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Pandemic puppies and multidog aggression: How to help clients fix behavioral issues

2020-9-10 GettyImages-483718279 Aggression study - blog.jpg

The publication of a paper on intrahousehold canine aggression in a February issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) seems almost prescient in retrospect.

The study came out a month before the pandemic sent the country into lockdown—and sent people scrambling to adopt pets to keep them company while they sheltered in place. Already a serious problem in many multidog households, cases of canine housemate aggression spiked when pet owners tried to integrate their new pandemic adoptees into a household where another dog already ruled the roost.

The paper identified major risk factors, which included

  • Dogs of the same sex, especially if both are females
  • Resource guarding, a trigger in 72.8% of cases
  • Aggressors who were acquired after the original dog (59.3% of cases), and were more than two years younger
  • Dogs with a history of level 3 bites (those that break the skin)

“Because aggression is caused by stress across the board, it makes sense that the pandemic would cause an increase in canine aggression as well as canine housemate aggression,” Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, told NEWStat.

Miller, a certified dog trainer and canine behavior consultant who owns Peaceable Paws dog and puppy training center in Fairplay, Maryland, shared some strategies to help clients deal with the problem.

The most important strategy is counterconditioning to change the dog’s opinion of the stressor. If the stressor is another dog, clients can change the aggressor’s opinion of the other dog by associating them with something wonderful—like a piece of chicken. Start by placing the dogs some distance apart so they’re aware of each other but not straining to get at each other. “Let one see the other, feed him chicken, and repeat, then repeat again,” Miller says. “You’re teaching them that the other dog makes chicken happen.”

Age differences could be another issue. A senior dog who can’t see or hear well may completely miss a younger dog sending body language signals that say, get out of my way! “Make sure the older dog isn’t going to get put in a position where that’s going to happen,” Miller advises.

Another strategy is operant conditioning—teaching the dog a new incompatible behavior. Say jealousy is an issue. “If you’re petting one and the other one approaches, tell him ‘Brownie, go to your mat!’ Instead of coming up and getting aggressive, he’ll turn around and lay down on his bed.”

Miller says the strategy to employ depends on what’s triggering the aggression. Like resource guarding, which is a huge trigger according to the JAVMA study.

First off, don’t stigmatize it. “Resource guarding is a perfectly natural, normal behavior,” Miller says. “If you lock your door when you leave home, you’re resource guarding. It’s not horrible behavior, but it’s a challenge when you have dogs who aren’t reacting appropriately. One dog says, ‘It’s my bone and I don’t want you to have it.’ If the other says, ‘Oops, sorry!’ and goes away, then it’s not a problem.” Miller says that’s natural, normal, and appropriate. But if it becomes an argument, counterconditioning works well here.

Which means, get the chicken.

“Convince the dog who overreacts when another dog approaches that it doesn’t mean they’re going to take your bone away,” Miller says. “It means you’re going to get even more good stuff.”  

And who doesn’t want more good stuff?

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/GlobalIP