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November 29, 2009

Reasons Why Dogs Fight

By: American Kennel Club

There is a lot more to know about dog fights than just knowing how to break them up. Dog fights can cause long term physical and behavioral problems. If a fight occurs it is important to seek veterinary care immediately for physical injuries. Your veterinarian will also be able to help you deal with your dog’s aggression towards other canines.

Understanding the cause will help prevent future fights. Your veterinarian will want a detailed account of the fight; each small detail can uncover important clues to the cause. Be prepared to recall the actions and postures of the dogs just before, during and after the fight. A dog that has been a “victim” multiple times or a dog that has instigated fights will benefit from veterinary behavior advice because severe anxiety may exist. Please note that habitual “victims” can turn their anxiety into aggression towards other dogs or people.

There are two different events that can occur; a scuffle or argument and a true fight. A scuffle may occur as a necessary process that teaches a dog about its social system. These usually will be loud and vicious sounding; however, it usually ends within a minute and most dogs come away with no injuries. During a scuffle, dogs often grab around the ears, sides of the neck and shoulders.

A true fight can end in severe injury or even death. During a true fight, the aggressor will grab for the front legs, the throat and the belly. In reaction to the attack, the recipient may attempt to stop the aggressor by grabbing a hold of the aggressor’s ear and refusing to let go. This prevents the aggressor from getting a hold of the recipient’s throat.

Why dogs fight
There is a lot of misinformation in regards to why dogs fight. People assume that dogs fight to become “top dog”, but in reality fights can be caused by several things. Fights can take place between both unfamiliar and familiar dogs. Fighting may occur due to a complex combination of environment, experience, nature and nurture. Anxiety often is an underlying issue when dogs are displaying aggressive behaviors. In certain cases some dogs would prefer to spend their time with humans rather than interacting with other dogs. All dogs are different. Providing a good environment that reduces as much of their anxiety as possible will be important for their mental wellbeing.

If your dog fights with unfamiliar dogs, he probably has an underlying fear or anxiety that provokes those fights. It may result from a lack of sufficient contact with other dogs perhaps starting from when he was a puppy and lack of learning about canine social behavior. Due to the lack of proper socialization during his puppyhood, he may not know how to read the signals and communication of other dogs.

Past experiences can also teach your furry friend to fear other dogs. Their anxiety may appear as aggression because they would rather attack than be attacked. The type of dog, how it approaches, the environment and the signals the other dog gives off may all play a factor. Dogs can also be more defensive when on a leash or accompanying family members because of the signals that the family member gives off as well as the fact they cannot escape. It is important to remember that every past negative experience with another dog will be remembered and lead to their response in the next situation. This learned association can possibly be changed by working with a veterinary behaviorist or professional dog trainer.

If your dog fights with housemates, fear may be a part of it; however, there are other factors that can play into these fights. Dogs that live together usually have worked out how to communicate appropriately with each other; if they haven’t then they will need treatment and behavior modification. This is often called sibling rivalry. A characterization of the relationship between the dogs; sibling rivalry is not a diagnosis of the problem.

As dogs grow up and come into their mature personality they may be more likely to challenge than to back down. This is not necessarily about dominance but rather about learning how much they can and cannot get away with (similar to human teenagers pushing their limits to see how far they can push before they get in trouble). Some of these scuffles may be loud and horrible sounding but they are brief and usually end with no injuries. After a couple of times the youngster will learn the boundaries and how to properly communicate with the adults in the house or in some cases may be successful at teaching the adult dog to back away. If fighting occurs frequently and/or there are serious injuries, there is a problem and help from a veterinary behaviorist or professional dog trainer will be necessary.

Dogs may fight over resources. Resources can be food, toys, prime places to sleep, favorite areas in the house or human attention. Anything seen as having value can cause dogs to fight. Most of these dogs will show possessiveness over those items that are of most value because they fear that they will lose access to these special things. Talk to your veterinarian or dog trainer about ways to desensitize dogs to these resources to eliminate guarding behaviors.

Dogs can bully other dogs. Inappropriately pushy dogs will cause other dogs to defer to them in situations. Fighting and threats should cease as soon as the second dog shows deferent or appeasing postures. However, dogs that continue to be aggressive toward other dogs may be unable to read normal cues or do not respond appropriately to the cues that these other dogs are giving. In these cases it will be important to seek out appropriate care. Through behavior modification and training, dogs can be taught how to properly interact with other dogs.

Figuring out the causes of the fights will help you avoid the stresses that lead to your furry friend’s aggression. It will be very important to avoid the situations while completing the behavior modification treatment plan so that your dog does not have a setback in his learning process.

Dogs will develop a proper hierarchy concerning resources such as food, toys and attention. It is not unusual for one dog to assume control over the majority of resources. Humans will often interpret and institute “fairness” differently than how dogs interpret it. This can cause a very unstable situation between the two dogs. The dog that normally controls the resources will feel that he has to work harder to reclaim control. Additionally, the dog that is not use to being in charge is forced into being the leader (he may be more relaxed and comfortable when he is taking cues from his housemate). As long as there are no injuries being inflicted, it is best to let the dogs establish the hierarchy and relationship. This usually doesn’t take long for the relationship to be established through posturing. It is important for humans to accept the rules created by the dogs. However, if injuries are occurring, these rules do not apply.

Leash Aggression
It is important to anticipate interaction between dogs while they are on a leash. Leash situations are very unnatural in the dog world because they inhibit normal greeting behaviors. Humans often subconsciously transfer their own anxiety by tugging on the leash to break up the interaction before the dogs can feel each other out. This leads to anxiety associated with the other dog and will affect how they interact with the next dog they meet on a leash. Additionally, the leash can give them the feeling that they cannot escape if there is danger (this will increase the level of anxiety). The best way to handle this is to teach your dog how to properly greet other dogs when on a leash. If they greet appropriately they can be reinforced. If they appear fearful or over exuberant, they should first be taught to settle by focusing on the owners or walking be on a loose leash before allowing any greeting. Refraining from retractable leashes, using positive training and rewarding good behavior with treats should be used to accomplish this goal. Dogs will be less anxious during walks when they understand proper greeting behavior and when they focused on their calm owner.

Training is very important; however, well trained dogs can end up in fights too. Aggression towards other dogs is not necessarily caused by poor training although punishment based training has a tendency to increase anxiety and reward based training is most likely to reduce anxiety. Intense anxiety can cause your dog to momentarily forget his training and react with aggression. It is very important to understand that an aggressive dog is not a bad dog, but rather a dog that does not handle certain situations well.

Rather than reacting to stressors, it is best to initially avoid situations that cause anxieties and use behavior modification to ease them into situations over time. Some dogs find situations like dog parks to be stressful because they do not enjoy the interactions with other dogs or certain dogs. To help your furry friend, avoid putting him in a stressful situation that fills him with anxiety. Some dogs feel anxious when given food or treats around other animals because they fear it will be stolen from them. Try feeding these dogs alone in a secure and safe location. Remember to examine the things and situations that cause your furry friend to stress out or become anxious. Putting your pet in these situations is setting them up to fail. Give your dog a chance to succeed by avoiding these situations altogether.

Early socialization will help your canine companion play with other dogs. The prime time for socialization is between 8 and 12 weeks. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior recommends starting puppy classes prior to the conclusion of their series of vaccines. Puppies should have vaccines, a health check and parasite control before beginning of classes and should be maintained on the proper vaccine and parasite control schedule while attending classes and kept home if they exhibit signs of illness. Most important is that the class screens all puppies to insure that they have met basic health criteria before entry. Puppy classes will expose your puppy to a wide variety of breeds and a wide variety of people. Most puppy classes also introduce a variety of other stimuli including different surfaces, obstacles, uniforms, moving objects and handling exercises to help the puppy get used to these at a young age. If your pup shows any kind of fear or aversion to the other dogs, it is important to remove them from the situation and slowly desensitize them to the cause of their anxiety. Watch for any signs of fear or anxiety in your puppy. If you force the situation your puppy will become more fearful of future interactions. Socialization should be frequent and often and move forward at whatever pace your puppy needs to avoid fear.

If your puppy shows any fear to other dogs, desensitizing your pet will require slow progress and positive reinforcement for desired behavior. Use a special treat or favored toy only when around other dogs to create a positive association. Give your puppy this valuable treat only when he is calm and relaxed around other dogs. Slowly increase the interaction with other dogs (give him his special treat each time he reacts calmly). This will help reinforce the appropriate behavior and keep the situation positive around other dogs. Corrections or punishment training will lead your dog to become more fearful of the situations in which he is corrected. Each negative correction may lead to a fearful response that can develop into aggression.

Breaking up a fight
The number one rule when it comes to dog fights is: do not put yourself in danger. Never put your hands near the front of your dog. Do not try to grab the collars of the dogs that are fighting because they will bite you. When fighting, dogs will go after anything or anyone (including humans) that tries to come between them. Attempt to break up a fight by using a favorite phrase like “want a treat” or “want to go for a walk” (sometimes dogs will respond to this). If that doesn’t work, try to redirect their attention by startling them with a harsh tone. If they are wearing a leash, pull the dogs apart and separate them. Do not punish the dogs. This will usually only add fuel to the fire and cause escalation of the fighting.

If you cannot get them to separate through verbal distraction it may be necessary to use remote devices to break up the fight like spraying them with water, citronella sprays, or fire extinguishers. Use whatever works without causing harm to either dogs or yourself. Once the dogs are separate, seek veterinary care as soon as possible for any physical injuries.

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