ALL ABOUT DOGS and CATS Resource Center for Canine & Feline Lovers
Pet Behavior Articles - Canine Behavior
What to Do When Your Dogs Fight
By Dr Karen Becker
Do your dogs fight with each other in
The next time your pups are ready to
do battle, try thinking like a dog
instead of a human.
You might just be surprised at how
quickly and easily you can put a stop
to canine combat in your household.
Even though your dogs live with you as members of your human family, they are pack animals
with behaviors and a social hierarchy very similar to their wolf cousins.
This social hierarchy is in part characterized by the roles the animals assume based on
whether they are dominant or submissive by nature.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that one of the dogs in your “pack” is more assertive than the other
(or others, if you have more than two).
This dog is also likely to be the more confident and curious of the two.
Inside the social hierarchy of your pack, the aggressive, outgoing pup has assumed a
leadership role. His more submissive pal has taken the role of follower. This is how dogs
naturally organize themselves – there’s a lead dog and one or more followers who maintain a
less dominant presence in the group.
If you’re like most pet owners with two or more squabbling canines, when you’re not around
your four-legged charges get along just fine. It’s when you’re at home that the trouble starts.
Ever wonder why?
Where You Lead, I Will Follow
Left to their own devices, your pack will adhere to the hierarchy nature has compelled them to
establish. The dominant dog will set the agenda and the other dog will follow it.
In your absence – whether you’re away from home or just in another part of the house —
your doggie leader will call all the shots for his pack.
He’ll decide what toys are played with by whom, who will nap where and for how long, which
noises and sights should be barked at, and other important issues. Your more submissive pup
will follow his lead without argument.
When events in their world unfold without interference your dogs will follow the relationship
pattern nature has imposed on them, which is one of leader-follower.
Let’s say your dogs are out in your backyard in the warm sunshine.
You’re inside doing a few chores, and each time you look out a window to check on them, your
pups are snoozing nose to nose on the grass, or chasing each other playfully across the yard.
There’s not a hint of trouble.
You decide to pour a cold drink and join them on the patio. As you open the door and step
outside they run toward you.
Your more passive pup reaches you first, but your dominant guy bumps her aside to assume
his position as leader. After all, as leader he should be noticed by you first, according to pack
As this little doggie drama plays out in front of you, your human brain tells you to even the
score by ignoring the aggressive pooch in favor of the one pushed aside. You might even
chastise the leader for his rudeness as you praise and pet your shyer dog.
This feels right to you with your human brain. After all, your dominant dog needs to learn to
play fair with his pack mate, and your passive dog shouldn’t have to put up with such
So you’re feeling good now, petting and praising both dogs … and suddenly a fight breaks out
between them. You put a halt to the brawl with a yell and some foot stomping, but the quiet
peace of the afternoon has been shattered by the disturbing behavior of your snarling,
What just happened?
If your dogs were human children, your even-the-score approach when you greeted them
would have made perfect sense.
In children you want to instill manners, charity, compassion and a sense of fair play.
The problem is that your human brain didn’t distinguish between the behavior of your dogs
and what it perceives as similar behavior in children.
To state the obvious — your dogs aren’t human children. They’re members of a canine pack
with a social structure that is leader-follower based.
When the leader bumped your more passive pup out of the way to ensure you paid attention
to him first, he did exactly what he’s supposed to do.
Your submissive dog understood and accepted what was happening. Your human brain did
Yes, it’s true — it was very likely your behavior in trying to even the score that created the
problem between your dogs. You not only ignored the protocol of their social hierarchy, you
turned it on its head by ignoring the leader while lavishing attention on his follower.
By ignoring the hierarchy of your pack and showing favoritism to the follower, you
inadvertently elevated your passive pup to a higher status than the pack leader. This misstep
can set the stage for disputes between your dogs – especially in your presence.
Next Time, Think Like a Dog
To find out if it’s your interaction with your pups that is stirring things up, try doing the
opposite of what your human brain is nudging you to do.
Next time your dogs greet you, acknowledge your pack leader first. Focus on him exclusively
for a minute or so (or longer in the beginning, if necessary) – pet him and talk in soothing
tones to him. When he turns his attention elsewhere, you can turn your focus to your other
If your dogs have been properly socialized and are generally well-mannered, it should take
very little time for them to adjust to the new greeting routine – especially since it will feel
natural to them as a part of the leader-follower hierarchy.
If the squabbling has been going on for some time or your dominant dog is especially
aggressive, you may want to greet them in separate rooms initially. If you do this, make sure
to move your pack leader to a separate room first and spend your first few moments at home
with him before turning your attention to your other dog.
Dr. Becker is the resident proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian of