A major reason why owners ask for professional help is because their pooch is aggressive toward other dogs. The reason, and that might surprise you, is often not because they lacked socialization, but exactly the opposite. Dogs react to dogs because they know them.
Intraspecific competition occurs when individuals of one species live in the same environment and require the same resources for survival. That is, of course, the case with dogs. Despite breed variations, they are all dogs occupying the same ecological niche in our midst; relying on the same doggie must-haves - material goods like food, water, bones and toys, but also something less tangible, but of paramount importance all the same: A safe (from the dog’s point of view) place to live.
A 3-year feral dog study in Italy revealed many interesting behaviors that counter popular belief. One is that they guard and fight over possessions. Granted, guarding food, a bone or toy is something we can observe with our owned dogs, but that doesn’t mean it’s natural. It didn’t seem to be with these feral ones, because the only time they acted aggressively was when their home resting area was intruded on. Not the much larger roaming range, or nearby community garbage dump feeding site, just where they hung out and slept. Safe chilling space was what mattered most, not stuff in it, and it was only defended against other dogs, not humans. The observations suggest that dogs have an intrinsic, normal awareness that same species outsiders jeopardize the safe home base, and that gives us food for thought regarding our dogs.
When we invite a new pooch into our home, we expect the existing canine dweller to be as welcoming as we are and are miffed when he is less thrilled. We might be able to deal with a little bossiness, or sulky retreat, but not with growling, lunging and snapping. Out of our own fear we assign labels not only to his actions, but his personality. The expressions become who he is: aggressive, dominant, pathological. With a disapproving undertone we judge, incognizant that his behavior might be stemming from the innate feeling that the interloper is endangering his security.
Our incomprehension how the dog feels is surprising. After all, we too have a strong sense of territory, our safe space within the home boundary. When was the last time you invited a stranger for dinner and handed him the house keys afterwards? We have such an unwillingness to give up something we already own that behavioral economists have a term for it: loss aversion. People go ape when they whiff competition. Real or imagined, our survival instinct kicks in and we feel threatened. It is not any different with dogs, except when we call the cops, bang our chests, or fetch the shotgun they, lacking opposable thumbs and human language, lunge, bark or bite.
The Italian feral dogs’ “get lost” signals were highly ritualized: barking and charging only, no violent attacks and nobody got hurt. With our owned dogs we can see more intense expressions, and that doesn’t surprise me. For starters, the feral ones were successful with their displays and the intruders hit the road. So they never had to turn it up a notch.
Also, there was security in the group they belonged to. What I mean is that they cooperatively drove outsiders away. That working together is often amiss in our dogs’ realities. They are corrected and punished by the ruling pack-alpha for being “not nice”, or they are on their own when everyone else it at work.
If the person fails to provide a secure home base, the dog can develop a heightened sensitivity to anything new. Novel encounters already can be problematic for dogs, because they, by nature, thrive on predictability and routine – that is why we must socialize wisely, a topic for another post - but it can turn into a real issue if one feels insecure at the very same place that should be a refuge. He becomes inflexible and rigid, can never fully relax and always is under the surface agitated. Any novel encounter, any sound, jeopardizes predictability in his mind, and with it the little bit of safety he feels when nothing happens. He overreacts with seemingly out of context and out of control intensity.
It is not unusual for rescue dogs, having experienced losses, to become more competitive as they become more bonded in a new home. Living the good life, they increasingly have more to lose. At the same time, the residence dog might have his nose out of joint already with the arrival of the interloper, and if the rookie gets all the attention, or is a brute who hogs resources or pushily butts in, animosity builds quickly.
Whenever life worsens for a dog with the appearance of another; whenever he experiences physical pain or loses a possession, and keep in mind that social inclusion is a most valued one, the already natural sense that members of his own kind spell trouble is confirmed. The pooch develops an existential fear he associates with one dog in particular, or dogs in general, and the stage for future interdog aggression is set. One incident can have a long-lasting impact. And it doesn’t matter if the other dog just happened to be there, if it is correlation. In the dog’s mind it is cause and effect.
Our behavior influences our dog’s. We have the power to make things worse, but fortunately also better. If we want friendliness, including on home turf, we have to turn competition into cooperation, and the first impression is crucial because it lays the foundation for the relationship. To prevent an antagonistic one, the dogs should be on a loose leash and introduced keeping a distance that ensures that each one feels comfortable. They’re the ones who should choose when to move closer. Allow them to communicate freely, which means don’t manipulate their body, don’t correct their actions, and don’t force the relationship.
Powerlessness over one’s actions causes frustration and anxiety; choice and information decrease both. Proceeding at the dog’s comfort level is choice. Explaining to the dog how his world works in a way he understands is information. In the context of intraspecific competition it is, for example, making it clear to each dog whose turn for social attention and interaction, a much desired resource dogs often compete over, it is. Addressing the one you’re about to interact with by name, turning your body toward him, and then focusing only on him teaches that he doesn’t need to compete, and all others that butting in is pointless. When you’re about to disengage, tell him that with a trained word (Off-Switch post August 12/2010), and then switch your attention to the next dog. Yo-yo back and forth, so that no pooch feels left out and gets frustrated. Forget about superficial dominance rituals, like who should be fed first. It is fairness, and understanding what each dog needs to feel secure in his home, and then providing it, that eliminates competition.
Collaborating with humans is natural for dogs, cause they practiced it since some 14.000 years. Even so, I have witnessed competition directed at people, but it is not normal. Rather, it is learned. It is an artificially instilled anxiety when humans, in the name of misunderstood dominance, forcefully take things from a dog.
Dogs are inherently deferent to humans, and resources dogs and people have a common interest in, namely space and people food, are automatically under human control. I admit, with some dogs it doesn’t seem that way, but to clarify that we indeed are the ones with the bank account and big brain is rather easy and doesn’t require any force. Stuff that’s not important for people they shouldn't artificially challenge. Honestly, do you really want the bowl of Kibbles and Bits? Then why are you taking it away?
Dogs are inherently deferent to humans, but not so to dogs. All stuff is potentially up for grabs and contestable. In addition, other than being potential rivals, dogs are rather irrelevant for pooches that are cared for by humans. And what is irrelevant can be eliminated. I bet a bag of dried green tripe that when an old and feeble dog is attacked by one he lived with for many years that their relationship was always undermined by antagonism and suppressed anger.
If we want harmonious cohabitation, we have to make dogs relevant to each other. And keep in mind that competition doesn’t have to be played out aggressively. You can have a dog that withdraws, shuts down and gives up without a fight. The anxiety, albeit expressed in, for human criteria, more acceptable ways, is nevertheless felt and very real.
Task activities, like walks and games, make dogs relevant to one another and foster cooperation. Together is one key word, and rewarding is the other. Remember, life has to be better because the other dog is near.