What is dog on dog aggression?
A common issue facing many dog owners is also one of the least understood. Dog on dog aggression is a confusing, frustrating and often frightening problem for dog owners when they take their pup for a walk in the local park or beach. Their dog may be absolutely fine around people and children, but when another dog so much as breathes near them, they flip out and try to attack.
So what is the big issue with dog on dog aggression? What causes it? Why is it so hard to predict? What can you do about it?
First let’s tackle what aggression looks like to the human observer. Picture this, you’re taking your dog for a walk on a route you’ve taken a thousand times, he’s happy, cheerful and enjoying his exercise. Another dog appears, and he goes into overdrive!
What does your dog physically do though? Growling, lip lifting, lunging towards the other dog, pulling against the leash, maybe even biting. These are all the physical signs of aggression, they may be accompanied by fearful or submissive posture such as crouching, tail-tucking, or backing away.
This is your dog’s response to what he feels is either a threat, or an unknown intruder into his personal space. His behaviours are part of his fight-or-flight response, and come with increased tension in his body and heightened stress in his mind.
His mind-set is important to remember as you read on. When you are trying to train him to behave better around other dogs, the first step should be to calm them, before you try any kind of punishment or interference between them and the other dog. Calm first, train second.
Why do they become aggressive?
As is always the way with psychological responses in animals, as it is with humans, there are always a multitude of possible causes and combinations that contribute to a certain behaviour. It is observed that it is often dogs of the same gender that have a heightened aggression towards each other rather than dogs of the opposite gender.
Dog on dog aggression may also be a product of fear, your dog may have been subjected to physical domination by another dog in its lifetime or was attacked by another dog. Pain or another medical condition, while less common, may also be another underlying cause of aggressive responses.
The most common cause of this behaviour is merely your dog’s lack of social skills. A lack of socialisation at a young age means a dog does not get a chance to behave normally around other dogs in a relaxed setting. If your dog is raised totally alone they will not develop the ability to understand the behaviour of other dogs and their social “cues”.
Isolated dogs that do not have their behaviour corrected tend to get worse as they get older and their fear of the unknown, that is, other dogs, gets more and more entrenched into their psyche.
Their inexperience breeds fear and tension into their interaction with other dogs and it is these feelings that cause the dog to respond with aggression. It is normal for your dog to not like a particular other dog, the same way you may not like some people, but it is not normal to behave aggressively towards all dogs.
What to do about dog on dog aggression
The first thing you should do is learn to recognise the signs of aggression before they turn into an outward attack. Your dog may get tense and display physical signs of stress such as hair standing on the back of its neck and tucking of the tail. They may crouch or ‘stalk’ waiting to pounce on the stranger dog. These are signs your dog is uncomfortable in the current situation and you should take action to rectify it.
The next thing you should work to change is your own physical and emotional states when walking your dog in places you are likely to encounter other dogs. This is especially true when another dog comes into view. Your own state of mind and stress levels will play a big role in your dog’s response.
Your dog mirrors your emotions, if they sense that you become tense around other dogs, then they will believe there is something to be tense about. They will feel your anxiety and get anxious themselves, further exacerbating the problem.
The mind-set you should adopt is to be calm and decisive. Calm in any situation where you encounter another dog, and decisive in how you choose to react when your dog gets excited.
When you come across another dog, try to behave as if nothing has changed at all. Continue moving at a normal pace and avoid gazing at other dogs and their owners. Your dog can pick up on where you’re looking, and staring at another dog and looking back at your own creates tension in his mind about the possible threat.
By continuing to walk normally, you distract your dog from his tense state because he has to at least in-part pay attention to where he is walking and not be totally focused on the other dog and their actions.
If your dog does get excited, don’t pull their leash back, this will cause a jerk forward response and create a battle between you and your dog. Simply continue walking at your regular pace until you pass the other dog safely.
If there is not a safe distance to pass the other dog, simply turn around and walk the other direction and keep your dog distracted by having them pay attention to walking. Remember not to pull on your dog’s leash, simply walk away from the other dog in whatever direction is easiest.
