Are some dogs more prone to conflict with others?


20 January 2015

Are some dogs more prone to conflict with others?

Are some dogs more prone to conflict with others? Carol Price explains why some dogs just don't see eye to eye.

There are few nicer sights than a group of dogs living together harmoniously, or interacting and playing happily in a local park. It's a reminder of the extra dimension of pleasure so many dogs can get from the company of their own kind.

However, just because dogs, much like us, have evolved a sophisticated range of social skills in order to bond and thrive with their fellow species, it's a terrible mistake to imagine that you can just put any number of dogs together - especially in a more limited amount of space - and they will naturally all get on. Similarly, it's a mistake to think that all dogs have inherently sociable instincts when it comes to other dogs.

Many of you will have experienced the phenomenon of dogs who just seem to hate each other on first sight, or dogs who cannot live under the same roof together without constant conflict. Some dogs may be more natural victims and thus find themselves more readily picked on by other dogs. Others, alternatively, may be more natural bullies.

Then there is also the scenario of dogs who just don't seem to like other dogs at all. Frequently owners find these realities upsetting or baffling. However, the longer you live and work with different dogs, the more you come to realise how the canine society can mirror human society, with the same basic range of social characters - including naturally more sociable or less sociable people - and the same ability for trouble among specific individuals, given sufficient provocation or opportunity.

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Default personalities

Traditionally owners are told that inadequate early socialisation is the main reason why dogs have aggression issues with other dogs later in life. While good socialisation can certainly help to minimise dog-on-dog aggression, which is motivated chiefly by a ‘fear of the less familiar' mentality, the part played in canine conflict by a dog's intrinsic social personality is too often under appreciated.

Dogs, much like people, are born with a predisposition for being a certain kind of social personality; for example more timid, more bold, more socially adept or inept, more ambitious, or pushy. Some dogs are natural leaders and others are more natural followers. Some dogs are more natural challengers, controllers, and dominators; others are more natural appeasers or peacemakers.

These are essentially the ‘default personalities' of dogs; the ones they inhabit most naturally or feel most compelled to be, if only because of the sheer force of instinct, when placed in more pressurising or potentially threatening social situations, be these with other dogs or people.

There is no doubt that some dog personalities have a greater capacity to instigate aggression or conflict with their own kind. If any number of dogs were to meet up on a walk, I could more or less predict from the off the type of dog personality who would start any trouble.

It is never going to be the natural leaders, the socially adept, or the natural appeasers and peacemakers. Certain canine personality types I view as ‘incendiary dogs', because of their ability to cause tension and conflict among an otherwise peaceful canine group. What they all have in common is an inherently less secure or more controlling/bullying personality, which in turn seeks release or other rewards in the use of aggression.

  • The socially timid dog - hopes to neutralise the threat potential of an approaching new dog by mounting an aggressive display first. It is desperately panicky behaviour, but can sometimes also be highly provocative to other dogs.

  • The insecure controller - is possessed by a near pathological desire to control the behaviour of all the other dogs around him, by the use of aggressive intimidation. If someone goes too near his ball, for instance, or too near his owner, or just generally appears to be seeking some sort of advantage over him he becomes aggressive. These are the dog world's equivalent of human control freaks and they can be pretty stressful for others to be around.

  • The natural dominator - can be similar to the insecure controller though generally more dangerous, in that his ambitions lie chiefly in physically overpowering or attacking other dogs - usually of the same sex - simply to reinforce his sense of status. These dogs can also be socially aloof with little interest in the more polite social interactions enjoyed by other dogs.

These more ‘incendiary' canine personalities act as the instant destabilisers of the calm within a group of dogs, which often makes them that much more challenging for anyone to own.

Highly boisterous puppies or adolescent dogs can often have the same disruptive and provocative effect on the mental equilibrium of other dogs, thus triggering a more aggressive response to their behaviour in return.

Trouble at home

One of the most distressing scenarios for any owner is to have two dogs who do not get on living together, either because both are natural controllers or dominators, or because a controller or dominator is continually picking on a more submissive type of dog. Sometimes the dogs in question are closely related, at other times not.

