Gazette Vet: Dog Aggression

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By John Andersen, DVM

I went hiking last weekend with some friends, four kids, and four dogs.  We hiked a local classic, Spy Rock.  I highly recommend this hike, just an hour from Crozet, which starts just above the Montebello Country Store and winds up hill, hitting the Appalachian Trail, and then summits at Spy Rock, which offers an incredible 360-degree view of wilderness.

As it was Memorial Day weekend, a lot of people, with their dogs, had the same idea.  As we were descending back to the car, we were passing large groups of similar chaos—adults, kids, and dogs. You could quickly see the initial tensions rise between the dogs. Some dogs that approached were clearly friendly and submissive, while others were nervous and frightened. During one passing, my friend’s female dog “Josie” got into a brief scuffle with another dog. When the two dogs were passing each other on leash, they both were clearly tense and stiff, measuring each other.  When the other dog growled at Josie, chaos erupted and teeth were snapping, but fortunately we broke it up before anyone got hurt.

“That’s so weird,” commented my friend. “She is fine with some dogs, but others it just seems they push a button and she explodes!  Why do you think that is?” he asked me.

Dog-dog aggression is a very common problem that a lot of owners are forced to deal with.  First, I hate to call it “aggression,” because it’s really just them acting like dogs. Remember, they are not people. In the dog world, if someone insults you or rubs you the wrong way, you don’t talk about it. You bite them and show them who’s boss. That’s very upsetting to us humans, but perfectly normal and acceptable behavior in the dog world.

Then I told him the story of my former dog Kaya.

I adopted Kaya from a shelter when she was about 8 months old.  She was so sweet then and because I was in veterinary school at the time, with a flexible schedule, she got a ton of playtime and socialization with other dogs. Almost every day, we would go on walks with my classmates and she would get to run around off-leash with anywhere from 3-10 other dogs. They all had fun together in peaceful harmony.  There was no question, Kaya was well-socialized.

But when she was around 18 months old, things started to change on those larger dog walks. It started with a few scuffles that clearly must have been the other dog’s fault.  “Ugh, what’s up with that dog?” I would think as I judged its lack of proper upbringing.

A few more months and a few more small dog fights and I started to realize that maybe, just maybe, my dog was responsible for some of this behavior. But still, if that other dog hadn’t looked at her like that….

Then one day, while running around the fields where we would go, we came upon another dog off leash that we had never met.  Kaya ran up, had a brief stand off, and then clearly was the aggressor as she started snarling and snapping at the other poor dog, who was clearly not interested in getting into a fight.

This was a hard thing for me to accept! Had I failed at properly training my dog to be a good citizen? Had I not socialized her enough? Why would she start a fight like that, for no reason at all?!

Fast-forward 5 years, and I had clearly come to the conclusion, and acceptance, that my sweet girl Kaya was terrible around other dogs. Her days of off-leash play were gone, as I could no longer trust that she wouldn’t start a fight. Further, there would be times that she would see another dog across the street and just start lunging and growling, completely unprovoked! Yep, she was terrible with other dogs.

After 14 years of practice, I have come to learn that some dogs are just not going to get along well with other dogs, no matter how hard you try.  These dogs were just born with that personality type.

All puppies get along just fine.  They are too immature and careless to worry about stature, pride, and insults. But once dogs start to reach 1-2 years of age, they start becoming the “mature” adult version of the dogs they are. And for some dogs, this means bad behavior with other dogs.

Let’s go to the wolf pack.

Wolves live by a very tight hierarchical structure within a pack. There is one alpha male and one alpha female. These are the top dogs. And these dogs got to that position not because they are the biggest or the strongest. Rather, they got to it because they are the most rude, most cunning, and most dominant in their personality.

Studies of wolf packs show that these behaviors are clearly evident when they are young, but truly start to manifest when they become young adults.

Remember, our domestic dogs are all descendants of these amazing animals, and their instincts are still alive and well in many.

So dogs like my old dog Kaya, and my friend’s dog Josie, are simply alpha dogs. They are the ones that despite your training, your socialization, and your pleading and frustration, will not be able to get along well with a lot of other dogs. Inter-dog aggression is most strong with dogs of the same sex.  Kaya was predictably terrible around other female dogs, while she would tolerate males much more.  The dog that Josie squabbled with on our walk was also predictably female.  In the wolf pack, there is an alpha male and an alpha female.  Thus, there is not the hard-wired competition between males and females for the top spot; it is simply between all the males and all the females.

So, if you find your dog is not so good with other dogs, here are a few pointers:

Accept it. It’s not your fault. This is simply who your dog is. Don’t get frustrated; remember, they are just dogs!

Be responsible. Don’t take your dog to the dog park, or let him/her off-leash, where there are a lot of other dogs. A fight may happen. Besides allowing dogs to get bit, dog fights can get chaotic quickly and nearby humans, including children, can easily be brought into the battle scene.

Work on it. It’s not like you can’t improve the situation. Realize there is nothing you can do to make an approaching dog less antagonizing, but you can work on getting your dog to focus on you. Find some treats that your dog likes and NEVER go on a walk without them. When you see a dog approaching, step off the road/trail and start giving your dog treats. You are trying to get your dog to listen and focus on you. If you are consistent with this, you can avoid a lot of the headache. Trying to pull back or calm down a lunging dog is never productive.

In a perfect world, all dogs would get along and listen to our commands attentively.  But alas, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there (sometimes)!

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