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Dogs Use Non-Aggressive Fighting to Resolve Conflicts
Dogs have many ways to resolve conflicts


In an obedience class for adolescent dogs, Denny, a male Rottweiler, and Meadow, a female Doberman, investigate one another. Denny circles Meadow and tries to mount her from behind for the third time in a row. This proves too much for her. In an instant, Meadow’s lips retract as her body becomes tight, and before we know it, Denny is on the ground with Meadow standing over him, growling. Meadow continues to stand over Denny, whose ears curve back and eyes narrow. When Denny licks and paws at her open mouth, Meadow’s demeanor softens. She steps away and, facing him, folds into a deep play bow. They dance away from us like big, romping puppies as we release a collectively held breath.

I could tell by the alarm on some of the human participants’ faces that they had feared the interaction would end badly. However, Denny and Meadow were not strangers to one another. They had played together regularly in a previous puppy class, but this was the first time they had interacted in a way that raised questions about exactly what they were up to. Were they fighting? Should we have allowed their interaction to play out, or does anything that looks like aggression between dogs immediately call for intervention?

Because we live with multiple dogs, study dog behavior and work professionally with aggressive dogs, we think a lot about canine aggression. Some dog interactions clearly qualify as aggressive — for example, a dog with a history of initiating unprovoked attacks and inflicting damaging bites is clearly aggressive, and letting her interact with other dogs is dangerous. No one would disagree about this. However, what about cases where teeth are f lashing, spit is flying and the growling is deafening, but in the end, neither dog is the worse for wear? This is a gray area that is so very interesting precisely because it’s often not clear-cut. Are these instances of aggression?

The answer depends upon whom you ask. Even among behavioral scientists, the term “aggression” can have so many meanings that, in effect, it has lost its meaning. For example, behaviorists might use the word “aggressive” not only to describe a dog who has killed another dog but also to describe a dog who growls or snarls at a dog who is trying to take his bone. The motivations and emotions are clearly very different in these two examples. In the first case, the dog intended to do harm and did, but in the second case, the dog was likely just communicating his displeasure. Using the same word to describe two completely different scenarios can affect how we think about and respond to a wide variety of dog-dog interactions.

Perhaps a more useful term to describe growling at a potential bone thief or the interaction between Denny and Meadow is “agonistic behavior.” Ethologists, who often use this term when studying nonhuman animals, define agonistic behaviors as those that occur between individuals of a particular species in conf lict situations. Examples of agonistic behaviors in dogs include threats like muzzle-puckering and growling; submissive behaviors like crouching, lowering the head and tucking the tail; offensive behaviors like lunging and snapping; defensive behaviors like retracting the commissure (lips) while showing the teeth; and attacking behaviors like biting. With the exception of biting that results in punctures or tears, none of these behaviors necessarily indicates intent to do harm. They simply reveal emotion (e.g., anger or fear), communicate intention (e.g., to maintain control of a resource or to avoid an interaction) or function as a normal part of play fighting (e.g., growling, snapping or inhibited biting). To determine if an interaction meets the criteria for “agonistic behavior,” an observer must focus on an objective description of the communicative patterns displayed rather than automatically jumping to judgments associated with the use of the term “aggression.”

If signals such as bared teeth and growling are not typically preludes to fighting, why do they exist? Paradoxically, such behaviors are usually about how to avoid fighting. To understand this contention, we need to understand wolves — or, for that matter, our own evolutionary history. Wolves, like our human ancestors, live in family-based groups whose members cooperate to hunt, defend resources and rear young. At the same time, as we know all too well, family members quarrel.



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Submitted by Jennifer G. | November 23 2013 |

WOW WOW WOW! So glad I read this article! As an owner of 2 pit bulls, I now realize that I have allowed the stigma and fear surrounding the breed to get the better of me. Of course I'm already perfectly aware that they couldn't be further from the monsters they're portrayed to be, but I realize that I'm being way too overly cautious when supervising our dogs' play & interactions with one another. This is the exact communication that goes on between our dogs again & again, & even after having both of them together for over a year, I still become anxious & worry that it isn't if, but when something bad will happen. I do think 1 think to be cautious of, though, is if 1 of the dogs interacting has become more intolerant of something, which is something that will happen when they're in pain, or can happen because some dogs just become less tolerant with age (like the old man yelling at kids for walking or playing on his lawn!) When a dog is no longer tolerant for another dog's behavior, I think it can lead to a dangerous situation. So overall, I think I'm stopping play sessions unnecessarily at the first sign of trouble (just like the article says) & won't do that anymore, but at the same time, I will continue to monitor play sessions because 1 of our 2 dogs is now in his senior years & shows signs that he may have arthritis in his near future, & perhaps there are going to be some days that he's going to be in pain from it. Another thing I think people should watch for is if 1 of their dogs has bad behavior or an energy level way too high for their other dog. If the older and/or lower energy dog is completely intolerant & withdraws every time it is approached by the excited, overly playful dog, it could lead to severe depression. This seems to be what happened to my boyfriend's parents' dog, & it was VERY hard to see. The older dog got to where she stays in her kennel, by choice, almost 24/7, & seems extremely depressed. She wants nothing to do with the younger, high energy dog that is NEVER exercised (which is also sad & hard to see.) I think these dogs are a terrible match for one another, & so people should really pay attention to that before deciding on a new companion for their other dog(s).

Submitted by Janis Jackson | May 3 2014 |

So glad you've put into word what I've been trying to express for a while now with dog interactions at the dog park. The dog park can get complicated with so many dogs to consider, however, if one just keeps in mind that dog behavior first, over breed behavior, then its easier to read their body language.

We are raising a doberman puppy that's now almost a year old. At the dog park he interacts "generally" well. He has "freind" dogs that he already knows and they play together and he learnt "fetch" so we can keep him distracted. He also has great recall now and is very confused when a dog fight breaks out near him, looking for the sound of this owner's voice for recall. We monitor him closely but intervene only when the behavior need to be modified. Your article could be misconstrued that its alright to "let the dog's work it out" which can be disastrous at the dog park, but I caught the part about the dogs actually knowing each other are the dogs working out their disagreements. At home, I have the Dobie 70 lbs, a 9lb Yorkie and an old Min Pin. He's old and grumpy and never wants anything to do with the puppy (dobie) so they sound horrible when the Min Pin is letting the dobie know he doesn't want to play or that he's to close to his bed. My Yorkie was first in the home and she pretty much gets her way although she's not pushy at all, I have had to teach the exuberant dobie that his paws anywhere near the yorkie doesn't work for me. He's also not allowed to maul her playfully with his roughhouse teeth play. Instead, I better see him licking at her instead or closed mouthed. There was only one incident when he snapped at her and my response was quick and so its never happened again. He definitely knows that's a not acceptable in our pack. He was 7 months old and in a excited state when the high value treats were introduced to him for the first time. The yorkie is serious about her treats and he though, because he's bigger and can easily take anything away from her he wants to that he could get it. We have since worked on who owns the treats (me) and who gives and takes them away, with all dogs. The grumpy old Min Pin has the worst time with this, but both the yorkie and dobie were willing to let me be the deciding factor.

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