Tag Archives: resource

At home dog & dog conflicts

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?

101 Negotiations

I have written in the past why the model of Dominance or the idea that dogs are pack animals in search of a “pack leader” (the owner) is not only an erroneous construct, but really bad news for all dogs. There is so much to say about this construct, but today I want to focus on one important element about the social structure of dogs: The 101 negotiations that take place between them on a daily basis.

First off, let me say that SOCIAL Dominance does exist in any group of animals with a complex social structure. But the problem is that not even the scientific community can agree as to what “dominance” looks like.

So I will define here in this post what I mean by social dominance so at least we can have this as a departure point.

Social dominance is the competition for access to resources within the members of a social group. While my definition might not take into consideration all the aspects of Social dominance this is one definition I can work with.

Now, that this is settled, you might still wonder what the heck I mean by the definition above! I will illustrate with simple, yet salient examples of how two members of the same social group – my two dogs negotiate daily for what they want.

First off: The definition of resource is anything that an individual considers valuable and wants.

Some of these resources might remain valuable throughout the life of the dog and some might change for a myriad of reasons. Now, even the resources that remain valuable for the span of the dog’s life are less valuable if the animal had just had access to that resource and the need in obtaining and enjoying the resource has been met.


Of course, most members of a social group find many of the same things of value. Otherwise they would not have to negotiate, aggress and in some case even die over resources.

Let’s take the example of my dog’s beds. They have beds in these locations:
2, beds in the kitchen
1, bed by the window, in the LR- looking outside the front of the property, we call this the “perch” for obvious reasons
2, beds (one smaller than the other but otherwise identical) in our bedroom
2, crates -“his” and “hers” which are identical except Deuce’s is a bit larger

So the beds are the resource. And now I will illustrate how the resource has different “weight” for Deuce and Rio:
By the window: Rio’s perch, Deuce NEVER gets on that bed
Kitchen beds: No issues, first-come, first-serve, used during the day and before meals
Bedroom beds: First-come, first-serve. Rio changes her preference for the either one of the beds on occasion Deuce as a norm prefers the larger bed, but will let Rio take that and has never “demanded” he’ll surrender the bed if she is occupying it first – what a gentleman!

Here is another example with food dispensing toys of any kind except with Kongs:

Food Dispensing Toys:

  • VERY important to Deuce! He will manage Rio by giving her the Border collie “stare” and emitting a very high-pitch noise. As a result: Dogs are given their toys in separate rooms
  • Rio needs some coaxing because she will move away from the toy if Deuce is around or if prior to her going into another room Deuce expressed his “disgust” with her having her own toy

Category: BALLS

Tennis balls:

  • VERY important to Deuce but he shares all the time with Rio
  • Rio enjoys taking Deuce’s ball away from him on a daily basis. One of the highlights of her existence may I add!

Big Orange ball:

  • We have several very structured games with the orange ball. Never a competition.
  • Completely cooperative set of games. With Deuce bringing the ball back to the center of the action when Rio cannot fully carry the ball the whole way because her mouth is smaller than Deuce’s.

Big Red ball with a rope attached:

  • This is Rio’s ball. She loves playing with it by having someone throw the ball for her which she will bring back, play tug with you before it is thrown again. She often runs with the rope in her mouth bouncing the ball around.
  • Deuce has NEVER played with this red ball.

Edible Chews:

  • These are high-value chews such as pig ears or bully sticks that they get daily at night after dinner. Now, don’t ask me why, but this is how the dispersing of the goods comes down:
  • I call both dogs by saying: Do you guys want a chewy? They both know what that means and march to the laundry room from where they might be to get their chewy.

If I present the chewy first to Rio because she got there first – which she normally does, she will not take it. Period! I have to first give it to Deuce and then she will very politely take hers. There has never been a fight or even a growl, etc. over the chews. As a matter of fact, they both have their favorite spots where they eat theirs and they do not interrupt each other when doing so.

This example of the chews is a very salient one because it points to the many negotiations that take place between dogs that are lost on us. I have a keen eye for dog behavior and these are my own pups whom I see daily and know well but in spite of this I see things sometimes that I cannot explain, as I am sure that there are other instances where we are missing lots of the communication between Deuce and Rio.

Illustrated by the four categories of sample resources above – and then within that, sub-categories of the resources, as in the case of the balls the reason why they behave in a certain manner over a resource is really their very well kept secret.

This is just a glimpse on the complexities of dogs’ social structure and the negotiations they encounter in their daily interactions.

Most of the interactions over resources of most dogs are illustrated with one member getting either this resource right now because the other one cares less for that resources in general (Rio’s red ball) or because at that moment the resource is not as valuable to that individual as keeping the peace at home and making sure a friend remains a friend. Perhaps there are many other reasons as to how these interactions are formulated and resolved.

Of course there are some dogs that have learned that pushing their weight around by bullying another dog, terrorizing him or her pays off in happily getting the resources they want most of the time.

However, the norm between dogs is to use what I have been labeling as “negotiations” more often than sheer force of their mouths, etc.

As such, I think we have so much to learn from dogs in this department LOL…

And this is just the tip of the Social dominance iceberg… more to explore.