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How to handle aggression between dogs in a household

Original Publication Date: February 29, 2016
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Many of the approximately 78 million pet dogs in this country live in multiple dog households.

Most live in harmony and are a joy for their owners. Unfortunately, aggressive incidents between dogs can disturb the peace and happiness of the dogs and humans.

A team of researchers headed by Kathryn Wrubel at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine studied 38 pairs of dogs involved in aggressive incidents within their households. Their findings shed light on the problem of aggression among dogs living in the same house.

Females were active participants in 68 percent of aggressive incidents, while only 32 percent of conflicts involved two males. Other research has shown that aggression between females tends to last longer and be more severe.

Interestingly, 70 percent of instigators of altercations were the most recent members of the household and 74 percent of fights were started by the youngest member of the pair. This was true even when owners said the dogs usually got along well most of the time.

The most common reasons that trigger problems between housemates are the owner's attention to one dog over another, excitement, food and toys.

Owner involvement is often an important trigger of fights. Some dogs get aggressive if they view the owner giving more attention to another dog. In other words, they want to be "most important" in the eyes of the owner. Aggression triggered by excitement often centers around excitement upon the owner returning home. Again, one dog wants to be the center of attention.

Conflict over food started a problem in 46 percent of the conflicts studied by the researchers. Another 26 percent of incidents involved were triggered over found items or toys. Again, it appears the aggressor desires to be the "most important" or "center of attention."

There is good news. The Wrubel study found two behavioral techniques that owners were able to successfully use to curtail aggression in the home. Team member Nicholas Dodman termed one technique "nothing-in-life-is-free." It requires a dog respond to a simple command like "sit," "come," or "down" before he gets the reward that he wants like a meal, treats or pets.

The second technique involves "supporting" one of the dogs in the multiple dog household. A chosen dog gets food, treats, attention, everything first. The chosen dog is usually senior by age or length of time in the household.

The study saw improvement in 89 percent of households using the "nothing-in-life-is-free" technique and in 67 percent using the "senior support" technique. Success takes several weeks of consistent practice of the technique, but success is possible.

Hopefully, you have dogs that live in harmony. If you have a pup that is aggressive and disrupts the tranquility of your home, try the "all-or-nothing-at-all" or "senior supportive" technique to see if one works for you.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at