Your Dogs are Fighting: Step In or Step Off?

Bodhi growls at Sierra crop small copyYesterday afternoon, I gave Sierra and Bodhi a snack of stuffed, frozen Kongs. Bodhi, of course, finished his first—the boy inhales anything in front of him. Sierra likes to take her time, alternating between excavating treats and giving Bodhi her patented Look of Death any time he so much as looks in her direction. Bodhi, rather than taking the hint and leaving her alone, will walk past at a distance, sniffing for crumbs on the ground. If he gets too close, Sierra will launch at him with a “GRRRR!” that startles even me in the next room. I have no doubt it startles Bodhi as well, particularly when accompanied by Sierra’s fast, repetitive clacking of jaws. At that point, Bodhi normally backs off.

Yesterday, though, he didn’t. In a demonstration of misplaced machismo, he grabbed the Kong away from Sierra. From the next room, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of fighting. I ran in to see Sierra driving Bodhi backward with what appeared to be mouthfuls of his fur between her teeth. Bodhi was carefully stepping backward while still facing her, attempting to defend himself while getting the hell out of Dodge. One sharp, “Hey!” from me and it was over. The two voluntarily separated, as I knew they would. My reaction had been instantaneous; when we’d first adopted Bodhi, he and Sierra had fought for 10 days. I’d quickly become adept at jumping in and separating them. But in this case, I wondered afterward, should I have interfered? After all, possession is 99% of the law in the animal kingdom, and Bodhi shouldn’t have tried stealing from the Queen. I should have let her tell him off.

Dog fights—even harmless skirmishes—sound very frightening. Male dogs in particular can sound like there’s a barroom brawl going on. It’s understandable that when we hear those sounds, for many of us, our first reaction is to jump in and break it up. And there are times when that is absolutely the right thing to do. But sometimes, interference, well…interferes. The dogs never straighten out the situation at hand, and so it arises again. Had I allowed Sierra to properly “instruct” Bodhi as to the house rules, chances are he would have been less likely to attempt the Great Kong Caper the next time.

This begs the obvious question, How do we know whether to interfere or not? I only wish there were an easy answer. If either dog is being injured, breaking things up right away is obviously necessary. But if not, should you let it go on or step in? Well, it depends: it depends on your particular dogs, their past history together, their relationship, their level of communication with each other, and the particular scenario. If skirmishes happen often, a trainer can assist with understanding body language and signaling, and sorting out what’s really going on between the dogs. In the meantime, consider whether stepping in—or stepping off—is the better choice.

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6 Responses to Your Dogs are Fighting: Step In or Step Off?

  1. Rebekah says:

    We have at least weekly “arguments” in my house. We have only ever had two true fights, and that was two too many. Both over (raw) food. My dogs have become adept at reading each other, and it’s interesting to watch my two boys regularly defer to my girl. But she is the queen as well. I now mostly watch, but if the clacking and talking seems to be getting too intense, I will intervene with redirection.

  2. philospher77 says:

    Where does management fit into this? If this were a client describing the situation, wouldn’t one of your first questions be “why is Sierra being put into a situation where she feels she has to defend her treat from Bodhi?” While I agree that letting her tell him off may solve the problem, I’ve always heard that you should set the situation up so that you are the one that they can rely on to keep situations from escalating. Feeding things like Kongs in crates, separate rooms, or under a watchful eye so that a dog can be redirected before getting too close, so that Sierra doesn’t get the chance to practice being reactive and gaurd-y.

    This doesn’t answer the question about what you do once they have started a fight. I think a lot of the answer to that depends on knowing your dogs, their general personality, and being good at reading body language. Yes, allowing Sierra to school Bodhi might lessen the chances of Bodhi acting up in future. But it might also increase the chances of Sierra acting up in future, if she learns that doing that gets her what she wants. With the general public, who is not as skilled at dog training and dealing with reactivity, I’d rather have people intervene sooner, so that they aren’t coming to you later with an out-of-control reactive dog that they need to have fixed or else they will have to get rid of it.

  3. Elise says:

    Seems to me that “interfering” was appropriate in this case. The way it was described, Bodhi had learned his lesson and was appropriately backing away. Sierra’s message had been received and it was now time for her to let up. No need for it to be carried further.

  4. Magnificent and thought provoking article! I find allowing dogs to complete their conversation and communicating their personal boundaries to one another very effective. Most dogs are not going to suddenly act out with more aggression then necessary to achieve the goal at hand. They are well aware of the expense of personal injury. I have witnessed more injurious bites when people get involved then when (especially familiar dogs) are allowed to complete their conversation and personal boundaries are established. Every stitch-able injury I had happen in our facility happened after a grab or attempted grab by a person, shown upon reviewing webcam video footage. Humans argue and fight, those of healthy mind do not escalate to maiming force unnecessarily. In my experience, neither do dogs. After being among 10’s of thousands of dogs in off-leash play, I am confident they do not suddenly aggress unnecessarily, unprovoked or with more intention to inflict harm when allowed to communicate fully with one another. My bias undoubtedly leans towards allowing dogs to communicate as long as they have no history of inability to do so appropriately.

  5. edwardb16 says:

    I have found that if you intervene, both dogs think you are coming to help them, and it does tend to escalate things. However, if it has already escalated to the point of wounding, Intervention is necessary. It’s very, very context dependent, and a difficult, fine line to balance… I had one client who had two dogs who lived together for eight years, fought over food, and then had to be kept separate for the rest of their lives, or would fight probably to the death of one.

  6. Lee says:

    I noticed with most dog fights you just let them do their thing for a couple of seconds, they are usually very short fights and if you step in you could get seriously bitten!

    The only time I would intervene is if a dog I’ve never seen before is attacking my dog and it looks like it has intent to kill. Thankfully I’ve never encountered that yet but it could certainly happen!

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