Whenever a new dog - puppy or otherwise - is introduced into a household where one or more dogs already exist, there can be an early period where the newcomer is resented, or generally given the cold shoulder and snapped at, until they have ‘earned their right to belong'. Owners can get very upset about this, only to find that in a month or less the same dogs have all become bosom buddies.

Generally, dogs have a remarkable ability to find some way of getting on together, even when housed within restrictive modern living environments or lifestyles.

Captive pressure

Sometimes, however, the aggression between fellow resident dogs doesn't diminish or resolve itself over time. Instead it gets progressively worse until owners consider they have little option but to keep the dogs completely segregated.

This, however, is simply containing the problem; it is not solving it. Arguably it is also not making life any better, or less stressful, for the dogs concerned.

More incompatible personalities apart, there is no escaping the extra dimension for conflict we can impose on dogs, by the way we make them live. Anyone who has watched the ‘Big Brother' TV programme is aware that when human beings are stripped of freedom of will or movement, and made to live with others in a more confined environment, the mental tension caused by this ‘captive pressure' progressively rises, and arguments and aggression among them becomes far more common.

In similar vein, if you deny your dogs copious amounts of daily physical exercise outside the home environment, plenty of ongoing mental stimulation, as well as a good amount of space to roam around in, I wouldn't say greater conflict among them was much more likely - I would say it was virtually inevitable.

Better breeding

Although dog-on-dog aggression and conflict can have many varying causes, I have tried to highlight how much of it can stem simply from the type of dog personalities involved, if only because so often owners may be blamed entirely for their dog's aggression towards others, when the problem has a much deeper genetic root. Similarly owners with more dog-friendly dogs may take all the credit for this themselves, when they simply have had the good fortune to own a far more naturally sociable type of dog.

Lots of myths and misconceptions still exist about dog-on-dog conflicts, including the depressingly widespread one that every dog attack is a fight, or a case of ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other', in terms of how mutually motivated each party was to be aggressive. In reality the vast majority of dog-on-dog attacks involve a more natural aggressor and a victim. This lingering misperception could be why the issue of dogs who viciously attack other dogs - as opposed to people - is still too rarely taken seriously enough.

The problems caused by dogs who have more aggressive impulses towards others could be lessened not just by better socialisation and training when they are younger, but also by better breeding of dogs. Too many breeders are still paying too little heed to the quality of their dogs' genetic temperaments, especially if they are destined to have lives as social companions, and as a result pass on the same temperamental flaws - including readier aggression towards other dogs or people - from one generation to the next.

I feel nothing but sadness when dogs struggle to live harmoniously with their own kind. For ultimately it is not just them who misses out on the chance of a richer social life within the wider dog community - it's usually their owners as well.

Can dogs be trained to get on better?

The better early socialisation of many dogs can do much to offset their inclination to be aggressive towards others in later life. This is particularly the case with socially timid dogs whose aggression towards others stems mostly from fear or panic, typically lunging and barking hysterically at any dog who passes or approaches them. In fact, even later in life, with the right training and more positive socialisation with other dogs, their behaviour can be greatly improved.

Controlling dogs mostly become aggressive towards others when placed in open competition with them for resources - such as toys, food, beds, their owner's attention, or a certain bit of territory. If you own a dog like this, you could ensure you remove any such sources of conflict whenever other dogs are around. But in the main it is better to teach your dog - with professional help if necessary - to have better manners in the presence of other dogs.

Controlling dogs can very often be ‘only' dogs, and thus never got used to the concept of sharing anything with others. They also have to be taught how to do this.

Natural dominators can also be taught, to some degree, to have overall better manners towards other dogs.

However, this often requires much effort and resolve, as well as a level of constant ‘policing' of their behaviour around other dogs that many owners find very testing.

Some dogs - as well as some breeds - are simply less naturally sociable with other dogs, particularly as they get older. So always research thoroughly any type or breed of dog you are thinking of getting, to see if this might be a problem for you.

In the case of two dogs who are continually at war within a household, or one dog who is constantly persecuting or attacking another he or she lives with, I always recommend rehoming the main aggressor. 

Nothing else ever works quite so well, and neither people nor dogs should be forced to live in atmospheres where the threat of aggression is ever present, because the stress of it, on a daily basis, can become absolutely unbearable.