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How to Stop Dog Fights at Home

Dogs are like Pringles..You generally can’t have just one!

People obtain multiple dogs for any number of reasons: be it company for an existing dog, loss of a previous dog or the existing dog is growing old. In some situations, foster carers take in multiple dogs as part of the work they do for the various rescue organisations. 
Whatever the reason, many households today have more than one dog and it can be a very rewarding experience.

ACHIEVING HARMONY IN THE MULTI-DOG HOUSEHOLD


In the early days of my dog training career, my husband and I owned three beautiful dogs: a German Shepherd called Buddy, a Corgi mix called Lochie and a working line Kelpie called Tasha. All of the dogs got along very well and we rarely had any problems as the dynamics among all of the dogs worked well. 

That was until my husband gave me a gorgeous red and tan working line male Kelpie puppy for my birthday in 2006. I named him Gabe and that was when the problems began.

"The bloody dogs are fighting again! That’s it, one of them has to go!" I remember my husband saying this when the situation and fighting among our dogs became worse each day. 

The fights between Gabe and Buddy began increasing in both frequency and intensity and I had no clue how to manage them. I tried searching for information, asking fellow dog trainers for advice, and even implementing methods as advised by some celebrity trainers on TV. Needless to say, I was desperate!

At the time, the internet had very limited information on this subject and I merely managed things as best I could: sometimes it worked and other times it missed completely! As a professional dog trainer, I was secretly ashamed that I was experiencing these issues with my dogs and told only those very close to me about them. 

After all, I was expected to have perfect dogs...

After the death of my beautiful old boy Buddy, my family of dogs became very fragile and unsettled. It didn’t take long before both of the Kelpies, Tasha and Gabe, decided to ‘turn’ on my old girl Lochie. Enough was enough! Something had to be done and I needed to learn how to manage things better, for both Lochie’s sake and for my own sanity too! Drastic changes had to be made and I needed strategies that worked.

I wrote “When Three’s a Crowd” because I found myself consulting more and more with people experiencing similar issues with their family dogs. I do hope the book and the strategies therein are able to assist in creating harmony among your dogs again.

For the most part household dogs get on well with each other without too much incident. Some minor scuffles are very normal among dogs, and may break out the over a dropped piece of food or a stale bone. When the fights are no more than lots of noise and spittle among the dogs and are very easily broken up, there is usually nothing to be worried about. 

When the fighting is minor you can usually stop it by simply interrupting with an “Oi, stop that!” or by using a loud noise like a banging sound or whistle. When dogs come apart after a minor scuffle, they’ll generally shake themselves off and continue on what they were doing without any tension or stress. Alarm bells should start ringing when the fighting becomes both more frequent and starts to increase in intensity. 

Serious fighting among family dogs doesn’t just happen overnight. There is usually an increase in both stress and anxiety levels among the dogs over time that causes the escalation. The possible situations that can cause stress or anxiety can be:

  • Claiming of resources (owner, food, toys, beds, couches etc)
  • Changes in the household dynamics (by dynamics I mean the general relationships and tolerance levels of each dog toward each other)
  • Changes in routine 
  • Over arousing/stimulating activities
  • Other situations that become triggers for fighting

POSSIBLE TRIGGERS


Once fighting becomes a regular occurrence in your household due to the constant presence of stressful situations (stressors), triggers can be born from these stressors that will then readily set off fighting.


Over time, triggers can become independent from the original source or situation that started the fighting in the first place. This can make predicting a fight much more difficult

When this occurs, it is usually believed that the fight was unprovoked because the dogs seemed to be fine one minute, then fighting the next. The truth is, the stressors were present in the environment for quite some time, only now those stressors have triggers associated with them. Triggers that set off fighting can be many different things. 


Here are some that I have encountered over the years:
  • Doorbells, knocking on doors
  • Phones ringing
  • Food bowls banging and food preparation
  • Door handles being opened
  • Owners raising their voices. Unfortunately, the list can go on and on...

MANAGING THE SITUATIONS

One of the most effective ways to minimise fighting is to better manage the situations and triggers that cause the fighting. This can be done by any of the following:

  • Avoiding OR Removing the situations and triggers
  • Changing the meaning of the triggers so that they no longer set off fighting (this is achieved by using a training process called ‘counter conditioning’ )
  • Managing the dogs
In addition to managing triggers, it is imperative to manage the dogs in the household as well, both as a group and individually. This will involve implementing the following:

  • Setting household rules and boundaries for all dogs and sticking to them
  • Teach basic obedience skills to each dog to include: sit & wait, leave it and come when called (each dog must be taught to come individually when called). These exercises will greatly assist the management and control of the dogs.
  • Manage and all control resources, which includes restricting access to yourself, as well as access to certain areas and rooms.
It is imperative that all members of the family follow and enforce the rules with all the dogs as inconsistencies will only increase stress which may set off more fights.

HOW SERIOUS WAS THE FIGHT?


As mentioned earlier, most fights are nothing more than lots of noise and spittle, in which case there may be no injuries to any of the dogs.

When fighting becomes serious and the intention of the dog(s) was to injure/immobilise the other dog, injuries may now be more imminent.If the fighting now results in deep puncture wounds and/or visits to the vet clinic, then you have a problem. 

In most situations, the fighting can be minimised significantly if the changes and strategies are implemented early enough, returning the household to harmony. 

The problems arise when you let things go in the hope that things will improve by themselves. Doing so will usually result in a much bigger problem as the fighting continues to escalate in both frequency and intensity, and in some cases resulting in the dogs having to be separated permanently.

Once dogs are separated/segregated permanently from each other in the home, it can be difficult to re-unite them, making reconciliation a little more challenging. In some situations dogs cannot be successfully re-united for various reasons and this is when you may need to make a decision as to what they do next.

So how do you know how serious the fights were? My book “When Three’s a Crowd” provides a ‘Fight-Bite Guide’ table which gives a bite scale and also how to recognise a simple reprimand from a more serious and intentional bite.

ADVICE ON BREAKING UP A DOG FIGHT

Dog trainers will have differing opinions and techniques on how to break up dog fights and there is no right or wrong approach in most cases. However, we all agree that the aim is to both minimise injury to each dog, as well as ensuring that no human is bitten in the process.

If you are unable to break up a fight by way of loud noise or sound to interrupt, then you may need to resort to other ways of breaking it up. Here are a few ways:
  • Bucket of water or hose on the dogs
  • If there are 2 people, then each picks up the dogs by the back legs and ‘wheelbarrows’ each dog away
  • Throw a towel or blanket over the dog’s eyes to block vision (can result in the dogs letting go of their grip)
Caution must always be taken with any method used to separate dogs during a fight as a redirected bite to the human is very likely to occur.

TIME TO CALL IN A PROFESSIONAL?

Don’t wait until the fighting has become so serious that you’ve had to separate your dogs completely before calling in the help of a professional trainer. Leaving it until it’s too late can make the possibility of reconciliation extremely difficult to achieve.

I recommend seeking the services of a trainer as soon as the fights become a little harder to break up or as soon as there are some minor injuries to any of your dogs. Be sure to find a trainer who has extensive knowledge and experience in dealing with multiple dog household issues and don’t just settle for the first one you speak to.

Don’t leave it until it is too late!! Harmony among your family dogs is not impossible to reinstate if you’re experiencing some unrest among your dogs, but you must get it sorted early!


Trish Harris is the co-founder and director of Four Paws K9 Training which is one of the largest, privately owned dog training schools, operating in 4 locations around Melbourne. 

She is the Author of "When Three's a Crowd" featured in our September 2016 - Book Club.

She is also a lecturer for the National Dog Trainers Federation’s “Certificate lll in Dog Training and Behaviour” course, teaching many new ‘would be’” instructors some of the necessary skills required to train dogs.



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