Help for Two Dogs Fighting Over Owner
Does you dog attack your other dog when you enter the door?
Let's face it: owners are high-value to dogs, so much that two dogs will compete over the owner's attention, almost (or even more) as they would over a bone, resting spot or toy. This can be quite an issue if allowed to put roots. Early intervention can prevent things from escalating, but first and foremost, it's important to take a look into the dynamics. What happens exactly? Is one dog the troublemaker or both? What starts the squabbles? What stops them? When should an owner seek professional help? These are all very important questions.
Typically, the squabbles are most intense when the owner comes home from work. Often, things go this way. The dogs have been alone all day, craving something to do. They missed their owner dearly (yes, even if two dogs have each other for company, the owner is always the owner, high-value in a dog's hierarchy of resources) so they look forward to his return. When they hear the car approaching, they both get highly excited, they can hardly contain themselves. They rush towards the door, whine, bark and pace back and forth until they hear the keys. When the owner finally comes in, one dog rushes to greet, but is abruptly stopped from the other dog who starts pushing him away, barking at him and moving him out of the way with his mouth. Depending on the other dog's temperament, he may move out of the way preventing the tension from escalating or he may respond and soon a squabble turns into a serious fight.
If this scenario seems familiar, you will need professional help. These fights may potentially escalate and getting in between two highly aroused dogs who are fighting puts you at great risk for a re-directed bite. Your best bet is therefore to consult with a professional. Look for a good force-free dog trainer well versed in dogs behavior modification, or even better, see a certified behavior specialist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB)
The following paragraphs are just an example of behavior modification I have applied to dogs who get into minor squabbles where there's just a bit of noise and that's it. These examples aren't meant for dog owners to try on their own. Behavior modification for conflict resolution among dogs should be performed under the guidance of a professional to ensure correct implementation and safety; even the calmest dogs can bite! If your dogs are fighting, please seek professional help!
A great read for multi-dog households.
The Importance of Early Intervention
As with many dog behavior problems, recognizing early signs of trouble goes a long way. Nipping behavior in the bud, means less effort and time compared to behaviors that have been rehearsed for many years. With two dogs competing over the owner, things may start with early warning signs that may not be readily identifiable as a problem. Here are some early signs:
- One dog staring at the other dog
- One dog cutting the other dog off
- One dog getting in the middle when you're petting the other
- A bark or little growl
- One dog chasing the other when you enter the door
Often, the owner assumes the two dogs are "playing" or just "play fighting" but often things escalate when the problem is ignored. How? Let's imagine the following scenario:
The owner is coming home from work. Rover goes to greet him, but Scruffy cuts him off. Rover though is too concentrated in being happy and excited so ignores Scruffy's rude behavior. Scruffy may decide at this point to escalate his behavior to get his point across. It's as if he's saying to Rover: "what part of my message aren't you getting? Move out of the way!" So Scruffy may decide to growl next time. In the best scenario, Rover at this point defers and moves away as if saying "OK buddy, chill out, I got the message." However, because seeing the owner is such an anticipated event, it may happen that one day Rover is too excited and decides to ignore Scruffy's warning or maybe he's not feeling too well and fails to take notice. Scruffy may therefore decide to escalate again but this time by biting and soon a fight erupts as Rover attempts to defend himself.
Once, with the help of a trainer, the owner has identified which of the two dogs is telling the other to stay away, it's important to take steps to prevent things from escalating as tension tends to accumulate over time. The more dogs get to rehearse problem behaviors, the more they put roots and become difficult to overcome. Sooner than later, one dog or a person can get badly hurt. Improvement can be accomplished through management and behavior modification.
