When a Two-Dog Home Turns Into Sophie’s Choice


Many of us whose family includes two dogs have set it up that way because we believe dogs enjoy canine companionship. When they’re left alone, they’re home together. And whether we’re there or not, each has a friend to wrestle and play with, to lay around with—a hang-out buddy. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, the dogs don’t get along. What begins as snarking over food or other resources (even the owner’s affection can be a resource) may eventually turn into serious fights where veterinary attention is required. Some situations even turn deadly.

In the movie Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep has an impossible decision to make. She must give up one of her children, knowing that it most likely means death for that child. While the owner of two fighting dogs’ situation is not quite that dire, it is an extremely difficult decision. First, a behavior specialist should be brought in to make an assessment. Very often an owner believes that one dog is attacking the other without provocation, when in reality, the dog being attacked started it with a hard stare, curl of the upper lip, or  other signal too subtle to notice unless one is looking for it. In some situations, it’s possible that the owner can be taught to notice signaling and body language, and the dogs can be taught solid obedience skills to the point that the situation is manageable. Sometimes a professional can modify the dogs’ behavior. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some homes turn into canine war zones. Some people will choose to “crate and rotate” or something similar, but it’s a personal decision, as it requires the utmost constant vigilance and care—and it is exhausting. Sometimes it’s more clear cut, where there is an unacceptable level of danger regardless, especially if there are young children involved.

Because giving up a dog is a highly emotional decision, many will put off even thinking about it until it’s too late and major damage—physical and possibly mental/emotional as well—has been done. I often tell owners in those situations two things: One, think of it from the point of view of the dog who is being attacked. How would you feel if you were living in a home with someone who you knew meant to cause you harm, and perhaps even kill you? You would be in a state of constant stress. A dog who experiences chronic stress is at risk for gastric ulcers, atrophy of the lymphatic glands, and a compromised immune system. The latter, of course, opens the door for all sorts of illness and disease. So, even if your other dog doesn’t cause major obvious physical injury, damage is still being done on a daily basis. The other thing I pose to owners is in the form of a question: How would you feel if you knew this situation was potentially very dangerous but did nothing, and then the worst happened? How would you live with yourself?

Often the owner wants to keep the “nice” dog. Who wouldn’t? But the last time I heard someone say, “I’m looking to adopt a dog who might injure my other dog” was…never. Rescues are constantly overflowing, and certainly don’t want to take in a dog who is potentially dog-aggressive. Now, in some cases where two dogs don’t get along (female littermates, anyone?), the dog might be perfectly fine in another home with a different dog. But in cases where the dog is seriously dog-aggressive, choices are very limited, and that dog’s best option is to stay in the home he has.

It’s hard to make the decision to rehome a dog who hasn’t done anything wrong, especially when there is a strong emotional attachment. Unfortunately, part of being a responsible owner is having to make the tough decisions that are for our dogs’ own good, even if it causes us pain. But in the end, the pain we feel now is nothing compared to the benefits of creating a safe, loving road for the rehomed dog’s life to take, and keeping everyone safe. For more information on help for dog-dog aggression in the home, check out my book Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home.
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25 Responses to When a Two-Dog Home Turns Into Sophie’s Choice

  1. OMG Nicole you hit the nail on the head with this post. We were experiencing this same thing with Bandit and Belle the past year or so. He was the alpha of the pack, but as he aged, she started attacking him over toys, food, or even our attention. WE always blamed her for it and most of the time it was her, but we found at times when Bandit would lay in her way on purpose, he would give her a stare or look and she would not pass by him without help from one of us. I never could figure out how she would jump him at one moment and would not pass by him if he was in her way. Im really having a hard time thinking of my next puppy which will come in the next year or so. Im not sure she will accept it and we do want another show dog. WE put a kennel up just in case they don’t get along right away, but I can’t see her hurting a puppy…we are going to do some test runs over at a friends to see how she will be with an adult male first. She is fine at the dog shows as long as it is not a female near her….Mals are known for same sex aggression….there is a reason they call the female bitches, and she lives up to that name for sure. Thanks for the great post.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Lin, I’m sorry about Bandit’s recent passing, I know how much you loved him. As for Belle, great about the adult male test, but I’d sure test her with some puppies before bringing one home. And of course I’m sure you’d get a male pup. Glad you liked the post. 🙂

