When dealing with dog-to-dog aggression, it is important to listen to our dog.
There are many reasons why a dog may act aggressively toward another.
- He may be afraid.
- He may be stressed because his space is being violated.
- He may feel the need to dominate.
- He may be protective of us.
- He may be very curious.
- He may just be over-excited.
Sometimes, what we perceive to be aggression may be the result of hyper energy, eagerness, or natural inquisitiveness. Therefore, in dog-to-dog aggression cases, it is important to understand what our dog is feeling, and what he is trying to say.
When my dog meets a new dog, I observe both of them carefully. As soon as my dog starts to get stressed, I step in and interrupt before the situation escalates.
For dog aggression issues, it is best to take a dog’s age, health, temperament, and preferences into account, while coming up with appropriate solutions.
1. Be Calm and Decisive
Dogs are very sensitive to what their human is feeling. My dog picks up on my emotions and reflects them, except with much more intensity. Sometimes, I am not even conscious of feeling nervous or stressed, but my dog notices it and starts to act up. Once I consciously calm myself down, his behavior also improves.
A common mistake when meeting other dogs is to tense up, and get fearful of what our dog may do. If we are afraid, our dog will pick up on that fearful energy, and that will likely trigger an aggressive reaction.
Be careful not to put undue or continuous tension on the leash. Also, do not pull the dog straight back, as that will likely cause a lunge forward response. To remove my dog, I pull him to the side and quickly walk him past the other dog.
2. Teach Our Dog Avoidance
When I see another dog, I usually just ignore him and move along.
I have found that avoidance is most effective when I avert my eyes from both dog, as well as owner. I keep my eyes forward, and keep walking at a natural pace. In this way, my dog learns that when we see other dogs, we avoid rather than confront.
Be careful not to crowd our dog while walking. If he feels trapped between us and the other dog, he may think he has no choice but to react aggressively. Do not stand still while trying to tug our dog away. Move away, and he will come along with us. At the same time, we are creating space so that he will not feel trapped.
I do not let my dog obsess or stare intensely at other dogs. Sometimes, my Shiba Inu will drop into a stalking-down-position, stare, and wait for the other dog to pass. Some people think that he is such a good boy for doing a Down, when other dogs are coming toward him, but he is actually just waiting to pounce.
Do not allow this bad behavior, do not let our dog practice it, do not even let him think about it. Just move him along, and ignore. If the other dog is somehow blocking us (e.g. if the owner is unable to control his dog), then walk away in a different direction. Do not stare the other dog down and do not confront him, either through posture or by physically engaging him.
Challenging unknown dogs is a good way to get bitten.
3. Create Space or Block the Other Dog
We can do this by moving across the road or into a driveway, and waiting for the other dog to pass.
We may also move our dog behind a barrier, for example a car. If there are no barriers available, we can try blocking the dog’s view with our body.
By doing this, we avoid a head-on, more confrontational passing.
I have tried all of these blocking techniques, but what works best for me is to create space, and quickly move past the other dog. Whenever I wait for the other dog to pass, my Shiba uses that time to start obsessing.
Dog treats and trying to get his attention do not work at this point, because the other dog is too close, and Shiba Sephy is no longer listening. The advantage of walking Sephy briskly past the other dog, is that he has less time to stare. In addition, he cannot fully obsess, because he must partly focus on walking.
However, using barriers and blocking may work better for a fearful dog.
Some trainers suggest turning and walking away when we see another dog, rather than passing him or waiting for him to pass.
There are two problems with this method:
- If we turn away, the other dog will be following us. This may cause some dogs to keep looking back, to make sure that the follower is not a threat. I have tried this, and indeed my Shiba keeps looking back.
- If we keep turning away, we may meet other dogs and get boxed in; especially if there are many dogs in our neighborhood.
4. Create Neutral Experiences
I try to create as many neutral dog-to-dog meeting experiences as possible. If every time my dog sees another dog, we just pass by and nothing interesting happens, it will become a non-event.
Being consistent with neutral greetings will build our dog’s confidence. Through repetition, we are teaching him how to behave (just avoid and move along), and how not to behave (get over-excited, frustrated, lunge, and pull). He will be more calm because he is not waiting in anticipation of a highly charged encounter, either for play or for confrontation.
I try to set my dog up for success, and do not let him practice aggressive behaviors when meeting other dogs. The more he practices, the more aggressive he will be.
If my dog becomes agitated during a walk, I try to end the outing as soon as possible. Once in this mode, his adrenaline levels will be high for a fair duration, and he will likely react aggressively to all the dogs that we meet. In this state, he will no longer be capable of learning, and will only be practicing dog aggressive behaviors.
5. Protect our Dog
I usually keep my dog away from people and dogs with weak energy (e.g. fearful, excited, or frustrated energy). In addition, I also try to keep other dogs and owners from coming into my dog’s space. I say a quick ‘hi’ to the people I meet, and move on.