Emily Larlham's Positive Interrupter
Examples of Management and Behavior Modification for Two Dogs Fighting Over the Owner
Managing a dog's environment is important, but management is often a commonly misunderstood concept. Often, dog owners aren't too fond of management because it doesn't teach a dog anything. What many people fail to realize is that in reality, it does teach a very important principle: it teaches a dog not to rehearse inappropriate behaviors. Dogs are in a constant state of learning, and even when they aren't actively learning, they are passively learning. When we are using management, we are controlling the dog's environment to prevent unwanted behaviors from happening. The lack of triggers teaches a dog alternate behaviors. So if say your dog is kept away from a room with a window that encourages him to bark at people walking by all day, if you place him in another room, he may learn to relax or enjoy playing with an interactive toy instead.
Management is used when you cannot commit to actively teach your dog either because you are away or busy. So management is an important tool to include in your training and behavior modification arsenal so you can prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behaviors until you can train your dog to behave differently. So how can we apply management to two dogs fighting over the owner when he comes home? We would separate the dogs when the owner comes home until the owner is ready for implementing active learning.
Implementing Behavior Modification
In order to start behavior modification, it's important to find out which dog is starting the conflict in the first place. In many cases, one dog in particular is deliberately telling the other dog to stay away. One thing that dogs fighting over greeting the owner have in common is very high arousal levels. Often, these dog's behaviors are over the top and when too much arousal builds up, it spills out and ends up in a fight. So one important step in working with two dogs competing over the owner is lowering arousal when coming home. Here are some examples of work I have done for this type of issue.
Making Greetings Low Key
Arousal is often inadvertently reinforced by the owner coming home and greeting enthusiastically. Dogs are easy to influence with our behaviors. Indeed, when training a dog, one can easily influence his energy levels by tone of voice alone. I use a specific tone of voice to encourages motion, enthusiasm and kinetic energy for dogs who need to learn to come when called, dogs who are slightly inhibited and dogs who need encouragement. However, once I obtain the wanted effect, I often need to modulate this tone as it generates too much arousal. Owners who are enthusiastically greeting their dogs when they come home, may be inadvertently contributing to high arousal levels. High arousal leads to fights, re-directed aggression and dogs who can't cognitively function and are over threshold.
The best option is to totally ignore the dogs when coming home so the dogs are left with little or nothing to fight over, but if those arousal levels are too high, the owner may need to work on this issue with the dogs separated at first as dogs tend to feed off each other's arousal. The dogs may also be taught to engage in alternate behaviors that are calmer such as sitting or going to a specific designated spot. Another option is having the owner negatively punish the dogs at the very first signs of conflict. Which brings to the next example of behavior modification.
Negative Punishment At the First Signs of Conflict
Negative punishment in dog training means to stop a behavior (punish) by removing something the dog desires. So in this case, since the dogs are craving human attention, that attention is removed from the owner as he's coming through the door at the very first signs of conflict. This means making an abrupt exit. To be effective, this needs to happen the moment the conflict appears. Timing is of the essence to make it clear to the dogs that it's the conflict that makes the owner leave; whereas, good behavior makes the owner stay.
This needs to be repeated many times in a row to make an impact and must take place every single time the owner comes though the door. Owners cannot change behavior by allowing the dog to get in conflict some days and not on others. It's crucial to be consistent. Effective communication takes place when the dogs learn that the conflict makes the owner leave and lack of conflict makes the owner stay. A positive sign of effective communication is when you start noticing the conflict dissipating after some time. This method won't work and isn't recommended for the following dogs: dogs who fight in the absence of the owner, dogs who have a history of physically injuring each other, dogs who are highly aroused, dogs who weren't assessed by a professional. It may work for dogs who only exhibit ritualistic displays of aggression (more noise than actual harm) and dogs who have been displaying this behavior over time without ever injuring each other; however effective, this method is not my primary go-to option as I prefer a deeper approach that tackles change underlying emotions.
Planning a Back-up Method
It's always good to have a back-up method to rely on should the dogs every get in conflict. It's important to interrupt conflict at the very first signs, because past the early signs, the dogs may be too focused on each other to cognitively function. A command that distracts the dogs from each other such as a down stay or a go to your place may help. Alternatively, a recall or a positive interrupter can be used if the dogs don't guard food from each other. A positive interrupter consists of a smacking noise that tells the dogs to stop what they're doing (interrupter) and to look at you and come to you for a tasty treat. Emily Larlham offer a great video on how to teach that. A positive interrupter can be a good option to interrupt the behavior as it unfolds so you can later start working on that issue through behavior modification and training. I like to create a chain made of the positive interrupter, the dogs coming to you and sitting.
