Studies & Research
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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.


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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