Q: I am the owner of two fighting female dogs. These dogs haven't always fought. Until recently they've been very peaceful. However the last few nights as one growls at the other, another fight begins. One dog is a spayed eight-year-old Cocker Spaniel. The other is an unspayed three-year- old English Springer Spaniel. Is there any thing I can do to bring them back together? Would spaying the Springer be the answer? I don't want to give up one of the dogs. Please help!!
A: Although neutering male dogs can sometimes help prevent fighting, spaying females seldom has the same effect. Your problem is far from hopeless, though, and giving up one of the dogs doesn't have to be an option.
Dogs fight for many reasons and the most common, especially in dogs of the same sex, is a dispute over their status in the family "pack" Dogs were designed by nature to run in packs with a clearly defined order of authority from the top dog on down. As long as everyone knows his or her place and follows orders, life is usually peaceful.
With most dog packs, it's easy to see who's boss and how the rest of the dogs fit within the order. Watch your dogs interact -- which one takes the best toy, goes out the door first, gets to eat first and takes the best sleeping place? This is the "alpha" dog, the leader of the canine pack. The alpha dog achieves his (or her) rank by being smarter, stronger or sometimes just more domineering than the rest. Some dogs are born leaders, others fall into the alpha role because no one else wants the job. Most dogs don't mind holding a subordinate position and seldom challenge the alpha dog's authority.
Trouble starts when a lower ranking dog tries to move up the pack ladder or "forgets" his place. This can be a young dog entering his adolescent (teenage) stage or a subordinate pack member that senses the alpha dog is getting older, weakening or losing his authority.
The alpha makes and enforces the rules. Alpha dogs enforce their authority by the use of stern eye contact, growling, dominant body postures and if that fails, biting and fighting. If you watch your dogs closely, you'll see examples of this eye contact and posture in their daily activities.
Your dog's "pack" includes his human family as well as the other dogs in the household. You are alpha in this pack. You have the right to make the rules and it's up to you to enforce them. Hopefully, your dogs recognize your alpha status and you've reinforced it through training and consistent discipline. As alpha, you have every right to make and enforce this rule: "There shall be no fighting!"
It's always easier (and safer) to prevent a fight than to try to stop one that's already in progress. Very few fights start without reason even if that reason is only clear to the dogs. If you pay close attention to your dogs, you'll be able to see the beginnings of an argument -- a dirty look, a low growl, a shove -- and be able to nip it in the bud.
When you see one of your dogs "talking trash" to the other, correct her in a firm, deep, sinister voice: "That's enough!" or "Leave it!" If you enter the scene late and don't know who started it, scold them both. If you catch them while they're still thinking about arguing, you'll be that much more effective. If your dogs are a little more serious and aren't responding to your verbal correction, you can leave short leads on them so you can give them leash corrections. Don't be afraid to sound tough; you want them to understand that this behavior will not be allowed, period. Make it clear that if they want to fight, they're going to have to fight with you first!
If your dogs are fighting when you're not home, it's safest to keep them separated at those times. Most fights, though, occur in the presence of the owner and are a result of competition over attention, food, toys and of course, pack status. You can help prevent these disagreements by recognizing the highest ranking dog in your pack and favoring it with your attention. This is the dog you should pet first, feed first and let out the door first. Giving alpha privileges to a lower ranking dog, even if it might be your personal favorite, confuses the others and can lead to fighting. All the dogs will be more secure and comfortable with each other when they're clear on where they stand in the pack.
There are some dogs that just aren't going to get along no matter what. Some breeds are less sociable than others and some are known for fighting. In these cases, a permanent separation may be the best answer. This doesn't mean you have to get rid of one of the dogs. Those of us who keep multiple dogs including ones that don't get along are familiar with a system we jokingly call "musical dogs." One dog spends part of the day with the family while the other is crated, outside in the yard or in another part of the house. Partway through the day (or at any interval you want), you switch them. It's not as cozy as having all the dogs together but can be a very workable solution.
Obedience training for all dogs in the pack is recommended. If your dogs have already been through a class and understand commands, practice with them on a daily basis. A long "down" is great for cooling the heels of a rambunctious younger dog. A good drill is to put all your dogs on a "sit/stay," then call each one to you individually for attention or a treat -- the alpha dog first, of course!
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