How to Stop Dogs From Fighting Over an Owner for Attention
Do Your Dogs Attack Each Other When You Enter the House?
Owners are high-value to dogs, so much so that two dogs will compete over an owner's attention more often than they would over a bone, resting spot, or toy. This can become quite an issue if the behavior is allowed. Early intervention can prevent things from escalating, but first and foremost, it's important to take a look at the following dynamics:
- What exactly is happening?
- Is one dog the troublemaker or are both?
- What starts the squabbles?
- What stops the squabbles?
- When should an owner seek professional help?
Your Return Home Is a Big Deal
Typically, squabbles are most intense when the owner comes home from work. The dogs have been left alone all day craving something to do. They missed their owners dearly (yes, even if two dogs have each other for company, the owner is always high-value in a dog's hierarchy of resources), so they look forward to his or her return. When they hear the car approaching, they both get highly excited; they can hardly contain themselves. They rush towards the door, whine, bark, and pace back and forth until they hear the keys.
When the owner finally comes in, one dog rushes to greet but is abruptly stopped by the other dog who starts pushing them away, barking at them, and moving them out of the way with their mouth. Depending on the other dog's temperament, he or she may move out of the way to prevent the tension from escalating or they may respond. From there, a serious fight may erupt.
Why Professional Help Is Necessary
If this scenario seems familiar, you will need professional help. These fights may potentially escalate, and getting in between two highly aroused dogs that are fighting puts you at great risk of getting injured due to redirection. Your best bet is, therefore, to consult with a professional. Look for a good force-free dog trainer who is well-versed in dog behavior modification, or even better, see a certified behavior specialist (CAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB).
The following paragraphs include examples of behavior modification that I have applied to dogs who get into minor squabbles where there's just a bit of noise but no injuries. These examples aren't meant for dog owners to try on their own. Behavior modification for conflict resolution among dogs should be performed under the guidance of a professional to ensure correct implementation and safety; even the calmest dogs can bite! If your dogs are fighting, please seek professional help!
The Importance of Early Intervention
As with many dog behavior problems, recognizing the early signs of trouble goes a long way. Nipping bad behavior in the bud means less effort and time compared to behaviors that have been rehearsed for many years. When two dogs compete over an owner, there may be early warning signs that may not be easily identifiable. Here are some early indications that problems may soon escalate:
- One dog staring at the other dog
- One dog cutting the other dog off
- One dog getting in the middle when you're petting the other
- A bark or little growl
- One dog chasing the other when you enter the door
Are They Play Fighting?
An owner often assumes their two dogs are "playing" or just "play fighting," but then things escalate when the problem is ignored. How? Let's imagine the following scenario:
- An owner is coming home from work.
- Rover goes to greet him, but Scruffy cuts him off. Rover is too concentrated on being happy and excited and he ignores Scruffy's rude behavior.
- Scruffy may decide to escalate his behavior to get his point across. It's as if he's saying to Rover, "What part of my message aren't you getting? Move out of the way!"
- Scruffy may decide to growl next time.
A Case-by-Case Scenario
In the best scenario, Rover defers and moves away as if saying "Okay, buddy, chill out, I got the message." However, because seeing the owner is such an anticipated event, Rover may one day get so excited that he ignores Scruffy's warning or maybe isn't feeling well and fails to take notice. Scruffy may, therefore, decide to escalate again but this time by biting. Soon, a fight erupts as Rover attempts to defend himself.
Identify What Role Each Dog Plays
With the help of a trainer, an owner can identify which of the two dogs is telling the other to stay away. It's important to take steps to prevent things from escalating as tension tends to accumulate over time. The more dogs get to rehearse problem behaviors, the more they become rooted and difficult to overcome. Sooner than later, one dog or a person can get badly hurt.
