missy at the age of eight, our very confident five-year-old Cardigan Corgi, Lucy, objected to Missy’s excited greetings when I walked in the back door, and arguments ensued. We did this by locking Lucy in my office when I left so I could greet Missy at the door and then Lucy once Missy calmed down.

Even before Missy joined our family, we had become accustomed to giving our dogs valuable objects to chew on only when they were locked in their cages, and valuable toys only under direct supervision, as Lucy had shown a strong tendency toward resource guarding from an early age. Although our other two dogs heed Lucy most of the time, we carefully monitored feeding times to ensure that no one offended her by trying to play with the food bowls.

It can be exhausting to monitor the dogs’ every move, but it is essential for peaceful coexistence in a household with one or more dogs who could hurt each other.

If you do nothing else to combat aggression among your dogs, you must be diligent in managing their movements and activities. Every time your dog successfully displays behavior that you don’t want him to display, it is much more difficult to convince him that it is not a useful behavioral strategy. Each time your dog communicates aggressively with another canine family member, you increase the risk of intractable aggression between the two of you and serious injury to one or both animals.

In this case, management involves the use of leashes, tethers, baby gates, cages, locked doors and kennels to control the dogs’ movements and access to others. Some homes even have separate floors, with Dog A confined to the second floor, Dog B to the second floor and Dog C to the basement.

Whatever management tools you choose, it is important to avoid increasing tension between dogs. If your canine family members growl at each other because they are on opposite sides of a baby trap, or if one of them is defensive because he is locked in his crate while his tormentor is dancing outside, it will not help your quest for world peace.

Medication to modify your dog’s behavior can also help. Consultation with a behavioral therapist or veterinarian will help determine the appropriate medication and its purpose, whether it is to calm the abuser, reduce the victim’s stress, or change the mindset and behavior of one or both animals. If you do not have access to one of these professionals, your veterinarian can arrange a phone consultation with a behavioral health veterinarian; many offer this service free of charge to other veterinarians.

You can choose to manage your dogs while you work to improve your relationship through behavior modification, or you can simply opt for lifetime behavioral management for one or both dogs. Lifetime management can be a perfectly reasonable choice. In either case, there are a few things you should know.

Some trainers warn their clients that management always fails at some point. I prefer to say that management is likely to fail at some point. If you are looking at management as a long-term solution, you need to consider two things: the likelihood of your dogs’ management failure and the consequences of that failure.

There are several conditions that increase the likelihood of management failure:

  • Children in the household. From toddlers to teenagers, children are generally less attentive and less reliable in their ability and willingness to follow management protocols.
  • Adults not involved in the household. Adults who are not interested in the welfare of the dogs may not pay attention to management protocols, or worse, if the adults are somehow upset or irritated by the dogs, they may actively undermine management efforts.
  • Many visitors. It is unreasonable to expect visitors to understand and follow your management protocols. If you have frequent visitors, consider using locks and padlocks rather than locking doors. If you have infrequent visitors, but the family is staying for a week during the vacations, consider hosting one or more dogs.
  • Persistent or particularly strong dog(s). The more one or more of your dogs seeks to harm the other, the more likely management will fail. A dog that constantly looks for an opportunity to push open a door, break down a child gate, or jump over a fence is much more likely to fail in management than a dog that only takes the opportunity when it presents itself.

What are the consequences of poor dog management? The answer to this question may give you a clue as to how you want to handle your quarrelsome dogs. If there is only a little (or a lot) of noise and anger, but no blood, management may be a reasonable long-term option. For example, in a household with two dogs of similar size and weight with good bite inhibition, no serious damage will be done even if there is a management error.

However, at the other end of the severity spectrum is a household where there is a big difference in the size and strength of the dogs, or where one of the dogs has poor bite inhibition, which means that when he bites, he always does a lot of damage. In cases like this, where a management failure in your canine family means someone could end up in the emergency clinic (or worse!), your management must be conscientious and decisive, with all family members on board, and a behavior modification program that reduces tension between the dogs must be taken seriously.

Note: Intra-familial aggression can be a complex and difficult behavior to manage and change. For the purposes of this article, we are talking about dogs that normally get along well and where aggression only occurs under certain circumstances. Dogs that are consistently and seriously aggressive just by being seen are an entirely different challenge and certainly require the guidance of a qualified non-violent behavior professional.

In reality, there are a variety of canine behaviors that behavior experts would call “aggression”-or more accurately, “agonistic behavior”-but most dog owners are only familiar with the most dramatic behaviors, such as growling, pawing, biting and fighting. The more subtle agonistic behaviors, such as freezing, staring or even lack of eye contact, may go unnoticed and untreated. It is very helpful for the owner to learn to recognize subtle signs of aggression, perhaps with the help of a canine behavior expert, so that management and modification measures can be put in place long before aggressive actions lead to injury (or worse).

It is also important for owners to understand that aggression is caused by stress. Dogs that do not have a care in the world do not need to behave aggressively. They use aggressive behaviors to change the conditions that contribute to their stress in order to reduce it.

For example, approaching a strange person or dog with fear is stressful; a dog may engage in aggressive behavior to try to put more distance between himself and the person or dog he perceives as a threat. For some dogs, the worry of having a toy or chew taken away or the fear of losing access to the most comfortable bed or proximity to a favorite human is stressful; some of these dogs may attempt to relieve their stress by aggressively defending their prized possessions.

The more stressors a dog has, the more likely it is to behave aggressively. And since you can’t predict which stressor may cause him to cross his stress threshold and harm another dog or human, the Jenga of stressors! — is especially helpful to identify as many of his stressors as possible and eliminate as many as possible. (For an article explaining stress thresholds in detail, see “Understanding Aggression in Dogs,” October 2010).

Try to list every stressor your dog can think of; the list of possible triggers for intrafamilial aggression is endless. The solution to eliminate each stressor depends on which stressor it is, but there are five main approaches that can be used with almost all of them; see the “List of Stressor Examples and Strategies” in the table above.

In the meantime, consider appropriate behavior modification measures based on your dog’s triggers.

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