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Canine Behavior/HELP! I think my dog's behavior is getting worse!

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QUESTION: Hi Jody,

I think I emailed you a few weeks ago regarding my 4 year old JRT/Queensland Heeler mix, Miley, showing dominant behavior towards my inlaws' female German Shorthair Pointer, Sammie. I was really concerned that this was aggressive behavior but was assured that this was Miley's way of asserting herself within the pack (3 dogs total), but that I should monitor the behavior to be sure it did not escalate.

Flash forward to about 25 minutes ago: Miley (20 lbs) had pinned Sammie (70 lbs) on the ground and was standing over her, and she had her front paws on Sammie's shoulder. Sammie was on her side, almost completely rolled over. I brought Miley back inside immediately. Sammie had run over to Miley as soon as she got outside and started poking her nose in Miley's face and Miley has never been a dog that has appreciated any other dog in her face.  

I've seen Miley growl at her and show her teeth, at which point I started going outside with her to keep an eye Miley. When all 3 are out in the yard, there are almost no issues, until Sammie runs past her, and then Miley will chase her into the indoor dog room where she will almost always corner her. I will remove Miley from the situation when this has happened.

The issue with the dogs is starting to divide everyone's beliefs about them in our house. Mother in law believes Sammie is afraid of Miley. My husband, father in law and I all believe that if Sammie is submitting, then she is allowing Miley to show dominance over her, and has accepted her role as bottom of the totem pole in the pack. I am also of the belief; however, that if this goes unchecked, Sammie may snap and attack Miley and I'm pretty convinved the neither inlaw will pay for vet bills if their dog attacks my dog, as they feel that since dogs survived without vets when they got in fights way before they were domesticated, they don't need it if they fight now. On top of that, they tend to let Miley out unsupervised, knowing that the issues are present. I cannot afford a vet bill for a dog attack and wish to avoid one if at all possible.

Has this moved on from the assertive/dominance behavior to aggression? Should I consult a behavioralist at this point to maybe better figure out what to do about her escalating behavior? I don't want this behavior to be the cause of burned bridges between family members.

Oh, I also wanted to mention that NONE of Miley's behavior is present when she is with Max, the male GSP. Miley has also lived with other large dogs and has never shown this behavior before towards them.

ANSWER: Thank you for your question. I reviewed my recent answers all the way back to June and didn't find one from you. I also don't speak about things like "asserting their dominance within a pack" so I'm guessing your original question was directed to another expert on the site.

So, picking up with what I know from this letter... let me start by pointing out to your in-laws that dogs DID NOT survive fights back before regular veterinary care. Dogs died from serious wounds just as wolves, coyotes, lions, bears, dolphins, whales, etc do today. We could say the same of humans before vaccinations and ER care - that people survived childhood diseases and injuries sustained from falling off horses or early car wrecks. While it's true that some did, many did not. Many never returned to full health and recovery if they did survive. To suggest that just because not all dogs died from injuries sustained from fights a century ago as a good reason not to tend to wounds received today when we have the knowledge and skill to fix it is, in my opinion, abhorrent. This is my personal opinion. I would not own an animal if I wasn't prepared to tend to its medical needs, whatever they may be - foreseen or not. It's not my place to judge how another chooses to raise and handle their own pets/children. But it's worth at least presenting my opinion on the subject.

Now, then... on to the situation you're experiencing. Dogs, just like people, don't always get along with others of their kind. They may be very sociable with some and really dislike others. It's great that Miley gets on well with the male. Many female dogs have issues with other female dogs, and it's actually female-female encounters that lead to more fights than male-male encounters, and inter-sex encounters devolve into fights even less often.

If your belief is correct - that Sammie is behaving out of deference and has no interest in challenging Miley for status, then the likelihood of Sammie snapping or attacking back is pretty slim (not nonexistent, but very slim).