Behavior Modification Techniques for Dogs That Fight Over Attention
Managing a dog's environment is important, but management is often a commonly misunderstood concept. Often, dog owners aren't too fond of management because it doesn't teach a dog anything. What many people fail to realize is that, in reality, it does teach a very important principle—it teaches a dog not to rehearse inappropriate behaviors.
Dogs Are Constantly Learning
Dogs are constantly learning, and even when they aren't actively learning, they are passively learning. When we are using management, we are controlling the dog's environment to prevent unwanted behaviors from happening. The lack of triggers teaches a dog alternate behaviors. Say your dog is kept away from a room with a window that encourages him or her to bark at people walking by all day. If you place them in another room, they may learn to relax or enjoy playing with an interactive toy instead.
Management is an important tool to include in your training and behavior-modification arsenal so you can prevent the rehearsal of unwanted behaviors until you can train your dog to behave differently. So, how can we apply management to dogs that engage in fighting when the owner comes home? We would separate the dogs when the owner comes home until the owner is ready to implement active learning.
My Conflict Resolution Demo
How to Implement Behavior Modification
In order to start behavior modification, it's important to find out which dog is starting the conflict in the first place. In many cases, one dog is deliberately telling the other dog to stay away. It's also common that both dogs have a very high arousal level. Often, these dogs behave excessively when arousal builds up; it spills out and ends up in a fight. So one important step when working with two dogs that are competing over an owner is lowering arousal when coming home.
1. Make Greetings Low-Key
Dogs are easy to influence with our behaviors. When training a dog, one can easily influence its energy level with tone of voice alone. Therefore, arousal is often inadvertently reinforced when the owner comes home and greets the dogs enthusiastically. I use a specific tone of voice to encourage motion, enthusiasm, and kinetic energy for dogs that need to learn to come when called, dogs that are slightly inhibited, and dogs that need encouragement.
2. Lower Enthusiasm When Greeting
Once I obtain the desired effect, I often need to modulate this tone as it generates too much arousal. Owners who are enthusiastically greeting their dogs when they come home may be inadvertently contributing to high arousal levels. High arousal leads to fights, re-directed aggression, and dogs that can't cognitively function and are over-threshold.
3. Try Ignoring the Dogs
The best option is to totally ignore the dogs when coming home so that they are left with little or nothing to fight over. If arousal levels are too high, the owner may need to separate the dogs at first as dogs tend to feed off of each other's arousal. The dogs may also be taught to engage in alternate behaviors that are calmer such as sitting or going to a specific designated spot. Another option is to have the owner negatively punish the dogs at the very first sign of conflict.
4. Use Negative Punishment at the First Sign of Conflict
Negative punishment in dog training means to stop a behavior (punish) by removing something the dog desires. Dogs crave human attention, so by removing the owner's attention at the very first sign of conflict, fights can be avoided. This means making an abrupt exit. To be effective, this needs to happen the moment conflict appears. Timing is of the essence to make it clear to the dogs that fighting will make the owner leave, whereas good behavior will make the owner stay.
5. Use Repetition
The above technique needs to be repeated many times in a row to make an impact and must take place every single time the owner comes through the door. Owners cannot change behavior by allowing the dogs to get into conflicts some days and not others. It's crucial to be consistent. Effective communication takes place when the dogs learn that fighting makes the owner leave and calm behavior makes the owner stay. A positive sign of effective communication is when you start noticing that the fighting decreases after some time.
6. What to Do When This Method Doesn't Work
Dogs that fight in the owner's absence, dogs that have a history of physically injuring each other, dogs that are highly aroused, and dogs that weren't assessed by a professional are not suited for this training method. It may work for dogs that only exhibit ritualistic displays of aggression (more noise than actual harm) and dogs that have been displaying this behavior over time without ever injuring each other. However effective, this method is not my primary go-to option as I prefer a deeper approach that tackles changing underlying emotions.
7. Have a Backup Plan
It's always good to have a backup plan to rely on should the dogs ever get involved in a conflict. It's important to interrupt a conflict from the start because dogs can get too focused on each other to cognitively function. A command that distracts the dogs from each other such as a "down," "stay," or a "go to your place" may help.
