Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dog vs. Dog - What former 'fighting dogs' have taught us about dog behavior

We all know dogs will fight, but what about when they don't fight?

'Fetch' - a SF-based paper that catered to dog issues - has folded, but we're still grateful to them for running this piece on lessons from the Vick case. Since the info is still contemporary, I'm re-posting it here so it can be shared around as needed. (That, and because the hand out from the article has such small type that it makes my eyes hurt!) It's understandably popular for breed advocates to point out the growing number of Vick dogs who've earned therapy dog titles. Another stunning but often overlooked lesson they brought to the dog world comes from the undeniable success the adopted dogs have been enjoying with other dogs. Their lessons can be applied to ALL breeds when contemplating the all-too common behavior of canine interspecies aggression. Enjoy.

Right: Former Vick dogs Grace and Audie enjoying a first play session after leaving VA. Photo: Nicole Rattay.

Dog vs. Dog - Donna Reynolds. First published in Fetch the Paper May 2008

Dog on dog aggressive behavior has become a hot topic in recent years. Entire workshops, obedience classes, and pet columns have been devoted to discussing the nuances of this natural, but challenging canine behavior. It's hard to know if our pets are being positioned to argue more with other dogs or if society is just becoming less tolerant when they do.

We can certainly blame the rising popularity of housing multi-dogs in tight urban quarters for some of the strife. Smaller living spaces and less-than-responsible dog owners serve to create the same kinds of stress and challenges that we humans face when struggling to live peaceably with our own kind. Dogs are only human, after all.

Added dilemmas to dog-dog harmony: The now-raging chihuahua fad is amplifying the age-old tensions between tiny dogs and large dogs (ouch!), under-worked canines are taking matters into their own paws and creating their own entertainment, and chaotic dog parks are creating as much trouble as benefit for all breeds. Perhaps the biggest set-back of all is our loss of understanding of canine behavior. As society becomes divorced from our roots on the farms and ranches of yesterday, we're quickly losing the wisdom that used to guide us in all-things-animal.

Blame it on progress. Our great-grandparents' rural perspective afforded them a highly practical and realistic understanding of natural law, including animal law. We can't go back, but how do we swing our dog-think into balance and apply it to today's world so our dogs can succeed?

As it turns out, pit bulls may be the perfect teachers to help re-educate society on the finer points of managing and avoiding dog-dog aggression. They're especially good at challenging our ideals on just about everything. When it comes to current notions about canine inter-species aggression, the Michael Vick dogs got busy with breaking all the rules: They weren't supposed to be salvageable, they weren't supposed to be safe with kids and they certainly weren't supposed to be able to co-exist with other dogs. After all, these were reported to be fighting dogs, hard-wired for battle and hell-bent on anti-social behavior with dogs. (New York Times) But are they? Almost one year (edit: four years) after the initial fight bust, over two dozen Vick dogs are living in homes with other dogs and succeeding as normal, every day family pets.

So what happened? Why aren't they following "the rules" about fighting dogs and dog-dog aggression?

The answers are easy: Dogs are individuals and many defy the selective breeding efforts meant to create certain traits. We humans have been too busy blaming dogs for behaviors that we ourselves set into motion.

The families now enjoying the Vick dogs understand this. When any dog fights, it's because a careless or heartless human has accidentally or intentionally set them up to engage in combat. That situation could be a staged battle in the pit or a rushed greeting with an inappropriate play partner at the dog park. When dogs DON'T fight - as in the case of the Vick dogs now living in homes - they're following the designs of a good leader who is consciously setting them up for nothing but success. The mechanics of this success involve respecting each dog's individual limits with other dogs, proper socialization to increase dog tolerance, and clear guidance so each dog knows what's expected of him. It's not entirely unlike dealing with with a boisterous three year old child in a rough and rowdy play group.

Above: Former Vick dogs Uba and Jonny Justice have maintained a friendly relationship since they were (properly) introduced by their adopters in 2007. Below: Despite Hector's fighting scars, he was one of the most dog social dogs that came off of Vick's yard. Shown here with his adopters, Roo and Clara Yori and their dog family.

To be fair, this success-through-management drill is as true for our ball-possessive Husky as it is for the Vick dog in an adopter's house, as it is for the __name your breed__ dog in your house. All breeds can fight, and all can be managed so that potential never surfaces. The choice is ours. Some dogs need more management than others and because all dogs are individuals, it's true that some yellow labs need more management than some pit bulls - without question.

One way to make peace with this big responsibility we've taken on is to dig back into our cellular memory to a time when wild wolves first came to live in our camps. No matter how we dress them, our foofoo pets are still wolves at heart, and we're still the ones that decided to wrangle their animal instincts so we could co-exist. You can take the dog out of nature, but you'll never be able to take nature out of the dog. Nor would we like them much if we could!