Are either of these females intact? Are either coming into (or recently been) in heat? Sammie submitting may be out of fear. Without viewing their interaction, it's impossible for me to assess what's actually going on between them. I can't know if Miley is being a bully for the sake of bullying or if she's responding to subtle behaviors that Sammie is doing (that you and your family may be missing).

How old is Sammie? What is Sammie's experience with other dogs? Miley gets on with at least one other dog that you mention. How is she with other dogs outside the household?

At this time, I would say that there are a couple of options. The first is easy. Management. If these dogs don't actually live together under one roof, then there is NEVER a reason they need to be in each other's presence. It simply means that all dogs stay in their own homes, so if you go to visit your in-laws, Miley stays at your home. If the in-laws come to visit you, then Sammie stays at their house. If there's actual travel involved to visit, and the dogs have gone on vacation with the humans, then the dogs should stay behind in the hotel room, or at a local doggie daycare if you can find one. If they must be under the same roof, then the visiting dog should be put in a spare room with the door closed and something interesting such as a loaded Kong to occupy them. Then, every 2 hours, rotate so that the resident dog is put away with a similarly interesting activity (a different loaded Kong) and the visiting dog can come out and be part of the family for a while. Rotation should happen such that the dog who is out is put into their private space BEFORE the confined dog is released so that they never actually have to see each other.

Sometimes management is our best option. And if the in-laws aren't prepared to be responsible for their dog's actions should their dog cause harm to your dog, and if they insist on bringing their dog into your home, then this may be the best solution to avoid conflict and unnecessary stress.

If there is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist in your area who can come in for a consult and observe the dogs in turn and together, they may be able to shed much more light on the subject. After observing, they may be able to help you devise a protocol that can improve the situation, or they may recommend management such as I've done above, or a combination of both, depending on what they see and what they hear from all the humans involved.

You can search for a CAAB here: http://www.animalbehavior.org/ABSAppliedBehavior/caab-directory

Veterinary Behaviorists can be found here: http://www.dacvb.org/resources/find/

You can also speak with your vet to see if they know anybody that they trust who understands canine behavior and body language. You are looking for someone who utilizes learning theory and positive reinforcement, force free methods. You want to avoid anyone who advocates techniques that involve "alpha rolls", "forced submissions", "pinning", or the use of choke chains, pinch collars or electronic shock collars. Each of the latter are likely to cause the situation to escalate and may well incline Miley to redirect her frustration at the humans working with her.

There is a link to a PDF at the bottom of the following link... The link is called "how to select a trainer" and is from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. They point out that letters after a name is not a guarantee to the methods that professional uses. So don't hesitate to interview anyone you are considering hiring. Ask them questions about their preferred training tools and methods of training. If it doesn't sound comfortable to you, then move on. If you are working with a professional and they ever do something to your dog (or ask you to do something) that feels uncomfortable or "not right" to you, then stop working with them immediately.
http://www.dacvb.org/resources/for-the-public/

I'm sorry I can't provide a "fix" in this response, but without observing the dogs, I just can't know what's triggering their hostile interactions. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you and your in-laws can find a peaceful solution that meets everyone's needs, especially at this holiday time of the year.

Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi,

I do agree with your statement about dogs not surviving fights. My dog goes in for routine checkups every 6 months. I don't leave anything to chance when it comes to her health, or the health of my horses for that matter. So I definitely agree with that.

I wanted to address some of your questions, which might give you some extra information.

#1: Yes, both females are spayed. Sammie is between 5-7 years old. She lives with the other dog in the household, Max. Sammie has grown up with Max, as he is her dad. From what I was told by my inlaws, Max and Sammie were not socialized with outside dogs for whatever reason. They would not let them get too close to other dogs because they didn't know what their dogs would do.

#2: My husband and I live with his parents, and have been since Feb 2012. We are in the process of trying to move out. In the beginning, we kept the dogs separate from each other for about 2 months, but allowed them to meet through a dog gate. Then we started slowly introducing them to each other until I was comfortable allowing Miley to play outside with them, with supervision, off leash.