    • wildewmn says:

      Lin, I also wanted to say, I’d really make sure that Belle would like to have a puppy around. I know she’s up there in age, and often old dogs just feel pestered by young pups. I think about a human senior citizen suddenly having to live with a rambunctious kid. There are definitely cases where a puppy will perk an older dog up and the older dog loves it, but it’s sure not always the case.

  2. Toni Kaste says:

    We had this issue at our house in the past. I am a professional dog trainer. We had an older German Shorthair Pointer, Jenna, one 4 years younger, Kylie,and then brought in a male 1 year younger, Woody,than the young one. The 2 girls got into it over food and the younger one ripped open the older girl’s face and she had to be “stapled” back together. I hear your article and you are correct, but our dogs had different yards and different parts of the house and they lived in “owner made” peace til the older one passed away. The younger girl and the young male were always best of buds because the male put up with the “unbalanced” ways of the young girl. Woody just passed away and we still have the “unbalanced” middle girl, Kylie, who is now 12 years old. It can be done but it sure wasn’t easy. I just couldn’t get rid of any of them….I want to reiterate that I am a professional dog person with many years experience and the dogs barely saw each other after that fight. (Though they probably could smell each other and knew the other was there)

    • wildewmn says:

      Thanks Toni for sharing your experience. As a professional, you know how much work and constant vigilance it takes to make this type of situation work, and how stressful it can be for everyone. But I also do know people (non-trainers even) who have done it, and it’s great when neither dog has to lose their home. In many families it’s simply not possible to have reliable management (small kids or teenagers in the house, lack of vigilance, etc.) but I’m really glad it worked out for you.

  3. doug says:

    are you an advocate of – where the owner handler is the alpha of the house and witnessing a display – administering positive punishment followed by reinforcement for desired behavior (supervised socializing).. as always it’s a case by case basis.. but am trying to avoid a “separate and divide” response for all cases. Just want to advance my problem solving here….

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Doug, how to do behavior modification for homes where two dogs are fighting is beyond the scope of this post, and perhaps I’ll address it in a future blog….To give a quick answer though, of course at the time of the fight, the immediate response must be to separate the dogs. I see no reason for “positive punishment”–the dogs were upset about something so they got into it, their adrenalin is racing, stress hormones are flooding their systems, and even if administering positive punishment was the way to go, I would think someone might be bitten in the process. The best thing to do is to (as calmly as possible) separate the dogs, and when *you* are calmer, figure out why they’re fighting and design a behavior protocol to address the problem.

  4. Jenny says:

    Hits a chord with me. I had two female danes that went at it it numerous times following the death of our male dane. We ended up dividing the house with gates inside and fencing in our front yard so that we could have 2 separate and safe yard spaces. It is manageable. I felt neither dog was easy to rehome. The easy dog has addison’s disease and insulin dependent diabetes and the unbalanced larger dane was well …just unbalanced mentally. We made it work.

  5. KC says:

    Great article. I wish I would have read this 3 years ago. We have a 14 year old Basenji (female) and a 4 year old Shiba Inu (also female). When the Shiba went through “puberty” and got to be larger than the Basenji she decided she was the alpha and chaos ensued. A couple trips to the vet and an expensive series of lessons from a behaviorist later, and we now have “managed chaos”. The Shiba wants to play all the time, and also likes to assert her standing by herding the Basenji – none of which is appreciated by a very old, deaf and fragile dog. We manage it the best we can, but I am sorry to say we are just waiting until the passing of our sweet Basenji so that we can have peace with a single dog household. I doubt we will ever get a second dog as long as we have our Shiba.

