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Dogs Use Non-Aggressive Fighting to Resolve Conflicts


Many incidents of seemingly aggressive behavior between dogs are simply examples of appropriate communication. Dogs (including youngsters) often recognize this even when we don’t. For example, we were at an agility trial with Acorn, an adult female Doberman. We met Acorn’s breeder as well as the breeder’s adolescent female Doberman, Sparkle. Acorn was standing at my side when they approached. Sparkle walked directly toward Acorn and stood facing her less than a foot away. Acorn flashed her teeth, and the young female took a few steps backward. The breeder said, “Aren’t you going to correct Acorn?” “For what?” we asked. “For aggression; she just showed her teeth at my dog,” the breeder asserted. What she mistook for aggression, we understood as skillful communication between two dogs.

Another vivid example of agonistic behavior involves two young Dobermans. Meadow was a year old when we brought home six-weekold Jimmy. During the last year and a half, we have watched the relationship between these two develop. They are crazy about one another — they play together every day, sometimes for many hours, and when they run, they often move in parallel so that the sides of their bodies are touching. Most of the time, Meadow and Jimmy appear to be doggy soul mates, but there is another side to their relationship that is less clear-cut. To deal with conflict situations, Meadow and Jimmy often escalate their communication to the point that it appears as if they are shouting at one another. When this happens, they can be so noisy that it’s hard to carry on a conversation even in the next room!

Both dogs rear up on their hind legs, boxing like kangaroos. Their mouths are open, their teeth are exposed and it looks ugly. However, these quarrels are over as quickly as they start, and both dogs are fine. In fact, they will typically play afterwards; following an episode that lasted a little longer than usual, they ended up spooning on a dog bed designed for one. Jimmy and Meadow remind us of a particular type of stable married couple described by relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman. These couples argued often, without holding back. Yet when they weren’t fighting, they tended to have more fun with each other than the stable couples who rarely quarreled.



This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 64: Apr/May 2011

Barbara Smuts, PhD holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a doctorate in behavioral biology from Stanford Medical School. A professor of psychology, she teaches courses in animal behavior at the University of Michigan. She has studied social behavior in several wild animals, including olive baboons and chimpanzees (East Africa) and bottlenose dolphins (coastal Western Australia). More recently, she has been studying social relationships among domestic dogs and is working on a book on this subject.


Illustration by Katherine Streeter
*A. Capra et al. 2011. Flight, foe, fight! Aggressive interactions between dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 6(1):62.

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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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