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While in the human world it is regarded as a terrible canine character flaw, the reality is that fighting is acceptable and even normal in the dog world. All dogs fight to some extent. This is how they settle things and defend themselves from a threat that they cannot escape. They have no idea that such behaviour is not allowed in their new “pack” and are completely unaware of how traumatic it can be for their owners.

Many dog owners, taking their dogs for a walk, do not actually enjoy the outing. They spend most of their time scanning the horizon for the sight of another dog. When they see one, their first reaction is to take hold of their dog and pull tight on its leash or grab it by the collar. Their dog becomes tense because the owner is upset. It immediately concludes that it must be the approaching dog’s fault. The tight leash can also cause the dog to feel cornered and prevents it from engaging in the natural behaviours it would use to avoid confrontation. All these factors increase the dog’s stress levels. The approaching dog in turn senses the tension and behaves in a suspicious manner, further exacerbating the entire situation. Often out of frustration, fear or embarrassment the owner will start yelling at or yanking the dog at the slightest sign of aggression and it does not take long for a dog to learn that when it sees another dog, it is a signal that its owner is about to become upset and he will be punished Thus, the owner’s presence and actions are a major cause of fights during meetings with unfamiliar dogs. In many cases the same dogs might have passed each other without incident if they had been on their own.

With the owners unaware of the impact they are having on the situation, a vicious cycle develops i.e. the owners react to the dog and the dog reacts to the owners. Many people end up walking their dogs in isolated areas where they are unlikely to meet other dog walkers or alternately take their dogs out at night when they hope no one will be around, only to meet others with the same problem. 

While fighting may be normal for dogs, serious fights are rare in a well-established, stable group. Occasionally they may fight to settle a disagreement, but soon afterwards life returns to normal. Fighting in such a group is not helpful, because it will draw attention to the higher ranking dogs that will police the fight. They are likely to lose the bone they were fighting over and they may get injured. However, the social structure of the domestic dog is far more complex than that of a wolf pack, because of human interference and mismanagement. Therefore, with pet dogs the incidence of fighting is much higher and some cannot even meet another dog without wanting to fight. Most dog owners do not do enough training and socializing early on in order to prevent problems like fighting from developing. Also, many homes do not have established rules and routines which guide the dog with regards to how he fits into the home and how he is expected to behave.

Owners must do everything possible to prevent their dogs from developing a fighting habit. Their control over their dogs is simply a must! Basic obedience commands are very helpful and early castration (around 6 months of age) reduces the likelihood of inter-male and dominance aggression developing. However, castration is unlikely to cure an established fighting habit and will do nothing to help with aggression caused by fear or social incompetence.  A fighting habit does not improve over time; in fact it gets worse, so a good no fighting foundation needs to be set for puppies. Help should be sought at the first sign of trouble.

Who are the likely fighters? It has much to go with the sexage and social rank of the dogs. Intact male dogs are more frequently involved in fights from the onset of puberty at about five or six months of age until they become socially mature at two or three years. Their high testosterone blood levels (these start to increase at about 5 months) make them a target for harassment by adult dogs. A ten-month-old puppy has blood levels of testosterone almost five times higher than that of an adult dog. This provides them with a characteristic odour that males can pick up from afar. They will then want to dominate the pup, by standing over it and forcing it to be submissive. If the youngster will not submit a fight is likely. During puberty young dogs also feel an increased urge to challenge other dogs. This behaviour takes place whether they are castrated or not. It is clear that puberty is a difficult time for a young dog that is harassed by older dogs and in turn will harass younger ones. However, it must also be remembered that most adolescent “fights” do not result in any injury.

The greater the similarity is between two dogs, the greater the likelihood of a fight. While my German Shepherd Dog Coyote generally ignored or tolerated most dogs, he and his brother, Loopy, could not stand each other and had to be kept separated.  For people wanting to get a second dog it would be best to look for one with dissimilar agesex and social status.

