Preventing Aggression Among Housemate Dogs

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

Aggression among housemate dogs is one of the most serious and potentially dangerous behavior problems we treat. There are few things more difficult to manage in a multi-dog home than aggression amongst housemates. Not only is it dangerous for the dogs who are aggressive towards each other, it is dangerous for the people in the home, and for other pets. Well-intentioned people often try to break up fights, and get seriously injured in the process. And sometimes, the extra stress of living with dogs who hate each other can lead to other pets also starting to fight. The more often pets fight, the shorter their fuse, and it can get to the point where one dog just has to see the other to trigger a fight.

Prevention of aggression, or treating at the earliest signs of aggression, is much more likely to be successful than waiting until the problem is serious. Literally, you want to nip aggression in the bud at the very first sign of discomfort between dogs. The early signs are often very subtle. Distracting behaviors such as lip licking or scratching, staring, acting tense are often either not recognized or ignored by owners. Sometimes dogs had previously gotten along well, but changes in physical health, brain function (such as dogs with cognitive decline aka Doggie Alzheimer's disease), social maturation of a puppy, or changes in the household can create problems.

The video above is of my own dogs. Our oldest dog, Sergei, was recently deceased. Annika, the husky curled up in a ball in the middle of the sofa, wasn't allowed on the sofa when Sergei was alive because he was worried about her jumping on him. Sergei had many orthopedic issues that made him a grumpy old man with no tolerance for dogs that jump and pounce anywhere near his expansive personal space bubble. Annika is a particularly jumpy bouncy husky. In order to keep Sergei happy, Annika had to stay behind my chair. After Sergei passed, we allowed Annika more freedom. However this happened.

Natasha, the husky on the far side of the sofa, had just woken up from a nap and found Annika sleeping a little to close for Natasha's comfort. Notice Annika is asleep through this whole video, she is not showing any signs of aggression towards Natasha. However Natasha is nervous. Her face is tense. Her ears are pointed outwards in what I call the Great Horned Owl position. She starts licking her lips despite there being no food around. She yawns as if she's tired, but she's not, she just woke up from a nap. Then she starts scratching herself. All of the behaviors- the lick lipping, yawning, and scratching- are called Distracting Behaviors. They are normal behaviors but out of context. It's like someone who non-stop giggles when they are are nervous. Natasha eventually has enough of the situation and gets off the sofa.

What this is telling me is Natasha was uncomfortable with Annika's close presence. Rather than allow Natasha to be nervous around Annika, I took action.

First thing I did was every time Natasha and Annika were near each other and relaxed, I gave them treats. This does 2 things:

1) Rewards calm behavior which I like in my house.

2) Creates positive associations with being near each other.

This would not have worked in the above situation. Natasha was too nervous to make a positive association with Annika. I had to start when Annika was laying somewhere else, close but not so close that Natasha got nervous. The other thing I had to do is ensure that the all interactions between Annika and Natasha were positive. For a while I had to keep Annika on a leash in the house to keep her from getting too close to Natasha while they were still learning to trust each other.

Another thing that was happening (not in the video above) was that Annika would sometimes give Natasha a hard stare. That is *very* uncomfortable for Natasha- she was avoiding eye contact with Annika even when Annika was asleep! Every time I saw Annika hard stare Natasha, I called Annika to me. Just doing that was annoying enough to Annika that she stopped that behavior.

Now all 3 girls sleep on the sofa on a regular basis. Natasha and Annika even sleep on the sofa together all night. This could have turned out VERY differently if I hadn't taken a positive approach to reduce the anxiety that Natasha was feeling. They may have even started fighting. But it never got to that point. ​

There are certain situations in everyday home life where aggression between animals is more likely to occur. You can do a lot to prevent aggression by first training each pet individually. Each pet should know and respond to their name- and their name ONLY.

How do you do this? With treats of course!

Start in a quiet area with no other pets or distractions, just the one pet you are training. Grab a bunch of treats and put them in a handy-dandy treat pouch. Call your pet's name. If she looks at you, say "Good" in a happy voice and give her a treat. You're just trying to get your pet to pay attention to you by looking at you when you call her name. Nothing anymore complicated than that.

Do this with each pet, one at a time. One caveat: NEVER use your dog's name in anger. A dog learns even when we're not teaching them. If you say your dog's name in anger or with a non-happy voice, she will not know what to expect- treats or punishment. She'll hesitate in responding because nobody likes to be yelled at. So if you're going to say your dog's name, ALWAYS use a happy voice.

Once they know their names, you can start adding other commands to their names. "Annika, come here." You reward Annika for coming the same way, with a "Good" and a treat. Again, repeat with each pet, and different commands like Stay and Sit. Use the commands in different areas of the home, outside, and with slowly increasing distractions present.

Once they are all VERY well trained to their own name and the commands you use, you can start bringing them together. I'd pick the 2 best trained pets first. Call one pet's name and give them the command to come to you. Reward ONLY the pet you called. It may take a while before the other pet gets it. You may need someone to help you by leashing the other pet, or you can attach the leash to a door or heavy piece of furniture so the other pet can not come when you don't call her. You want the pet whose name you didn't call to basically ignore you. Then switch pets. Keep doing this until you reliably get ONLY the pet you call to respond, slowly adding in all the pets as you go.

Now here's how to use that nifty new name and command chain. Fights between pets often happen in the following circumstances:

1) Greetings, either your family or strangers.

2) When there is food present.

3) Going through doorways.

4) Everyone trying to get attention from people at the same time.

5) Over high-value toys, treats, or positions on furniture or dog beds.

6) Because they're all very excited about something, even just play.

Let's use the doorway example. It was not unusual for my pack of dogs to all try to run through the door to the back yard at once. This led to pushing and jumping on each other, and a lot of growls and warning barks. Not cool. So I trained each of the girls to their names, and the command "wait." Wait in my family means just stop what you're doing for a minute and be ready for the next command. When I want them to all go outside or come inside, it's a stampede to the back door. Now I can say "wait" and then call one dog in at a time, with no fussing and fighting.

While these dogs are not showing any signs of aggression, this kind of doorway squeeze can be dangerous to dogs who are highly roused, who have pain issues, or who have a bigger personal space bubble. The dog in the background is opting out of the doorway jam probably for one of these reasons.

Another useful thing to do is train your dogs to ALL respond at the same time to the same command without having to individually name them. You do this the same way as you train them to each of their names, by giving the group a name. I use the very original and clever term "dogs" for this. If I want all the dogs to come inside, I say "Come in dogs" and they all run to the back porch. Then I say "Wait." Then I call each dog by their name to come inside. I can also call one dog by name to come inside and the other two will ignore me.

Having all your dogs come back to you at once is useful in dog parks, when you want them to come inside or go outside, and so on.

The absolute worst thing to do is nothing, hoping the animals will work things out themselves. Talk to us or one of our recommended trainers, Melissa Lucas of Come Sit Stay in Sanford or Abby Ganin-Toporek of Sandhills Dog Training in Southern Pines right away.

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