By John Andersen, DVM
“Joey” is a two-year-old, 40-pound mutt, best described as a spoiled and loved house dog. He came to me one day for evaluation of aggression with other dogs. Specifically, he had just attacked his neighbor’s dog in the street and Joey’s mom was literally in tears with frustration and disbelief at what her dog had somehow become.
You see, Joey’s parents had done everything they were supposed to do to raise a well-rounded dog. They took him to puppy class starting at 12 weeks of age and they were dedicated to socializing him with other dogs. Joey had regular play dates, frequented dog parks, and was walked regularly. He was neutered at 6 months, did great with basic obedience, and by one year of age his parents were feeling pretty good about their canine good citizen.
But then things slowly started to change. First came some occasional scuffles at the dog park. “Those dogs were not well-socialized,” his owners first thought. Then there was the barking at other dogs while on a walk. Initially they thought it was just Joey wanting to play, but on a few occasions they weren’t so sure. Joey also became increasingly protective of their house, spending more and more time watching out the window and growling and barking at other dogs passing by.
Over the recent few months though, it had become clear that Joey was having some serious problems with other dogs. The trips to the dog park had become full of more and more fights, mainly with other male dogs. As much as they didn’t want to believe it, Joey definitely started a few of those. Also, he had become downright unruly while walking through their neighborhood, often barking and even lunging at other dogs (again mostly other males) to the point that Mom would have to cross to the other side of the street when approaching other dogs.
They began to research this new behavior and figured they were doing something wrong. “Maybe we need better treats on our walks, or we should start using a harness,” they surmised, or “Maybe we need to go to the dog park at a different time of day.”
Then there was the event. Mom was bringing some groceries into the house when Joey bolted by her, right to the street and attacked her neighbor’s unsuspecting dog (another male). Joey ripped a big hole in the dog’s side and their neighbor, frantically, had to take him to the local ER. Joey’s mom was understandably horrified and embarrassed and felt like a terrible dog owner.
Joey’s story is not uncommon – a young dog who gets along with everyone, but gets to be around 1 ½ to 2 years old and starts having dog aggression, mostly with other dogs of the same sex.
My first response to Joey’s mom was to tell her that this has nothing to do with their lack of training or socialization. This is, in fact, very normal for some dogs. As I often do, for an explanation I went way back to wolf behavior.
Wolves live in packs with a very strict social hierarchy. There is just one alpha male and one alpha female. All other adult dogs in the pack fall in line somewhere below the alpha pair. Step out of line and you’re going to have a bad day. Having this hierarchy keeps order and reduces conflict within a pack.
Pups have it easy; the whole pack cares for them and their youth is innocent. But eventually the pups grow into young adults. At first, they find themselves somewhere low in the pack hierarchy and are content to stay there. But with time, they become discontented and are ready to move up or move out. Wolves typically leave the pack in which they were raised by 1-2 years of age. They will leave to find a mate and or a new pack.
So, translating this to our dogs’ behavior, between 1-2 years is when dogs are emotionally maturing and finding their “status” in life. Fortunately, many dogs are happy being a mid-to-low packer—content just to get along with everyone and to be submissive to the bossy ones if need be. These dogs were born “easy going.”
But many dogs are naturally more dominant, like Joey. There was nothing wrong with how he was raised; he was simply born a dominant dog and it didn’t show until he was mature enough. In his world, he sees other dogs as a threat, either to his status or to his territory and his pack (his human family, especially mom). He is tireless in his endeavor to stay king. He cannot let a prolonged stare or a challenging growl go unpunished. He will try to fight any dog that comes too close on a walk or gets near his territory (his yard and house).
In consulting with Joey’s owners, I could tell this was hard news to handle. You can’t train dominant behavior out of a dog anymore than you can train anxiety or fear out of a dog. They are who they are. But you certainly can manage it.
First, it is important to realize that some dogs are just not cut out for the dog park, and multi-dog social environments like that simply need to be avoided. Second, walks may never be easy, but that doesn’t mean they should be avoided. Joey is much more under control when dad walks him, so dad probably should do most of the walking. When mom walks him, she needs to be relaxed, but focused on avoiding and defusing confrontations. Sometimes it’s as simple as bringing high value treats and getting the dog to sit and focus on the owner while the other dogs walk by. Some dogs cannot be refocused easily though, and hiring a trainer to come to the house is a great idea.
Similarly, trying to control barking inside the house and aggressive encounters when people come over is also difficult and may require the help of a trainer who can come into your home environment to best give advice.
If your dog is like Joey, don’t get frustrated. Learn to appreciate his inner wolf and seek help to manage him as best you can.