I spent a lovely afternoon with terriers Dizzy and Tiggy, their housemate daxie x Rufus, and their owner.
Their mum has worked with me for over a year, bringing Dizzy to classes because she loves being around other dogs and really enjoys working.
I worked with them yesterday for a problem that many owners with same-sex terriers encounter: Dizzy and Tiggy had a fight, resulting in Tiggy’s neck being torn.
The session was fascinating because these girls will share a bed while eating cow hooves without any discord between them. In fact, watching them together showed that both dogs were avoiding conflict – when one cow hoof was dropped, Dizzy made a few faces at Tiggy, who gave lots of calming signals and they were happily chewing them next to each other again in seconds.
Their mum has worked with me for many months and knows what her dogs need to keep them calm and happy together. In theory, she and her husband were doing everything they could to produce a harmonious doggy household.
So why did something go wrong enough for the girls to damage each other? After the fight, their owner sensibly got them vet-checked for any underlying health condition or pain, but there was nothing for either dog.
Rufus is getting old and arthriticky and can be a bit grumbly, but he’s been like this for a while and neither of the girls has seemed unduly affected by him.
The only thing that their owner had observed is that Dizzy had become less tolerant of Tiggy trying to lie on her. Tiggy tends to plant herself as close as possible and doesn’t take any notice if either of the other dogs don’t really want her there! Dizzy’s response has been to look tense and move, but she has never resorted to anything more intense.
We narrowed it down to the thing that sparked the fight: it was a cabbage stalk that Tiggy prized highly because she’d managed to steal it from the chicken pen. Their owner didn’t see the start of the fight, so didn’t know if Dizzy had tried to take it off her. It seems likely and, like many terriers, neither dog was prepared to back down.
On top of this, Tiggy can occasionally antagonise Dizzy by snipping and barking at her when she’s feeling excited. She has habit-based barking and a low ability to control her ‘I want’ urges.
In the clip below you can hear me talking about Tiggy’s antics and how laughing at her when she’s barking and spinning can create even more of a ‘Feel Good’ around these behaviours. They feel pretty good to her already, but reinforcing them with any kind of laughter will encourage a dog to do more. It’s hard not to react with a laugh – we all do it, often without even realising it!
In this clip we’re reinforcing Tiggy for each time she chooses not to bark. When you start doing this kind of work, you have to be quick to get-in with Marks and Treats, because there is often a lot more barking than not-barking …
The level of barking at triggers in the garden and things that Tiggy hears outside is moderate to high, which can also raise the stress levels in a home, but none of the 3 dogs were unduly stressed. It was more habit than alarm barking.
Their mum dealt with the fight really well – once she had separated them and could see that they were calm enough, she got out her clicker and Treats and played a game of Ping Pong Puppy with them so that they felt comfortable being near each other, doing something familiar that changes their emotional state.
She knows them well and could see they were able to work closely around food without focusing on each other again. Her response to the fight meant that the girls have been fine together and safe enough to be left alone since, after careful monitoring.
Having dogs fighting in the family home can be upsetting for everyone involved and sometimes it can be difficult to work out why the fight has erupted. Dizzy and Tiggy have never fought over food items before.
But dynamics do change within family groups and owners may never really be able to work out why. What matters is managing situations to ensure that ‘hotspots’ don’t happen.
If you have tensions between dogs in your family, be sure to avoid any conflict over food, toys and treats. Feed them separately, even if they seem fine over meals, because most dogs will lurk around a dog who hasn’t finished eating, which tends to make both of them eat too quickly for good digestion.
Avoid handling your dogs when they’re together in confined spaces, such as paw-drying in a small utility room. I never have all 6 dogs in our tiny kitchen at the same time when I’m drying paws because 3 of them are uneasy about having their feet handled and I don’t want too many bodies to make the experience feel worse.
If you need to handle your dog in a way that she finds difficult, shut your other dogs away. Most dogs will approach an uncomfortable dog to sniff their muzzles when they sense that the other dog is uneasy. Some dogs find it reassuring, but most don’t. If I need to do anything with any of my dogs that will make them feel uneasy (such as opening their mouths or inspecting their eyes) I always shut the other dogs out of the room.
Keep other dogs away when you bring a dog home from the vet. Dogs smell strange after a vet visit. They also invariably have raised cortisol and adrenaline levels, which can raise the tempo in all the family pets. They will be very keen to sniff the dog who has been to tell vet, but she will be likely to find their attentions too much, so keeping them separate for up to 20 mins, then bringing the other dog in on a lead and taking things slowly is the best way to help each of them cope.
Try not to let Fizzy, over-excitable dogs crowd together when they come back from a walk or when family members come home. This is another Hotspot Time when excitement can tip-over into snarlies.
By carefully managing our dogs they can soon settle back into harmonious coexistence after a fight. They’re often far less upset by it and forget about it more quickly than we do. Living in a well-managed home like Tiggy, Rufus and Dizzy do makes all the difference to how quickly they go back to being peaceful together again.