Nicole Wilde—who, among other types of rescue work, has lived with, socialized and rehabilitated wolves and wolf-dog hybrids—knows a thing or two about dog-on-dog aggression. In her new book, Keeping the Peace, she looks at the many forms this takes in a domestic setting. She and Bark’s editor-in-chief, Claudia Kawczynska, recently discussed the topic, and her new book.
Bark: What are the most common misconceptions that people have about dog-on-dog aggressive behavior?
Nicole Wilde: First, while mild skirmishes may be resolved with- out human interference, it is a falsehood that in any fight, dogs should be allowed to “work things out.” Allowing them to do so could easily lead to injury in one or both dogs. Another common misconception is the notion of “backing up the alpha,” as though we could decide which dog is going to be dominant. (Regardless, you should ultimately be the one in charge!) Dogs work out a loose rank order amongst themselves, but this leads to one more misconception, which is that one dog is dominant in all situations. One dog may typically take the dominant role, but another may have higher status when it comes to treats or access to resources such as a highly valued location—for example, a place on the couch.
Bark: What should alert us to a potential dog fight?
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Wilde: A hard stare is one of those subtle signals that’s often missed by humans, but not by other dogs. A hard stare can easily trigger a fight; often, owners misunderstand which dog actually started it, since they missed that initial stare. Another small signal that is some- times missed is a raised lip. We’ve all seen what I think of as the “National Geographic snarl” on wolves (which is actually called an agonistic pucker), but sometimes a dog will display a subtler version, such as a slightly raised and trem- bling corner of the lip. This can be easy for an owner to miss. Stiff body language is another sign that tension might be brewing. Then, there are the more obvious signals, such as growling. Watch too for signs of stress, which include lip-licking, yawning, scratching, sniffing, averting the eyes or turning away from the other dog.
Bark: What are the main messages you hope your new book conveys to its readers?
Wilde: I would like the book to teach them how to recognize and monitor their dogs’ body language and interactions so that tensions can be defused before they escalate, and situations that cause those tensions can be altered or avoided altogether.
By following the book’s instructions for creating a behavior diary, they should be able to notice trends and habits in their dogs’ behavior and relationships over time. Also, by the end of the book, they will have a personalized, completed profile that contains a step-by-step solution for each of their dogs’ issues. Having this roadmap in hand is in itself stress- relieving, which is important when living with dogs who are not getting along. The valuable train- ing skills they learn along the way will allow them to better solve behavior issues.
The book also reviews options for when things are simply not resolvable, and I hope they will take those to heart rather than surrender a dog to a shelter, or euthanizing. But overall, I hope those who read the book will be able to resolve the aggression issues, and that harmony will be restored to the home.