#3:  Miley used to live with a service dog, and before that, she would go to doggy day camp at PetSmart about 2-3 times a month, as well as play with my friends dogs in arranged puppy playdates. I've been doing this with her since she was 5 months old.

#4: Miley and Max get along really well. I have only had one problem with the two of them and it was the first time (about 6 months ago) I supervised off leash play and he lunged at her. I was able to stop & correct him, but Miley had already shown submission to him. Since that day, we have never had a problem with Max & Miley together. Miley used to run away from Sammie when she would come racing over to her, and now Miley is the one chasing her. If Max and Miley are with us in one room, Sammie will not come in.

Answer
Thank you for the followup. It sounds as though there has been a change in the dynamic between Sammie and Miley. Without having observed their initial behavior toward each other and their current behavior, there's no way to know if it was just feeling each other out in the beginning and then they've settled into this particular relationship, or if there was an altercation - and if so, who started it...

If Sammie refuses to come into a room when both Max and Miley are in it, then she's clearly concerned that there will be ramifications for her if she does. She's trying to respect the current dynamic.

I don't talk a lot about dominance because it's a rather misunderstood concept. But, I will take a moment to explain this - dominance is not a personality trait. An individual is not born 'dominant' and we don't describe an individual as 'dominant'. Dominance is a relationship dynammic between two individuals. In other words, in any relationship between two individuals, one will take the leadership role and the other will choose to defer to the first. In reality, it's the one who chooses to defer that determines the relationship dynamic, not the one who takes the leadership role. Why? Because if one does not choose to defer, then there is a challenge and you see scuffles to full blown fights. So, in the case of Max and Miley when they had their first off leash play session, Max made a play at Miley and Miley immediately deferred (submitted). You disrupted the interaction, but they'd already had their communication and thus the relationship was established. So long as Miley continues to chooses to defer to Max, their relationship will remain stable and comfortable.

Sammie and Miley, on the other hand, does not seem to be so clear. If Sammie was doing the chasing initially, it might have been in play or it might have been an effort to take a leadership role. I can't say since I wasn't there to observe them. At some point, the roles reversed and Miley began chasing Sammie... You indicated in the initial question that Sammie submits when Miley chases her. Has Miley ever caused damage to Sammie? If not, then that's actually a good sign.

There are two options here since they are currently under the same roof.

The first option is much as I suggested in the previous response - Sammie and Miley live on a rotation schedule and never lay eyes on each other. This is management. If both Sammie and Miley get along with Max, then he can stay out, but the other two should never be in the same room. When Miley is going to spend time inside, then Sammie should be taken outside and vice versa. If weather is such that both dogs need to be inside for a while, then one should be closed in a bedroom with an interesting activity such as antler and loaded Kong to engage with. Then, every 2 hours, the one who has had freedom to roam should be put into their bedroom and the other dog should be allowed some free time.

The other option is heavy supervision when they're out together. I would put a drag line on Miley - this is a 6-15 foot leash that's had the handle/loop cut off so that it's less likely to get caught on anything. If Miley starts harassing Sammie beyond a simple and brief ritualized reminder of their relationship, then you can use the drag line to escort Miley away. In this situation, you need to have Sammie's back so she knows that you won't just sit there and let her get beat up for no good reason, while teaching Miley that she can make her point, but she doesn't need to belabor it.

