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Fighting between dogs living together

Fighting between dogs in our homes can be a big worry, and some people are concerned about playfights and older dogs disciplining pups, in case it escalate into serious fights which can result in injury. It's not always easy to interpret what's happening between dogs, so it helps to call in an experienced professional if you re unsure.


Playfighting involves tussles, chases and playbows, and is a game, involving give and take. Some people argue that playfights between pups shouldn't be allowed, since it's a way that dogs learn to fight. However, they're learning far more than this. Playfights can be a useful way for pups to learn how to bite gently and not hurt each other. Pups can develop useful social skills through playfights, both learning to control their aggression and learning when and how to submit. Playfights mixed with chases are also a good way for pups and young dogs to run off steam. Social animals that are deprived of play when they're young don't learn necessary social skills.


This doesn't mean letting pups do anything they want to each other. The ages, temperaments and relative sizes of the pups, are important, as is your ability to recognise when fights are getting serious. Little pups don't usually do each other much damage, and can learn how to regulate their bites by the way that their playmates react. If they bite too hard, the playmate yelps and doesn't want to play any more, or bites back hard, which is usually enough to teach the biter that he or she has gone too far. Where you need to be more careful is when puppies of different sizes get together, and there is a danger of a pup getting bullied, or learning to be a bully. This can happen with unrelated pups, and pups of different sizes in cross-breed litters, especially big litters. Always stop playfights if one pup is unhappy about what is happening, and is trying to run away, rather than coming back for more, or if you just want some peace and quiet.

As a general rule, it's better only to allow playfighting out of doors, because it's more likely to get intense indoors. It's better to stop playfighting before either of the dogs shows signs of fatigue and consequent irritability, which could result in serious fighting. Playfights typically include chase games and playbows, and the dogs return again and again to each other, until they're exhausted. If they start to lose their tempers, the fighting and growls get more frenetic, while the playbows disappear. It's best to stop fights before they get to this stage, and certainly at the first sign that one dog can't cope.

Fights can get more serious as dogs get older. Some adult dogs are better than others at tussling playfully without it getting out of hand. There are dogs that get very uptight, and either can't playfight at all, or it deteriorates very fast. If you think of playfights as a bit like banter, it's clear that humans are like this too. Some people can tease other other, and it's friendly, but not everyone can do this.

Preventing serious fights

Fighting can be more of a problem if it happens in your own home, rather than on walks where dogs can escape each other. There are people who think dogs should be allowed to 'fight it out' because otherwise you're interfering in their ranking system. Not a good idea, because letting them fight it out can result in very large vet bills or even dead dogs. Most fights tend to be about resources you control, such as food, chews, and access to you, so most fights are triggered by, or can be prevented by owners. If you give out titbits, make sure it's clear who is meant to have what. Give each dog enough space to eat at meal times (which means not leaving food out). Bones can become a source of fights, so let each dog have a chew or a bone in a separate room if you want them to chew and they tend to squabble over chews and bones. Reward dogs on the basis of their good behaviour, ie being calm and doing what you say. That sets a good example in canine self-control.

You can sometimes see a dog watching another being rewarded, thinking 'ah, that is what I have to do' and copying the better behaved dog, so it's worth rewarding good behaviour, rather than pushiness. Pushy dogs can turn into spoilt monsters if they're favoured, and may attack other dogs because they feel they have your backing.

Any fighting other than quick canine reprimands should be stamped on before it gets out of hand. You can tell all dogs involved to cut it out, without showing favour. If a fight does start, turn on a vacuum cleaner, blow a horn, use a water pistol, a hosepipe, a bucket of water, whatever is to hand, but keep out of it yourself, because you can be seriously bitten. Fights are usually brief, but soda water or aerosol sprays aimed at the mouth can prompt a dog to let go, if it hangs on. Some owners use a big wooden spoon inserted between jaws. Immediately after the dogs stop fighting, let them know that you are very, very annoyed. Scold absolutely everybody involved, no matter who started it, This can prevent further scraps if the message gets through to just one dog. It takes two to fight, so if one dog learns to ignore provocations and lets you sort it out, that dog is strong on self-control, has learnt to take you seriously, and is your very special

Obedience training helps a lot, since you can more easily prevent fights, using down stay or recall commands. Train the dogs both as a group, and separately. You should be able to line them up and call them out one at a time.

Jostling at doorways can be a problem. Teach the dogs to leave in an orderly way. If one has to be left behind, and makes a fuss, shut that dog away from the door with something interesting, like a hollow rubber toy with treats inside. It's not much fun to be left out, and dogs have a sense of fairness.

Not all dogs can be left alone safely. While most dogs just sleep, dogs do sometimes fight. This is especially true of three or more dogs that are wound up by something happening outside. They can turn on each other if they can't get at their 'enemy'. This can also happen in fence fighting, with one dog turning on the one next to it. So it's worth separating dogs when you go out, if you have more than three, or if you know of any reason they may fight, and it's important to supervise them in the garden if they want to fence fight (see Designing a Dog Garden).

Rehoming may be necessary as a last resort if your dogs really don't get on. It may be heartbreaking, but it's better than coming home and finding a dead dog. It's far better to prevent problems by choosing dogs that do get on, and introducing them properly. There are some people you wouldn't want to share a house with, and the same goes for dogs. If you are choosing a shelter dog, see how the dog gets on with yours on neutral territory, before taking any decisions.

As a general rule it's safer not to keep two bitches of the same breed. The best combination is usually dog-bitch, then dog-dog, then two bitches. Littermates are generally more likely to fight. These are general tendencies, but two bitch littermates may get on well if one is easy-going, and two pushy dogs may be in conflict whether they are dogs or bitches. You really want easy-going dogs if you have more than two. Dogs with easy-going parents tend to be easy-going themselves, though if you buy from a breeder, ask which pups in the litter are likely to do well with other dogs.

When a new pup or dog is introduced, it helps to do this on neutral territory, with the owner in control of the resident dog on a leash, and a friend with the new dog. Then they can be walked together, pup in arms if necessary. This can help them bond, as can giving them at least some of the same food, with the older dog eating a little puppy food. They smell similar if their food is the same.

Older dogs often need protection from pushy canine newcomers - imagine having a noisy toddler come to stay with you. If the older dog tries to escape the newcomer's plaguey attentions, that's a clear message he wants some peace. If he often reprimands the youngster irritably, that's another clear sign. Have someone experienced watch the dogs if you are not sure what is going on. Some youngster newcomers and older resident dogs get on wonderfully from day one, but it may take time, and your older dog may need your help to learn to cope. You can help by socialising the pup with friends' older dogs who can cope, as well as finding the pup playmates. Once the youngster has more social skills, he should get on better with your older dog. In the mean time, let your older dog know his place is secure, and give him time on his own, as well as involving all the dogs in activities that help them learn self-control and work together as a group.