Fighting Between Housemate Dogs

If your dogs have a case of sibling rivalry, here's how to restore order in your pack and let them know who's top dog.

By Rolan Tripp, D.V.M.

The behavior: Periodic fighting among dogs who live in the same family.

Why dogs do it: In the wild, dogs live in packs where each has a rank and knows exactly where he stands in relation to the others. In a domestic household that lacks a canine hierarchy, dogs may fight to establish one. Well-meaning owners often confuse their dogs by treating them equally, as if they were human children instead of canines.

Training Tips Prevent fights. Some squabbles burst out so quickly that you never see them coming. Yet other times you may notice one dog tense up beforehand. Defuse the situation by ignoring the dogs and acting silly and happy. Your high spirits can distract them and dissolve the tension. (Never punish a dog when he's on edge. It could provoke a fight.) Break up fights. If your dogs fight when you're with them and have had only a few run-ins with no serious damage, you might see what happens if you yell, Let's go! and walk out of the room, encouraging them to stop fighting and follow. With luck, the lower-ranking dog will see you leave and lose confidence in staging the coup.

If that doesn't work, grab both back legs of one dog, hold tight, and pull him out of the fight. Then take both dogs to your vet to be checked for injuries.

Note: Be very careful when trying to separate fighting dogs. In their excited state of mind, they generally don't pay attention to who is touching them and will attempt to bite anyone they come in contact with.

Create some breathing room. If your dogs are at each other's throats, separate them for one or two days so they can calm down. Bring them back together cautiously, avoiding any setup where they fought in the past. For a while you should feed them separately and keep them tethered inside, when you're home, in spots where they can see each other but not interact. Begin interactions with walks together.

Play favorites. Giving preferential treatment to one dog may seem like a rotten way to solve a rivalry problem, but dogs need to have clear roles. Give your dominant dog privileges of rank, such as being greeted first and being allowed to walk through doorways first. This won't hurt the feelings of the lower-ranking dog he'll find it a relief.

Choose wisely. Assigning your dogs to leader and follower roles can be a daunting task. Consider giving top rank to a male who's older, the bigger dog, or the one who has lived with you longer. If you're unsure which dog has the upper hand, watch your dogs to see who goes outside or comes in first, who carries his tail higher, who controls toys or food, who greets you first, and who seems to have the most forceful personality.

Accord privileges of rank. Once you've figured out your dogs' ranking, it's time to share that knowledge with them. Feed your dogs in order, with the top dog getting his bowl first. Use the same order for going through doors and greeting them. Let the leader dog hog toys and stake out couch positions. Make your lower-ranking dog work on the sit and down commands while higher-ranking dogs observe the training session. Work one-on-one with your honcho dog.

Show that you're top dog. Regardless of what social position each of your dogs occupy, be sure to maintain your own distinct rank as their leader. Insist that all of your dogs sit or lie down on command before being fed, walked, let inside, or petted. This is a reminder to your dogs that, as commander in chief, you control what happens in your home.

Let off steam through exercise. Tired dogs tend to be good dogs, so physical activity should be part of the plan for dealing with almost any behavioral problem. Exercise your dogs together but off your property. They will be less inclined to fight away from home because neither has any claim to the territory.

Tools You Can Use

Gentle Leader. This head halter has a calming effect on most dogs. The way it sits on a dog's head applies light pressure to the same area that mother dogs grasp to carry their pups, which triggers a passive response. Have your fighting dogs wear the device in the house as well as on walks.

Long leash. While they're inside, have each of your fighting dogs drag a 10-foot leash from their gentle leader. If a quarrel begins, pull the leads to control the situation quickly.

Basket muzzle. If your dogs might hurt one another or a family member, temporary use of a basket muzzle may be helpful. Use it in any situation that you think could possibly turn into a brawl.

Doggy treats. Don't use food as part of an attempt to break up a fight, since your dogs may see it as a reward. Instead, find a few types of treats that your dogs go crazy for, and use them to show your appreciation when they sit, lie down, and come on command.