Ritualized reminders may include a truncated lunge (not actually making contact) toward Sammie, it may or may not include a vocalization. The important part is that Sammie instantly submits by one or a combination of any of the following: goes to the floor, exposing her belly (probably turning her muzzle up to greet Miley), turning her back, cowering with rounded back, tail probably tucked, ears back, averting her gaze, suddenly sniffing the floor or even turning tail and running away. The moment that Sammie does any one (or combination) of these, it's on you to grab Miley's drag line and get her off. Sammie doesn't need the constant state of fear, and Miley doesn't need the constant need to assert herself. Grab hold of that line and call her SWEETLY off. I'd say something like, "Miley, you wanna treat?!?!?" or whatever your word is for such things. Said sweetly, chirpy and the magic word for her treat/cookie/snack, will usually snap her brain right out of needing to assert herself with Sammie and back to you. Then, you walk with her back to where the treats are (keep some stashed around the house for easy access, so you're not always taking her to the kitchen as this can cause guarding issues). Ask for a simple command such as Sit or Shake or anything she knows. If she knows a bunch of stuff, you can ask for 2, 3, 5 skills and THEN give her the treat. In this way, you're rewarding her for complying with your requests. You only used the idea of getting something as a way to distract from a different behavior. You will NOT be rewarding her for harassing Sammie as there will be at least 30 seconds between your first suggestion that a treat might come, and then the request to do some other behaviors. Once she's doing other behaviors, you're rewarding her for those.

If you decide to try option 2, that's up to you. I can't comment on the potential success of this option without observing them and seeing the level of agitation between them. Management might be the best option, and since you managed this for the first couple months you were there, then you already had a schedule in place that worked for the short term. Since you're trying to move out, I don't know if you want to spend the money on a behaviorist to consult, but that's still an option as well.

Good luck. I hope this works out for you.

Canine Behavior

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Jody Epstein, CPDT- KA, APDT

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IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR DOG IS ILL OR INJURED, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT THE FORUM TO ADDRESS URGENT MEDICAL ISSUES. I AM NOT A LICENSED VET AND HAVE NO DIAGNOSTIC SKILLS. ***I have been answering questions on All Experts for over 5 years now. I enjoy being able to offer assistance in this forum. I do need to be clear, though. If you’re looking for free advice about a specific behavior question, you MUST submit your question to me via All Experts. If you bypass All Experts and write to me directly through my website, I will ask you to submit via All Experts. On the flip side, if you’re local to Los Angeles and you wish to speak to me privately about an in person consultation, please go through my website. I appreciate your assistance in keeping my volunteer work on the volunteer site.*** I can answer questions about the following canine behavior issues: obedience, timid/fearful & fear-based aggression, nuisance behaviors, families that are expanding with either new human or new animal members. If you have potty training questions please first read my trio of blogs at http://CashewsCorner.wordpress.com/ If you still have questions after reading the blogs you can post your specific questions here. PLEASE be as specific as possible when asking a question. Give me a detailed example of the situation - dog's behavior, body language, circumstances surrounding the issue, what the consequences are (another dog's response, your response), etc. I can only provide insight if I can get a picture of the whole scenario. If I ask for further details, please provide them. In person I would normally observe for at least 90 minutes to assess the situation and the dynamics before offering tools and suggestions to modify it. In writing it is ever so much more difficult. Thank you for your participation in the process.

Experience

I have been professionally modifying behavior and training obedience for 7 years. I have owned dogs my entire life. I have just changed the name of my business. It is no longer Good Dog! Dog Training. The new name is Nutz About Mutz!. If you see previous questions with the Good Dog! website information, that is my response.

Organizations
I am a Certified Profession Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), #2133301 ; I am a member in good standing with the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), #77763 ; I am an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen evaluator (CGC), #71253

Publications
http://NutzAboutMutz.com ; http://CashewsCorner.wordpress.com ; Multiple articles in the local pet magazine Pet Press (found across Southern California)

Education/Credentials
I have a graduate education in animal behavior and learning. (While I completed my coursework and did the requisite research, I did not defend a dissertation. I am qualified, but not certified and so technically not a doctor. This is commonly referred to as Ph.D.-ABD which means All But Dissertation.) My educational focus was with non-human primates, but my personal interest is with domestic dogs and their relationships with humans and other animals. I continue to educate myself to canine-specific behavior through extensive reading, online interactive workshops, vidoes and attending canine behavior conferences.

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