Have an attitude of ‘the show must go on’ – don’t give your dog an opportunity to stare or stalk – keep moving and take them with you. Praise them when they follow without giving up too much of a fuss, it will take some time but your dog will learn. This is the best form of distraction and will eventually teach your dog that seeing another dog means just keep doing what you’re doing and walk along.
Another thing you can do is distance your dog from others, if you encounter another dog across the street, stand between your dog and the other, or even move them behind a car or other object. Praise your dog when they return to a calm state. Teach them that aggressive reactions mean your walk (and fun) stops and calm behaviours mean praise and treats.
By distancing your dog from the other you avoid a head-on confrontational passing and also give your dog a chance to calm down from their tense state. You don’t give them a chance to get worked up or start obsessing about the other dog and you can then return to your normal walk.
Continuing like this will create a pattern of non-reaction when meeting other dogs. Your dog will build confidence in how to behave and how not to behave. With enough practise they will be able to enjoy their walk with you and not concern themselves with other dogs.
The root of the problem
These techniques will help your dog to behave better for your walks and teach non-reaction to other dogs. They are not useful when you want to teach your dog to behave better and socialise when they must be in close proximity of another dog.
The way to approach this issue is to create a situation where you can have another dog come into the view of your own. Tie your dog up beside you and have a friend with a dog walk by your dog on the other side of the street. Start with the furthest distance away your dog can see the other dog.
There are several stages to teaching your dog to become desensitized to the presence of another dog. The first one is ‘shaping’, reinforcing and praising any behaviour towards the desired goal. For example: If your dog lunges, barks, growls, or puts tension on the leash when another dog walks by, any behaviour that is less aggressive is to be rewarded.
This will take several passes from your friend and their dog. Don’t expect anything after 1-5 passes, but after a while your dog’s response may not be so acute and tense. Praise them each time they produce a less aggressive response. This will teach them that less aggression means praise from their owner.
Eventually your dog should become less and less tense whenever another dog is in view. This is a good first step to desensitise your dog to the presence of another dog.
The next step is to begin to decrease the distance between the stranger dog and your own. Praise your dog when he exhibits no aggression, and gradually they should become comfortable with the dog being closer to them.
Don’t expect this to happen very quickly, a lifetime of aggressive responses to other dogs will not be forgotten in one day. Eventually though, with enough positive reinforcement (and treats) the other dog should be able to pass within a close distance and not cause any aggressive reaction.
Finally, the best way to have your dog fully capable of socialising with other dogs is to simply give them enough experiences of positive relationships with other dogs. If you don’t have a friend with a dog to help you train, you can go to special puppy classes or dog aggression meetings. This is a meeting of a group of dogs that have the same problem as your own, look for these kinds of classes in your local area.
The dogs are encouraged to become comfortable with the presence of other dogs and are trained to behave normally around each other. If you try to train your dog yourself and you are not getting any results, it is best advised to speak to a certified dog trainer or behaviourist.
The most important thing to remember is to remain calm if you want your dog to remain calm. If they have a stressful encounter with another dog, you should stop training and come back another day, they will remain tense and stressed for quite some time after the other dog is gone.
If your dog is just beginning on his journey of training and you are trying to teach non-reaction, be polite and ask other dog owners to keep moving quickly if they appear to be getting close to your own. Explain you are conducting training and your dog gets stressed around other dogs at the moment.
Don’t expect an instantly perfectly behaved dog, incremental improvements towards the desired goal will get you there eventually. It is a process of correction, reward and praise that will teach your dog to continue their desired behaviour. Reward the small behaviours, such as looking away when another dog passes, continuing to walk, or other positive steps.
With enough practise, you can have yourself a perfectly behaved dog that loves to interact with other dogs and is a pleasure to bring to the park. It is up to us to familiarise them with other dogs and teach them there is nothing to be fearful or aggressive about.
Dog on dog aggression is a common problem but it can be solved by taking action. You don’t have to assume your dog will just never be able to socialise, as a dog owner you have the power to help them improve themselves and make you both happier together in the long run.
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