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Dogs Use Non-Aggressive Fighting to Resolve Conflicts

We negotiate and move beyond such conflicts with phrases like, “Don’t do that,” “Hey, that’s mine!” “Leave me alone!” or “I’m sorry.” Wolves (and many other social animals) convey similar meanings with a varied repertoire of gestures, postures, facial expressions and sounds, including those mentioned earlier as examples of agonistic behavior. Precisely because they employ such signals, wolves can resolve conflicts without hurting each other. This is an important consideration, because serious wounds in any adult can reduce a pack’s viability as a cooperative unit. Fortunately, dogs, as descendants of wolves, have retained many of these behaviors as well as the motivation — most of the time — to avoid dangerous fights. (A recent study* reported that none of 127 agonistic interactions observed at a dog park resulted in injury.)

The interaction between Denny and Meadow described in the opening paragraph is a good example of this process. Meadow conveyed the equivalent of “Stop trying to mount me!” when she stood over Denny, growling. Through his submissive expressions and gestures, Denny indicated that he accepted her discipline. Meadow responded to Denny’s submission by stepping away, and her play bow showed that she had no hard feelings. Denny’s willingness to play with Meadow indicated that he, too, wanted to remain friends. While we often rush to intervene in such interactions, one can almost hear the dogs saying, “No big deal!”

Our last example involves Tex, a 50-pound mixed-breed we rescued from an unhappy life when he was about six months old. He is now five and has never bitten another dog. However, Tex is a bit of a grouch. For example, when he first met Zelda, a young adult female German Shepherd, he rushed at her repeatedly, opening and closing his mouth and vocalizing, “rah-rah-rah.” At first, Zelda showed mild submission and avoidance. Then, as Tex continued with his displays, she stood quietly when he charged, going about her business as soon as he moved away. When they met again the next day, Tex growled at Zelda a few times, but soon they began to play, and from that moment on, they played for hours whenever they were together. Although they clearly like each other, now and then Tex erupts vocally at Zelda, who ignores him. She is like the person who has a friend with a bit of a temper, learns not to feed it and loves him anyway.

The point of this story is not that everyone should allow their dogs to interact with grumps like Tex. Zelda’s guardian was a friend who was familiar with Tex and knew that he was harmless, despite his tendency to show agonistic behavior toward an unfamiliar dog. (Why Tex and other dogs employ this gambit is a topic for another time.) Although we might prefer that dogs always greet one another with laidback ears and loosely wagging tails, we wonder how many dogs like Tex are out there, doomed to a life without canine company simply because they don’t conform to our ideas about how dogs should behave? Similarly, how many compatible pairs like Jimmy and Meadow are separated because we don’t understand their relationship? If we can learn to discern nuances in agonistic behavior, perhaps more dogs will get a chance to enjoy friendships with other dogs. (See “Does Your Dog Need a BFF?” Bark/June 2010.)

So, the next time you witness an agonistic interaction between two dogs known to have good bite inhibition, instead of intervening at the first sign of a curled lip or growl (especially when the dogs have a generally amicable relationship), wait a moment and watch.

If the interaction ends quickly with no injuries to either party, chances are you have witnessed a useful episode of communication. Sometimes, we need to trust that the dogs really do know best.

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Submitted by Jennifer G. | November 23 2013 |

WOW WOW WOW! So glad I read this article! As an owner of 2 pit bulls, I now realize that I have allowed the stigma and fear surrounding the breed to get the better of me. Of course I'm already perfectly aware that they couldn't be further from the monsters they're portrayed to be, but I realize that I'm being way too overly cautious when supervising our dogs' play & interactions with one another. This is the exact communication that goes on between our dogs again & again, & even after having both of them together for over a year, I still become anxious & worry that it isn't if, but when something bad will happen. I do think 1 think to be cautious of, though, is if 1 of the dogs interacting has become more intolerant of something, which is something that will happen when they're in pain, or can happen because some dogs just become less tolerant with age (like the old man yelling at kids for walking or playing on his lawn!) When a dog is no longer tolerant for another dog's behavior, I think it can lead to a dangerous situation. So overall, I think I'm stopping play sessions unnecessarily at the first sign of trouble (just like the article says) & won't do that anymore, but at the same time, I will continue to monitor play sessions because 1 of our 2 dogs is now in his senior years & shows signs that he may have arthritis in his near future, & perhaps there are going to be some days that he's going to be in pain from it. Another thing I think people should watch for is if 1 of their dogs has bad behavior or an energy level way too high for their other dog. If the older and/or lower energy dog is completely intolerant & withdraws every time it is approached by the excited, overly playful dog, it could lead to severe depression. This seems to be what happened to my boyfriend's parents' dog, & it was VERY hard to see. The older dog got to where she stays in her kennel, by choice, almost 24/7, & seems extremely depressed. She wants nothing to do with the younger, high energy dog that is NEVER exercised (which is also sad & hard to see.) I think these dogs are a terrible match for one another, & so people should really pay attention to that before deciding on a new companion for their other dog(s).

Submitted by Janis Jackson | May 3 2014 |

So glad you've put into word what I've been trying to express for a while now with dog interactions at the dog park. The dog park can get complicated with so many dogs to consider, however, if one just keeps in mind that dog behavior first, over breed behavior, then its easier to read their body language.

We are raising a doberman puppy that's now almost a year old. At the dog park he interacts "generally" well. He has "freind" dogs that he already knows and they play together and he learnt "fetch" so we can keep him distracted. He also has great recall now and is very confused when a dog fight breaks out near him, looking for the sound of this owner's voice for recall. We monitor him closely but intervene only when the behavior need to be modified. Your article could be misconstrued that its alright to "let the dog's work it out" which can be disastrous at the dog park, but I caught the part about the dogs actually knowing each other are the dogs working out their disagreements. At home, I have the Dobie 70 lbs, a 9lb Yorkie and an old Min Pin. He's old and grumpy and never wants anything to do with the puppy (dobie) so they sound horrible when the Min Pin is letting the dobie know he doesn't want to play or that he's to close to his bed. My Yorkie was first in the home and she pretty much gets her way although she's not pushy at all, I have had to teach the exuberant dobie that his paws anywhere near the yorkie doesn't work for me. He's also not allowed to maul her playfully with his roughhouse teeth play. Instead, I better see him licking at her instead or closed mouthed. There was only one incident when he snapped at her and my response was quick and so its never happened again. He definitely knows that's a not acceptable in our pack. He was 7 months old and in a excited state when the high value treats were introduced to him for the first time. The yorkie is serious about her treats and he though, because he's bigger and can easily take anything away from her he wants to that he could get it. We have since worked on who owns the treats (me) and who gives and takes them away, with all dogs. The grumpy old Min Pin has the worst time with this, but both the yorkie and dobie were willing to let me be the deciding factor.

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