If people with weak energy stop and want to meet my dog, I ask them nicely to please move on, because my dog is easily excitable.
It is fine and good to let a dog meet people with calm energy, but make sure to let them know how to best meet our dog. In particular, turn away when he jumps, no quick movements, and no petting from above.
6. Keep Greetings Short and Sweet
While greeting another dog, we want to positively interrupt our dog every so often, and get him to refocus on us. Do this as many times as necessary, so that our dog does not get over-excited, and lose control of himself.
Whenever my dog is meeting a new dog, I interrupt him after a very short duration (2-3 seconds). I quickly move or jog away from the other dog, while giving the positive interrupt command, e.g. Hey, hey. Initially, I may have to lightly tug at my dog while moving away. I make sure to treat him well for moving toward me on a loose leash.
If our dog is too obsessed to move away and is strongly standing his ground, then we have waited too long to initiate the interrupt. Positive interrupts are also useful for dealing with human greetings, and getting our dog away from a dirty or unsuitable area.
The key to successful positive interrupts is to catch a dog early, before he starts to obsess on another dog or object.
7. Be Aware of Aggressive Triggers
Some dogs, for example Spitz-type dogs, have a natural look that may appear dominant (ears up, hair out, tail up). This dominant look may instigate other dogs to respond in kind, and start posturing as well. Conflicts may occur, and if neither dog is willing to back down, this may lead to a dog fight.
If I am unsure about a dog greeting, I just move on. Better to be safe than sorry.
8. Desensitize our Dog to Other Dogs
The problem with dog-to-dog aggression issues, is that in regular situations the “other dog” stimulus is too strong, and environment is too unstructured for any learning to occur. Often, our dog overloads quickly and becomes reactive, because the other dog is too close, is staring, is hyper, or is charging toward us.
In the desensitization process, we do training in a quiet, enclosed environment, and start with a very weak version of the problem stimulus. In terms of reactivity toward other dogs, we can use distance to weaken its effect.
In this way, we also weaken the strength of our dog’s reaction, so that he will be calm enough to listen and learn. This is necessary, to create opportunities where we can begin to teach our dog to be calm and relaxed, while in the presence of another dog.
I did quite a lot of dog-to-dog desensitization sessions with Sephy, when he was young, at our local SPCA. The trainers there had many balanced, friendly dogs, that we could do training with.
First, the trainer would engage the other dog in training exercises, so that he stays in a fixed position, and is not focused on Sephy (i.e., no eye-contact). Both dogs are on-leash.
I take Sephy a far distance away, far enough away that he is still calm and able to listen to me. Then, I get his attention by calling his name. If he looks at me, I praise, and treat him for behaving well. Sometimes, I also ask him to do very simple commands, e.g. Sit.
I let Sephy sit and watch the other dog as long as he is calm, and willing to give me his attention when I ask for it. Once we are both comfortable with this, I move one step toward the other dog and repeat the Focus and Sit exercises above.
Do not move too close to the other dog, too quickly. If we move forward too fast, our dog may become reactive, and will no longer be able to give us his attention. At this point, I no-mark Sephy (uh-oh) and move back a few steps. Once we are far enough away, I try to get his attention again. When he gives it to me, I stop, praise, and treat.
Note – for desensitization to be successful, we want to keep our dog below his instinct threshold as much as possible.
I always try to make sessions short, fun, and rewarding. This helps our dog associate other dogs with being calm, and with positive experiences. I make sure to stop before my dog shows any obsessive behavior, and long before he becomes aggressive. Once a dog becomes reactive or aggressive, it is usually best to end the session soon after.
As we make progress, we can slowly increase the strength of the problem stimulus. For example, we may allow the target dog to start moving around, or we may allow him to play with his handler.
The desensitization process can be long and difficult. Dogs with lower instinct thresholds (the point at which they lose control and switch to instinct) will be harder to desensitize. However, consistent practice will also help to raise this threshold.
What to Expect from Dog-to-Dog Aggression Training
Do not expect too much, too quickly, from our dog. Make sure to treat and praise him very well, if he voluntarily engages in avoidance maneuvers, when there are other dogs around. This includes looking away from the direction of the other dog, smelling and exploring the environment, or looking at us for direction.
Initially, treat and praise even small avoidance moves, for example looking away for just 1 second. If a dog will not accept treats from us, then he is too far gone and it is best to lead him away. Treats are only effective for shaping behavior when our dog is still thinking, and not operating on instinct.
If we keep practicing desensitization exercises, and teach our dog how to behave with other dogs, he will improve. As he matures, he will become more confident, be less dog aggressive, and be more comfortable around new experiences.
For aggression issues between two family dogs, here is more on how I help my dogs get along.