  6. I always enjoy your articles and books. I have to do the crate and rotate method. I also have a big kennel outside for some of my dogs. I have a male Bull Terrier mix that is male dog aggressive and it gets to be a challenge sometimes with 7 dogs.

  7. Evelyn Haskins says:

    I have kept two litter sisters with no serious trouble at all.

    Princess was my pup of choice. Quiet, gentle Pearl was the ‘last pup left’. A friend wanted her, then couldn’t take her, so she ended up staying.

    I feel a little guilty about this still. Princess did push Pearl around, but never hurt her. I did try several times to give Pearl away to people who, I knew, would have benefitted from a single, gentle dog that LOOKED and SOUNDED fearsome, but nobody accepted my offer. They seemed to prefer the petty thieving from their homes of business premises 😦

    When the girls’ Mum died, I expected Princess to increase her bossiness and did fear some aggression, but instead Princess had her stuffing knocked out of her, became timid, and Pearl blossomed 🙂

    The mother by the way, NEVER hurt her daughters in any way, but remained ‘top bitch’.

  8. Evelyn Haskins says:

    On the other hand, when I have had any trouble that looked like a potential for serious harm, it was always “Last in, first out”.

    I have passed on several dogs — Big Ted who was given back to me by the police after he failed as a Police Dog (wouldn;t attack) . Since I also had two of his sisters it was an obvious mover for him when he attacked the oldermale Kelpie. Ted went to a man who wanted a burglar deterrent.

    Bobby, the mini-foxie, who contined to threaten HUGE gentle German Shepherd (the Girls’ Dad). This was on my husband’s order — “For G*d’s sake, give him away before he incites Fletch to kill him.” Bobbt fell on his feet and became a stud dog for a Mini-foxie breeder, and slpet in the man’s bed with him.

    And Jedda 😦 Taken on as a “rescue Kelpie” but turned out to be a Terrier of enough different terrier breeds to look vaguely Kelpie. Most of the other dgs just learend to ignore her when she snarked at them, but she led Sally (Princess’s daughter) a merry dance, so she went. She went to the RSPCA — once again Husband’s decree — “Don’t try to advertise, she MUST go before Sally kills her.”
    I hope she found a home where she could do terrier things.

  9. Hello,
    Thanks for a great article. I have three female Miniature Pinscher littermates. Two of them do not always get along and will get into fights once in awhile. Fortunately, neither dog has caused injury to the other. I am worried about future fights and have scheduled an appointment with a vet behaviorist(Dr. Karen Overall). Being a realist, I am not expecting a miracle cure, but hoping to get advice on how to prevent/manage fighting in a multi-dog household.

    • wildewmn says:

      Minpinmoments, it’s wonderful that you were able to get an appointment with Dr. Overall! Your expectations are realistic, and I have no doubt you will get great results. 🙂

  10. Gabi says:

    I always say the only reason I would rehome a dog is if I had two that fought constantly/genuinely wanted to hurt each other. We have four dogs and all get along wonderfully and are welcoming to other fosters, and I am very picky about the dogs we have kept because they have to be very stable socially to deal with such an environment.

    I know of someone who had two dogs they had to crate and rotate, and while they were away from home, crates were busted out of, doors were broken, and they came home to one dog dead and the other dog with injuries so severe it had to be put down.

    After hearing stories like that, I just couldn’t do it. Management can fail, and it’s not worth the risk in my opinion.

  11. Dee Goings says:

    I had a dog who was the ideal dog and my first dog started going at humans. He stalked me, snapped at me and then would do calming behavior towards her. I miss my ideal dog, but I work with her family as their behavior consultant. When everyone asked why I chose the way I did it was simple; rehome the dog with a bite history or the ideal dog who everyone loved when they met her? It was an easy decision and now my boy has done an extensive behavior mod and is so much better for it.
    Thank you for saying what I have felt for two years, even though everyone thought I was crazy for it!

