Q: When my husband and I merged our households, we each had dogs (both were 13 years old) and we got a third dog together, who is 3 years old. I also have a cat who is now five. In the beginning one of the dogs was attempting to fight with all of the animals but only one of the dogs would fight back. One time the two of them got at each other and the other dog’s jaw was hurt. Since then, the dog that originally picked the fights no longer does but the dog who was injured is now the aggressor.

They seem to get along together when they are outside and they can sit right next to each other in the house and seem fine. The problem is when we are going to sleep or sitting in the living room and the aggressive dog suddenly attacks the other one. My fiancé has even been bitten when he’s gotten in the middle of the dogs when they’re fighting. We just can’t go on like this. Help!

A: Your immediate concern is for the dogs’ safety. Please set up your environment so it is IMPOSSIBLE for the two dogs to attack each other. This is critical. I suggest baby gates and tethering (leashing a dog to something but only while you’re in the room so he doesn’t get tangled). A muzzle is also a good safety choice in properly supervised environments and can be used when it’s absolutely necessary..

There are several forms of aggression, including:

  • Fear or pain induced aggression;
  • Resource aggression – aggression around food, toys, people; and
  • Redirected aggression, such as when a dog can’t get to something and takes it out on whoever is closest.

There are no quick fixes to handle aggressive behavior. Because it has gone on so long and due to the age of the dogs, it will take time to change this. A behavioral expert or trainer who is well-versed in positive training methods is necessary. He or she can evaluate the situation, get complete histories on the dogs and set you up on a behavior modification program. You can find a trainer in your area that uses only positive training methods through the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (www.APDT.com) or The National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors (www.NADOI.org). Also, check with friends, neighbors and your veterinarian for possible referrals. It is important to avoid training that includes jerking, forcing a dog to the ground, hitting, shocking or shaking. No choke, prong or shock collars should be used.

Medical check-ups may be necessary to see if there are any physiological problems influencing the dogs’ behavior.

Basically, three things are needed:

  1. Safety. It’s important to set up the environment so the behaviors cannot happen.
  2. Counter Conditioning. A professional trainer can set you up on a program that will change the way the dogs feel about each other in a step-by-step manner. This is done by associating positive things (like food treats) with the thing he doesn’t like (the other dogs).
  3. Operant Conditioning. This is a training process where you will increase your dogs’ behavioral reliability and establish an appropriate leadership relationship with you and your husband as the leaders. Once again, a qualified professional can show you what to do.

Recommended Resource:

The Dog Whisperer DVD, Vol. 2 for Puppies and Dogs focuses on solving many problem dog behaviors.