Alternatively, a recall or a positive interrupter can be used if the dogs don't guard food from each other. A positive interrupter consists of a smacking noise that tells the dogs to stop what they're doing (interrupter), to look at you, and to come to you for a tasty treat.
A positive interrupter can be a good option for interrupting the behavior as it unfolds so you can later start to work on that issue through behavior modification and training. I like to create a chain that involves the positive interrupter, cueing the dog to come to you, and then cueing the dog to sit. Emily Larlham offers a great video on how to teach this method.
Emily Larlham's Positive Interrupter
Changing the Underlying Emotions
One of the most powerful ways to change behavior in dogs is by changing the underlying emotions. This is known as counterconditioning. Once a trainer points out exactly which dog is starting the conflict, the trainer and owner can work on counterconditioning. I use this method extensively, apply it in many different ways, and often find myself in awe of the results. For dogs fighting over the owner, these are my two favorite strategies.
1. Rover's Appearance Makes Good Things Happen
We talked about how Scruffy was communicating to Rover that his presence near the owner wasn't appreciated ("The owner is mine, stay away!"). However, Scruffy's possessive behavior can change if Rover's appearance makes good things happen. This setup can be made even more powerful by increasing the value of the treats the closer Rover comes. Here's how to employ it:
- When the owner enters the room, Scruffy comes to greet him.
- When Rover starts approaching, the owner starts to feed treats to Scruffy (several high-value ones in a row).
- Then, when Rover leaves, the owner stops feeding Scruffy treats.
This should ideally be done systematically in an organized fashion. This means one helper has Rover on a leash and brings him in and out of the room while the owner also has Scruffy on a leash. After repeating several setups several times, Scruffy may no longer dread Rover coming near the owner because every time Rover is near, Scruffy gets treats; likewise, every time Rover leaves, the treats stop. Now, Rover's presence is desirable because it makes treats happen. From dreading Rover and sending him away, Scruffy should now be enthusiastic upon seeing his pal.
Caution: If at any time Scruffy appears uncomfortable by Rover's appearance or Rover appears intimidated, it means you are working too close, too fast and that you should take a few steps back in the process.
2. Petting Rover Unlocks Rewards
Once Scruffy starts looking forward to Rover's appearance and Rover can stay closer, more advanced methods can be applied. Scruffy can now learn that good things happen when you pet Rover. (Again, both Scruffy and Rover should be on a leash for safety.) Here's how to employ this technique:
- The owner will pet Rover while Scruffy is fed several treats in a row.
- The giving of the treats should be strategically timed with the petting action. Treats should be given to Scruffy when Rover is being petted by the owner, and treats are stopped when the owner stops petting Rover.
- Repeat this several times until Scruffy learns to no longer dread the petting action but to actually look forward to it.
How to Avoid Common Mistakes
After several successful sessions, the dogs can be kept freely without the leash, but it may be a good idea to muzzle them the first few tries just for safety if there are risks. It is critical to be very watchful for signs of trouble as all the hard work can be undone if the dogs have a setback because the process was done too fast. Behavior modification must be done slowly and systematically to be successful, rushing through the process and sloppy implementation are two of the most common mistakes.
Conflicts Can Be Reduced in Several Ways
As seen, there are several ways to reduce conflicts between dogs. These are just a few examples of a variety of methods I use. Each case is different and each dog is different, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't apply. However, with dog behavior, there are never really any guarantees. These are just examples of behavior modification methods that have worked for me in a controlled setting. To be effective, the owners had to continue the work at home after I briefed them thoroughly. If your dogs are fighting over your attention, please seek the help of a force-free professional to help you out.
These techniques are not meant to be used by dog owners without professional guidance and do not substitute for professional behavior advice. If your dogs are aggressive, for safety purposes, it's important to seek the help of a force-free behavior professional.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli