One of the most difficult cases to resolve in my experience are cases that involved at home dog / dog conflicts. The motivation(s) behind the conflicts or fights can at times be difficult to parcel out. In addition, these kinds of situations require constant and competent supervision by those living with the dogs.
One (still) popular yet misleading and quite problematic advice that folks might get when they are experiencing problems between their resident dogs is to “support the dominant or alpha one.”
It is incredible to me that even though the “dominant” paradigm has been proven to be false and an oversimplification of canine social relations, some “experts” are still advising their clients that supporting the dominant one is how to go about resolving the conflicts.
So, what exactly is a “dominant” dog? The answer depends on whom you ask. The popular notion of a dominant dog is pretty much a personality trait. For example: A dog that growls when groomed, jumps or leans on people or does not come when called is also often referred to as acting “dominant” or is “dominant” by temperament.
Now, if we look at the scientific literature (and there is plenty) the definition of dominance changes.
First off, the term dominant does not appear as a “stand-alone” term, but it is linked with the word “social” as in social dominance. This is an important distinction and here is why: According to the scientific literature, dogs are not dominant by nature or by temperament. A dog may challenge another dog when it comes to the acquisition of a valuable resource – and it is the dog who decides what is valuable, not the human.
Dogs may also challenge a given dog in a specific context, but not in another. In essence: Social dominance as defined in the animal behavioral literature is fluid. It is based in the relationship between individuals, competition for valuable resources as well as being context specific! For example: My dog Laika who is our only dog, has to share the spotlight, her toys and her home etc. whenever I have a client’s dog stay with us for training. What I have witnessed many times is how Laika and the guest dog negotiate over resources – be it the larger bed, the privileged spot next to me when watching a video and on and on. In other words, Laika who normally lies on her bed, has readily allowed the visiting dog take her (larger) bed when she is more interested in laying outside in the sun. It is not that she cannot lie on her bed, but in a given moment, she is more willing to share a coveted resource because she’d rather lay somewhere else.
The good news is that dogs, for the most part, (as well as other animals with complex social structures) resolve conflict by not having one to begin with. Instead, they learn how to negotiate based on the specifics of the relationship with another dog(s) at a given moment in time. What these scientific findings mean to the human-dog relationship is that we can relate to our dogs as “partners” in a life of mutual collaboration and friendship versus my client’s viewing her dog as “dominant” or adversarial.
The scientific notion of social dominance asks that dog guardians/owners recognize that the behaviors they are labeling as displays of dominance are for the most part ways by which a dog is either communicating, i.e. I have not been taught to like being brushed/handled so I am letting you know by snarling or growling, or the dog is just being a dog and simply wants to lay down on something soft like our beds.
The question still remains as how to resolve canine conflicts at home?
First off, it is important for us to take stock of the fact that canids in general do form strong social bonds with other canids but that does not mean that they will necessarily want to form a strong bond and minimize ritualized aggression with the dog that we decide to bring at home or even so with the litter mate which they now share a household with as adults.
Secondly, any animal that has teeth can (and will) bite. So, this is why when aggression escalates from displays to full onset we need to have a plan in place and act on it. Otherwise the likelihood of someone getting bitten is very real.
The simple, yet not easy advice I give my clients once we have done our job in understanding what is the underlining cause or causes for the displays or aggression is to treat all dogs in the household the same.
In other words, all dogs are taught that all good things come to those who wait. To dogs that wait their turn and are “polite” by exercising a good measure of self-restraint, instead of pushing their weight around in an effort to get a resource.
What is really effective about the approach above is that the dog that tends to be demanding and impatient and expecting coveted resources to be dolled out to him (or her) first, can learn that when the other dog gets something yummy, fun etc. that means that he will do so too! This is classical conditioning at its best! Classical conditioning is all about powerful associations. In this case, the other dog serves as a signal to the aggressor that goodies are coming his way. In no time and with the proper management piece in place, the aggressor has learned that it pays off when the other dog gets goodies because that predicts his own good fortune. Make no mistake, classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian conditioning or associative learning) is incredibly powerful.
In part because it influences emotions. And emotions very often are linked to behavior.
The second reason why I advocate the model above over the “support the dominant” model is because none of the animals in the home are being bullied by the “dominant” dog. Moreover, the needs of all the dogs in the household will be met by a knowledgeable owner that has learned that controlling resources (stuff dogs want) and using these to establish some household rules makes for a happy and fair household.
Last, in addition to the above benefits, if dogs are taught to exercise self-control, which can be done in many different ways, you now have dogs that have benefited from being trained, which when done well it is really fun for the dogs and serves as fantastic mental stimulation, something most dogs have little of.
A trained dog now has some really nice behaviors under his belt that the owner can use not only when a potential problem might arise but as part of the dog’s daily living repertoire. And who does not like living with a well- mannered dog at home?