Canine Behavior/Boston Terrier interactions
Hi Ms. Epstein,
I'm writing to ask about normal boston terrier behavior and possible inteventions if necessary. I am the happy owner of two Boston Terriers (one is 3 yrs old and the other is 1 year old). Since we have gotten our 2nd boston, and more recently especially our two Bostons have spent most of their waking hours playfighting with each other. We find they are often competing for toys that are lying around the house. The way they fight is largely as follows. Both dogs with lunge at eachother with their mouths open and let out blood-curdling screams while they quickly shake their heads from side to side. As far as I can see neither dog ever actually bites the other they just continue mouthfighting and wrestling over and over. The older boston (male) often attempts to hump the younger one (female). They are both fixed. At first I tried to intervene by putting them both in timeout (their crates) but this has not stopped the behavior at all and I've been told by other owners that this is normal behavior.
I have two questions specifically:
1. Is this behavior normal for Boston Terriers?
2. At what point should I intervene to stop the behaviors and what might be the most effective ways to redirect them?
Thanks for your help!
Thank you for your question. Without observing the behavior, it's very difficult for me to say one way or the other if it's simply intense play or if it's actually a squabble. But, even if it is play, that doesn't sound at all like healthy play behavior.
What you describe sounds like a competition for the toys. If one is more possessive about the toys, and is generally the one who instigates these scuffles, then I'd be leaning toward Resource Guarding. Resource Guarding is a fear-based behavior that stems from the guarding dog's fear of losing something it deems to be valuable. What one dog finds valuable another may not care an iota about, or they may also want to own... It's very subjective and I've seen dogs guard rather obvious things like bones, pigs ears, toys, food bowls, people, etc. But I've also seen dogs guard falling leaves off trees, or rocks or twigs on the ground. It all just depends on the dog...
As I said, without seeing your dogs in action, I can't say if it's play. But I wouldn't allow my dogs to play in a way that includes blood curdlilng screems. That's just far too aroused and could very easily flip to a full blonw fight. That your dogs have thus far avoided causing injury to each other bodes well. Even as agitated as they are in that moment they're not interested in causing damage. But, even if that's just play for them, it would not go over so well if they ever interact that way with other dogs.
In my home, the rules for play are this:
If a particular toy is causing a squabble (not just a one-off issue, but regularly), then that toy goes away. If getting a second of the same so that each can have one works, then I'll do that. If they still squabble, then those toys are put away and I make specical time with each dog separately to play with that prized toy. It may be a few times per week, or it may be once every couple months, depending on my schedule, but they don't get that toy together if it causes issues.
Second rule is that Time-Outs must happen. This means that I'm supervising the play (until I trust them to calm themselves down). During play, I will interrupt the dogs by saying "Time Out" and then physically separating the dogs if they don't separate on their own. You can do that by picking one of them up and moving them, or you can call them to you. Once in the Time Out, I ask for a Sit and wait for them to settle a bit. Basically, I want the dogs to stop vibrating with arousal. Then, once they've calmed (usually between 2 and 30 seconds once they get the hang of this protocol), I tell them "Free" or something similar so they can resume the game.
How often you call for a Time Out is dependent on the level of arousal and if the dogs are taking self-imposed Time Outs. The following behaviors are such self imposed time outs - and also acceptable calming behaviors to release the dogs back to play after you've imposed a Time Out:
Aveting gaze from each other (turning their head away), sniffing the ground, turning their body away from each other, doing a full body shake off (like they do when they're wet), yawning, play bow, laying down separate from each other. During a self-imposed Time Out, typically one dog will stop the game and do one or more of these behaviors (or a few other similar behaviors). The other dog may just stand there and wait (if they're polite) or they may mirror the behavior by doing the same behavior back or another one of these calming behaviors (if they're VERY polite). It may be very brief, a fraction of a second - just long enough to remind each other that they're just playing, or it may as long as 15-20 seconds or anything in between. These time outs allow the dogs to recover a little, calm down and remind themselves and each other that they're just playing. Without these time outs, they don't have time to check in and make sure they're still comfortable and having fun, nor their play buddy.
Healthy play, no matter the breed, involves give and take (chaser/chasee, wrestle on top or on bottom, etc). Some dogs really prefer to be chased or to do the chasing, or be on top in the wrestle or be on bottom in the wrestle, but even in those situations, there's lots of communication with those time outs so that everyone is on the same page and no one gets upset or suddenly feels overly threatened.
So, in your home, I'd be careful about which toys are available for play and I'd supervise play, calling for time-outs and redirecting the dogs for a few seconds until they demonstrate they're able to time out on their own.
Redirecting can be calling them to you, asking for a Sit or some other simple command, giving a treat or a pet/praise and then letting them return to their game. Again, it's just about giving them a moment to calm down a bit before resuming.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance. If you have video of the dogs interacting as you describe, I'd be happy to watch it and tell you what I think. You can upload it to YouTube and either provide a public link, or you can make it a private video if you don't wish it to be out there in the world, then just reply to this followup PRIVATELY, and only I'll have access to watch the video.
Either way, good luck! and enjoy your pups!
Los Angeles Behaviorist