© 2004 Ian Dunbar
Many people have unrealistic expectations about dog-dog social behavior.
Dogs are expected to behave perfectly and get along with all other
dogs, even though people have difficulty being universally accepting
and friendly. However, although people may often disagree, argue,
and sometimes resort to pushing and shoving, very few people inflict
severe injuries. When tempers flare, extreme physical aggression
is strongly inhibited. Really, dogs are not that much different.
Most dogs have frequent disagreements and arguments, and on occasions
resort to scrapping noisily, but only extremely rarely does one
dog severely harm another. Whereas it is unrealistic to expect dogs
never to squabble, it is perfectly realistic to raise and train
dogs to never hurt each other when fighting.
To teach canine social savvy: first, socialize your puppy to be
friendly, so that it would rather play than fight; second, prevent
predictable adolescent de-socialization, but most important; third,
teach your puppy bite inhibition, so that if it does scrap as an
adult dog, it causes no harm.
Socializing a young puppy is as easy as it is enjoyable. Enroll
in an off-leash puppy class, visit different dog parks on a regular
basis, and walk your puppy at least once a day. To socialize your
puppy, he must meet unfamiliar dogs on a regular basis.
Prevent Developmental Desocialization
Adolescence is a particularly stressful time for young dogs, especially
males, who are repeatedly harassed by older dogs, especially males.
The ritualized harassment is both normal and necessary, allowing
older dogs to put developing youngsters "in their place"
before they are strong enough to compete on the social scene. Harassment
is triggered by rude adolescent behavior and by extremely elevated
testosterone levels in five- to eighteen-month-old adolescents.
Castrating your puppy will prevent most harassment from older dogs.
Additionally, to maintain self-confidence and offset the stress
of adult-doggy discipline, an adolescent dog requires many positive
social interactions. Regular play sessions and repeated friendly
encounters are vital. However, for many dogs, socialization with
other dogs is abruptly curtailed at between six to eight months,
usually following the first couple of scraps. This is especially
true for small dogs and large dogs. Worrying that a little dog may
get hurt, the owner is more likely to pick him up and less likely
to let him play. Similarly, worrying a large dog might hurt other
dogs, the owner now tends to keep her restrained on a tight leash.
Thus, at a crucial developmental stage, many dogs are seldom allowed
to interact with unfamiliar dogs. A vicious circle develops—the
dog desocializes and its bite inhibition begins to drift, whereupon
fights and potential damage now become more likely, making it even
more difficult to socialize the dog.
To prevent your puppy from becoming asocial or antisocial during
adolescence, he must continue to meet unfamiliar dogs on a regular
basis. Always praise your puppy for meeting, greeting, and playing
with unfamiliar dogs. Never take friendly behavior for granted.
Always let your dog know that you are very happy when he is friendly.
Throughout adolescence and adulthood, praise and reward your dog
with food treats after every friendly encounter with another dog.
Most dogs, especially males, are involved in a number of scraps
during adolescence. If the dogs acquired good bite inhibition during
puppyhood and learned how to resolve differences without causing
harm, there is little, if any, damage. However, if the dogs did
not learn bite inhibition as puppies, there may be substantial damage.
Dog fights are noisy and scary, and many owners insist: "He
fights all the time and is trying to kill the other dogs!"
It is essential to objectively assess which dogs are dangerous and
which are not. Calculate the dog's fight/bite ratio by asking, "How
many times has the dog fought?" and "How many fights warranted
veterinary treatment for severe bites?" The observation (that
the dog fights a lot of the time) and the assumption (that the dog
is trying to kill other dogs) are quite contradictory. If the dog
is trying to kill other dogs, then obviously he is not that good
at it, since he has had numerous attempts and failed on every occasion.
On the contrary, a large number of fights and the absence of injury,
offers proof the dog is definitely not trying to kill other dogs.
(If one dog were truly trying to harm another dog, the physical
damage from a single incident would be extreme.) Certainly he is
undersocialized but he has marvelous bite inhibition.
"Growl classes" provide an effective solution for scrappy
dogs that have never harmed another dog. Owners can safely practice
controlling their dogs in a controlled setting, and dogs may gradually
rebuild their confidence so that eventually they may resume socialization
For dogs that harm other dogs, common-sense and precautionary management
are the only options. The dog should be kept on-leash and muzzled
whenever on public property. Allowing a dog that harms other puppies
and dogs the opportunity to interact with other dogs would be unfair,
irresponsible, and dangerous.
Bite inhibition is the key. The issue is not really whether dogs
fight, but whether or not one dog harms another. Puppies that had
ample opportunities to socialize, play-fight, and play-bite with
other puppies usually develop good bite-inhibition. They learned
how to inhibit the power of their jaws and consequently may resolve
adulthood differences without causing harm. Bite inhibition can
only safely be established during puppyhood. Giving your puppy the
opportunity to develop good bite inhibition is the most important
reason for enrolling in puppy class.
To learn more, read our Fighting booklet and watch the Fighting
videos. To locate "growl classes" in your area, contact
the Association of Pet Dog Trainers at 1-800 PET DOGS or www.apdt.com.