Socialisation is the key to preventing temperament problems. However, puppies are often removed from their litters before they have had a chance to learn canine play behaviour (i.e. before 8 weeks). They are then kept in isolation in their new homes for several months before attending socialisation classes. When they arrive, having missed the critical window period for socializing (6 – 14 weeks), they are anxious and tense in the company of the other dogs in the classes and display either fearful and/or aggressive behaviour. Under-socialising causes serious temperament problems and puppy owners must be made to realise the urgency of the need for an intensive socialising programme in order to reduce the inclination for fighting. Puppy classes should reserve a time in each lesson for the pups to play freely with each other under supervision of the trainer.  Bite inhibition and social skills are learnt during these sessions. Puppies that are inclined to bully or get over-excited should be given time-outs to teach them that if they misbehave they have no one to play with.

While puppy classes are a good start, in most cases they are not enough to ensure adequate socializing. Owners should also take their pups on frequent walks to meet new well-socialised dogs of all ages. Cheeky pups usually benefit from being taken to an experienced bitch that has had several litters as she will soon put them in their place. Socialisation is the best gift you can give your puppy!

When out on walks owners should continue to praise friendly encounters with other dogs in the same way as was done during socialisation training. However, they must insist on a no-fight policy. The dog must learn that, regardless of who started the trouble, they are going to get scolded. The owner must get angry and not stop shouting until the fighting has stopped. Immediately after getting full control of the situation, all planned activities must stop and the dog must be taken home or tied to a tree for time-out. Allowing a dog to continue with a romp in the park or on the beach after a fight is not going to be a learning experience for him. The dog must learn that the owner is pleased with friendly behaviour but very unhappy about fighting. However, if a dog is attacked while minding its own business and tries only to get away from the aggressive dog, it is a good idea to continue the walk once the aggressive dog has been removed, so that the “victim” has a chance to relax and enjoy himself again. If possible a known friendly dog should be approached so that the dog goes home with a positive social experience fresh in its mind and not the attack.

Within the home, squabbles in an otherwise stable pack may occur from time to time. Stay calm and watch carefully. The dogs may bare their teeth and make scary noises, but they may not be making much contact. Mostly they leave spit and no punctures. Humans yelling and hitting in these situations usually just increases the levels of aggression and causes the fight to continue for longer. If you feel you have to intervene and you cannot get between the dogs to separate them, running away (abandonment) will usually get them to stop the argument by following you. (Also read “How to break up a Dog Fight” in PROBLEMS above.) If the frequency of squabbling in the home increases, it could be because you have been pushing the dogs to become pals, have interfered in their natural hierarchy by deciding (incorrectly) yourself who should be “top dog” or because you have been paying too much attention to one of them. Be sure that you are not the cause of their fights. 

Breaking a Fighting Habit

Methods for treating a fighting habit are much the same as those for preventing the development of a fighting habit. Remedial socialization and counter conditioning procedures will decrease the likelihood of fights. The first step is to find a dog that is a suitable playmate. It should be of dissimilar sexage and temperament and then to set up meetings with this dog so that the fighter can be rewarded for not fighting. Gradually a group of friends can be built up by introducing friendly dogs one at a time. This is the most useful technique of shaping the absence of fighting. This means rewarding the dog for not fighting when he is with other dogs.Punishment on its own is pretty useless as a long term method to stop a fighting habit. The only time some force can be used is to stop a fight.

Since the dog “pack” includes the humans and the other dogs in the household, the humans have the right to make the rules and enforce them. By taking the dogs for training and administering fair discipline, the dogs should recognize their Alpha status. As such the owner has the right to enforce the rule: “No fighting allowed!” By paying close attention to the dogs it is usually possible to see the beginnings of an argument, – a low growl, a stare, a shove – and nipping it in the bud. Using a deep, firm, voice:  “That’s enough!” or “Leave it!” or “Don’t think about it!” can be very effective If it is not clear who has started trouble, scold both.

A fighting dog is a serious threat for other dogs and their owners. Owner control therefore becomes a very important issue in breaking a fighting habit. If the owner can control his dog with simple obedience commands, there should not be fights because the dog cannot obey a down-stay and be fighting at the same time. If the owner cannot control his dog it should never be allowed off-leash on public property where it is likely to meet other dogs. Even on-leash, the owner must pay absolute attention when near other passing dogs so that he can give commands before trouble starts. Dogs that are allowed to run free on their own seldom live long. A dog is always at risk when off-leash! 


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