Changing the Underlying Emotions
One of the most powerful ways to change behavior in dogs is by changing the underlying emotions. This is known as counterconditioning. Once a trainer points out exactly which dog is starting the conflict, the trainer and owner can work on counterconditioning. I use this method extensively, apply it in many different ways and often find myself in awe with the results. For dogs fighting over the owner these are my two favorite strategies.
Rover's Appearance Makes Good things Happen
We talked about how Scruffy was communicating to Rover that his presence near the owner wasn't appreciated. "The owner is mine, stay away!" However, Scruffy's possessive behavior can change if Rover's appearance makes good things happen. So let's say the owner is entering the room and Scruffy comes greet him, then when Rover starts approaching too, the owner starts feeding treats to Scruffy--that is several high-value ones in a row. Then, when Rover leaves, the owner stops feeding Scruffy treats. This should ideally be done systematically in an organized fashion. This means one helper has Rover on leash so to bring him in and out of the room, while the owner has Scruffy on leash as well. After repeating several set-up several times, Scruffy may start to no longer dread Rover coming near the owner, because every time Rover comes near the owner, Scruffy gets treats and every time Rover leaves, the treats stop. In Scruffy's brain now, Rover's presence is desirable because it makes treats happen. From dreading Rover and sending him away, Scruffy should now be enthusiastic upon seeing his pal. Note: This setup can be made even more powerful by increasing the value of treats the closer Rover comes.
Warning: If at any time Scruffy appears uncomfortable by Rover's appearance or Rover appears intimidated, it means you are working too close too fast. One must take a few steps back in the process.
Petting Rover Unlocks Rewards
Once Scruffy starts looking forward to Rover's appearance and Rover can stay closer, criteria can be further raised. Now, Scruffy can learn that good things happen when you pet Rover. Again, both Scruffy and Rover should be on leash for safety. The owner would pet Rover and Scruffy in the meanwhile would be fed several treats in a row strategically timed with the petting action. This means that treats are given to Scruffy when Rover is being petted by the owner, and treats are stopped when the owner stops petting Rover. Repeated several time, Scruffy learns to no longer dread the petting action but actually look forward to it.
After several successful sessions, the dogs can be kept freely without the leash, but it may be a good idea to muzzle them the first tries just for safety if there are risks. It is critical to be very watchful for signs of trouble as all the hard work can be undone if the dogs have a setback because the process was done too fast in the process. Behavior modification must be done slowly and systematically to be successful, rushing through the process and sloppy implementation are two of the most common mistakes.
As seen, there are several ways to reduce conflict among dogs. These are just a few examples of a variety of methods I may use. Each case is different and each dog is different, so a one-size-fits all doesn't apply. However, with dog behavior there are never really guarantees. The above are just examples of behavior modification methods that have worked for me in a controlled setting. To be effective, the owners had to continue the work at home after I have briefed them thoroughly. If your dogs are having conflict over your attention, please seek the help of force-free professional to help you out.
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be a substitute for a hands-on assessment by a behavior professional. If your dog is aggressive or undergoing conflict with another dog, please seek a professional to help you out. Behavior modification comes with risks. By reading this article you accept this disclaimer.
Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.
Disclaimer: the following article offers some examples of behavior modification techniques I may use for two dogs fighting over attention. They are not meant to be used by dog owners without professional guidance and not as a substitute for professional behavior advise. If your dogs are aggressive, for safety purposes, it's important to seek the help of a force-free behavior professional to help you out. By reading my articles, you automatically accept my disclaimer.
An example of my work for conflict resolution among dogs fighting over owner attention (note these dogs don't resource guard food)
For further reading
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- Using Management to Prevent Dog Bites
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- Using Food for Dog Behavior Modification
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