Sibling Rivalry? (Interdog Aggression)

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Is there anyone in history who has been able to get on flawlessly with a sibling? What about with a housemate, or even a spouse?

No one is going to get along all the time and the same goes for our dogs. Here are some tips for having dogs live together in relative peace. This is largely about preventing fights between your dogs but can also be very helpful if you already have fighting in the home, on that note though, make sure you get professional help to deal with interdog aggression as poor handling can be extremely risky.

Tip 1. It's important to consider that your dogs likely aren't related. Unrelated dogs have no biological reason to get along other then the fact that they are innately social animals. Packs of wild dogs and wolves, largely consist of related animals that are led by the breeding pair. Not only that, but dogs of very different breeds may have trouble interpreting the body language of each other (squashed faces and missing tails can really hamper communication).

Due to these differences, its important to be patient when your dogs maybe don't get along straight away and take introductions of new dogs nice and slow. Even related dogs are going to have their squabbles and problems, so don't take that for granted either. In some of these cases, you can actually end up with severe fighting between litter mates or they may band together and be very hard to live with, this is widely known as litter mate syndrome, but that's a topic for another time.

Tip 2. Take it slow.

When introducing new dogs, don't rush things. Chances are, throwing the dogs together will be a recipe for disaster. You only have to go to the dog park at busy times to see what could happen next. Fights between dogs can occur because of anything from resource guarding, inappropriate or rude behaviour, insecurities or fear, to challenges over leadership.

Dogs are territorial and may not always appreciate a stranger entering their home and using their stuff, I mean, would you tolerate that in your house? Things may be tense until they figure out that this other dog is here to stay and how they are going to make sure that both their needs can be met.

Tip 3. Make sure you have control over at least one of the dogs.

Obedience skills are a must. If you can't ask your dog to perform behaviours around distractions, its going to be very difficult to enforce rules and prevent problems. Wherever obedience skills are non-existent or unusable, management tools must take their place. This means crate training, separate enclosures or having the dogs on leash. 'Place' training or teaching the dog to go to its bed and wait until release, is an invaluable tool when it comes to management of a multi-dog household.

Tip 4. Limit access to resources.

Toys, chew things, food bowls, should all be given separately, at least in the beginning. If wanting to assess the reaction of dogs around resources, barriers and management must be in place (dogs on leash or in crates or on beds near each other). This means if you notice a lot of tension around these resources, you can intercept or avoid fights and instead make a note that those are definitely items or activities to be enjoyed separately. It could also be important to introduce new rules regarding dog and human furniture to avoid squabbling over prime positions. Cuddles may even have to be had separately. All these things could be considered as resources under threat.

Tip 5. Get to know dog body language really well before you introduce the dogs.

Know what body positions and language mean tension and which mean play. The image above is very much related to tension, a common scene when introducing new dogs to each other. Other signs of tension may include; avoiding eye contact, sniffing the ground, lip licking, yawning, growling, snarling, tails stiff or down between the legs, ears back.

You can see in the image below, the tensions have eased as the dogs smell each other, the ears are forward and tail as come up and the bodies are less stiff.

These two images below show what is known as a 'play bow' a very good sign that the dogs are getting along and want to play.

Ears are forward and tails are loose and waggy. Zazz, the tan and white dog, has a much more relaxed play style then Sterling, the black dog, who is more likely to stiffen and then take off to be chased, but you can see in the second image, he has also assumed a play bow. It is important to know how your individual dogs like to play. Not all play styles are compatible and some dogs may simply like to play much rougher then others, those dogs may not be able to safely play at all unless the rougher dog is able to adapt to a softer style. If you have two dogs that aren't compatible, they will need a lot more play with you, not with each other.

Tip 6.

Walking the dogs together, often known as a 'pack walk' on neutral ground before going into the shared space of the yard can be a great way to get the dogs accustomed and comfortable around each other. It can also be a good remedial step after a fight, to re-establish some trust.

Tip 7. Select appropriate dogs at the start.

Studies show that same sex pairs are more likely to show interdog aggression. Some breeds, like the bully breeds, are pre-disposed to interdog aggression so its often unwise to have two of the same breed, particularly if your existing dog already dislikes or isn't particularly social with other dogs. Let the dogs meet on neutral territory before you commit, preferably a couple of times. In a controlled way, introduce toys chew items in that neutral spaces and just evaluate the body language. If there are red flags, don't ignore them. Some dogs are just meant to be only dogs, resist the urge to force them into a pack with another if it can be avoided.

Most importantly, the relationships your dogs build with each other at the start, aren't necessarily going to stay set in stone and may change a lot over the course of their life together.

Here is the story of Sterling and Zazz.

These two dogs were very close friends at the start, always cuddling together, sharing a bed, eating next to each other, but they were very young, only about a year old

As time went on, they began fighting over resources, neither me or my partner at the time, controlled resources. We didn't keep introductions slow, we assumed their relationship would stay the same.

As one emerged as the more controlling, dominant individual, we tried to make things 'fair' for the other one, which elicited more fighting.

Ultimately, without any real help from us, Zazz took her safety into her own hands and decided that it was not worth trying to cross Sterling for any resource he wanted. This worked in the respect that there were no longer fights, but what did it mean for their relationship?

Cuddles like the above picture certainly are a thing of the past, food is given separately and there are certain things that they can't have, lest fights ensue. These dogs live together more as room-mates then as friends. Sterling calls the shots and Zazz has to make do with the corners of the world she is allowed to have without competition.

This sounds sad and indeed, sometimes I put my human emotions onto it and feel sad for them.

In reality, I was very lucky, they have reached an effective status quo and self-manage it beautifully. Zazz gets her own time with me, her own walks and plenty of play time which is not a point of conflict between them, Sterling thankfully has limited interest in controlling toys.

Outcomes like this are not always the case however, and professional intervention and strict integration protocols are essential to avoid the dogs bringing each other to harm. Dogs won't always 'sort it out' and often its quite the opposite, especially if the wrong type of intervention is administered by owners who are trying to help but just make matters worse.

If you are looking to introduce a new dog to your family and aren't sure how your existing dog will handle it, it is so important to get help sooner rather then later. The more fighting and bickering, the more likely that relationships will be damaged. The higher chance of real physical damage to not just the dogs but yourself, as many owners get bitten trying to break up a fight when the dog accidentally redirects. Don't go it alone, get help. I certainly wish that I'd known then what I know now. Who knows, more of these cute cuddles could have been preserved if I had.

Thanks for reading and I hope that this helps you keep your commitment to canines.

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