  12. Vickie says:

    You said “female littermates anyone?” I have two female littermates. They are over two and a half years old. So far–knock on wood–they have gotten along well. One is a top dog and the other seems to know her “household” place. Are you saying there may be some aggression/fighting problems between them at some time or another? They share toys well, no food aggressions, they listen well if I don’t like something they are doing, etc. I am always educating myself from posts and articles on the potential of a problem because I had read numerous articles that littermates should not be adopted out. I want to avoid that so any advice to keep things progressing status quo would be great!

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Vickie, it’s well known in the dog behavior world that if the incidence of aggression between female littermates can be high. However, there are many who get along just fine, and it sounds as though yours have things well worked out. I wouldn’t worry!

      Take care,

  13. Johanna says:

    I am wondering how the health of the dogs factors into the pack structure. We have 4 dogs; all are neutered. Male 8 yo Beagle, Male 4 yo Alaskan Malamute, Female 2 yo German Shepherd Dog, Male 2 yo German Shepherd Dog. The Malamute and the female GSD are the clear pack leaders. Within the past 6 months the low ranking male GSD has started hassling the Beagle; there have been a few bites and a few staples have been needed. We just found out from the vet that the reason the Beagle has been drawing up panting during walks is that he has a large tumor(s) pressing against his lungs. I’ve been wondering how long the other dogs have known Beagle is sick. And if male GSD sees it as a opportunity to advance his standing in the pack structure.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Johanna, your observations are very astute. It’s not uncommon for a young adult dog (as your 2 year old male GSD is) to begin to seek status in the ranks when the existing head of state is elderly. Add to that illness, and it’s a very common scenario. I don’t know of specific studies as to whether dogs sense that another is ill, but in my opinion it’s pretty clear that they do.
      Take care,

      • Evelyn Haskins says:

        Dogs ‘sniff out prostate cancer with 98% accuracy,’ study finds

        This is the latest article I’ve read on dogs’ ability to detect illnesses.

        And I know that I have detected in my own dogs a change in their body odour when they are ill.

        However I also think that our dogs are far more sensitive to behavioural changes, and the German Shepherd might just have been responding to the Beagle’s changes behaviour as his illness progressed.

      • wildewmn says:

        Thanks, Evelyn. I was referring to studies about dogs being able to detect illness in other dogs, and if you’ve got links I’d love to check them out. I agree with you about responding to the Beagle’s behavioral changes as well. Thank you for bringing that up, as I started to write more and got sidetracked.

  14. jenjelly says:

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve always grown up with at least 2 dogs in the home and luckily we didn’t have any problems BUT that being said now that I’ve grown up I have a shepherd mix of my own and unfortunately she doesn’t always play well with others. I was considering adopting another dog at some point but I’ve since changed my mind, I don’t want to risk having to rehome an animal and I wouldn’t want to live the crate and rotate routine. So although I’m a little bit said that I can’t rescue another dog any time soon I do enjoy the one one one quality time I get with my dog.

  15. Great post. We have been fortunate that even though we’ve been a 2 dog family for almost 20 years, they have always gotten along. Some I attribute to being male/female, and some to most of them being Labs, but none of them have really been ‘friends’ with each other either – most of them just totally ignore the other dog. Whatever works..

  16. viola says:

    This post was written for me. I have 3 dogs – 2 females (of course). One night the older one just snapped and went for the younger. Only person harmed in that fight was my husband who tried to separate them. Another fight the next day. Called the trainer.

    All my dogs have always gotten along. They may not always like OTHER dogs but they are a tight group together.

    We went through the week leading up to the episode and figured out it was mostly resource guarding (the bed and my husband respectively) in addition to several stressful weeks for the older dog who does not really like to be around other dogs – we had lots of company – dog and human and just seemed to be a trigger stack up for her that came out when she was forced to go outside to pee in the rain, came in and climbed under my covers and was dragged out first dog she saw was her sister…

    Anyway, all that to say, it took a month of living with baby gates, intensive periods of desensitizing and counter conditioning and they get a long quite well now. I am more aware of potential “situations” and they are quickly resolved by my happily leaving the room and calling them.

    But I did agonize for awhile over what I would do if I couldn’t get them to like each other again.

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