Everybody Calm Down! 8 Tips to Avoid Dog-Dog Conflicts

1. Spats Happen! It's a fact of Dog Life; even those dogs that generally get along can break into an argument if one or both are offended or challenged.
2. Study your dog. Understand his body language so you can know when he might be reaching his limits with another dog. If a real fight does happen, learn from it so it doesn't happen again.
3. Prevent triggers. As with children, fights can spark up from the most seemingly insignificant triggers, even between dogs that are buddies. Some common triggers: Arguments over toys, food, favorite dogs or even favorite people (resource guarding). A perceived challenge such as intense eye contact, tug-o-war game or rough play can set a dog off. Know your dog's triggers and work with a trainer to desensitize him to these as much as possible so they lose their charge.
4. Nix nose-to-nose greets. In the quest to make dogs more dog-social, resist the temptation to allow your dog to do rushed nose-to-nose greets between dogs he doesn't know. Instead, create a ritual of slow, uber-relaxed intros that include side-by-side walks in neutral territory. Taking your time will give you the chance to read signals that say, "I don't really like this dog."
5. Be leash savvy. Leash reactivity - an annoying behavior of lunging at dogs or growling on leash - can start when dogs become ever more frustrated about greeting other dogs. Handlers can create fast improvements by curbing leash greets and taking on the new role of confident clown and animated leader. Look for training classes that teach pet owners how to motivate their pets and capture their attention with fun and rewarding distraction exercises that teach a dog that other on-leash dogs are off-limits.
6. Know the realities. Studies (Cornell University, NY) have shown that same-sex housemate pairs, especially females, have more problems than opposite sex pairings. Excitement is one of the biggest fight triggers between dogs of all breeds. The same study indicated that conflict in the home is much more common between female dogs while males were more likely to instigate fights outside of the house. Treatments most often recommended for household aggression are desensitization with counter conditioning and obedience training.
7. Know your dog's tolerance level. Do you know your dog's limits with other dogs? Does he has a short fuse, a long fuse or somewhere in between? Be realistic about what he can put up with from other dogs and what kind of play or behavior he will not tolerate.
8. Protect your dog from a bad dog-dog experience. Not all dogs want or need to be friends with other dogs. Smart socializing involves respecting your dog's quirks and and limits and setting him up for only success with other dogs. Appropriate play partners and positive dog-dog interactions will increase his tolerance for all kinds of dogs and dog behavior. The more positive interaction any dog gets with other dogs, the more likely he will develop and maintain dog-tolerant behavior for life.

With many thanks to the survivors of Bad Newz Kennels for reminding us all of what we already knew to be true about dog behavior.


The Vick dogs' integration into real life has been meticulously covered by all kinds of media. We try to gather up most of the stories about the 10 dogs that moved though our program here. For more tips on managing the dogs in your life, check our collection of links at the top of this blog: Favorite Links


Unknown said...

Awesome post, so informative and encouraging. Dogs are dogs, and can be and must be managed. Great stuff!

EmilyS said...

1) all dogs deserve to be treated as individuals and 1a) most dogs coming into shelters are mixed breed dogs of unknown ancestry, whatever they look like.
2) much of what the dogmen and their apologists told us about fighting dogs "liking to fight" was/is a bunch of vicious hooey
but also
3) if dog breeds mean anything and have value (and not everyone agrees they do), then dogs of a certain breed have breed traits that they are more likely to display than not. Yes, there are Labs that don't retrieve and collies that don't herd, but is more likely that a Lab will retrieve etc. Understanding the breed traits of your purebred dog (or the traits of the component dogs of your mixed breed dog) will go a long way to avoiding unhappiness/trouble on all sides. It's not a surprise that the blog author's Husky is ball possessive.. it would be a surprise if he was an obsessive retriever into water (though of course that behavior would not be impossible, since all dogs are dogs...)
4) Some people want to adore a type of dog because of SOME traits they identify with that type (lets say goofiness, human loving, sensitive, malleable nature). At the same time, they deny the equally common traits that make people uncomfortable (tenacity, tendency towards snarkiness around unknown dogs, quick fuse, refusal to back down). This makes no sense.

The traits that make people uncomfortable are the very same that used to be admired in earlier times, as the article reprinted on this blog points out. The "American bull terrier" wasn't a symbol of courage on WW1 posters because kids could dress it up in baby clothes. But there's abundant suggestive evidence that kids can dress up "pit bulls" AS A RESULT of the breed traits people now want to deny because they may not be so nice in today's world.

You won't keep an American pit bull terrier breed that lets kids dress it up unless you also keep its proverbial courage, whose expression you may not find always pleasant. You might have a lot of very nice sweet mixed breed dogs of a certain appearance that you choose to call "pit bulls" (which until recently was a nickname ONLY for the American pit bull terrier, not for every bigheaded fatchested shorthaired dog, especially if it gets in trouble). But that's a different story. Or at least it should be.

Donna said...

I fully agree that some are initially attracted to the dogs for their softness with people, but would add that it's not unusual for that admiration to evolve into a more well-rounded appreciation of terrier nature as they live with and learn to enjoy traits that might have been off-putting before their love crush. So goes the magic of this dog -- drawing people into places they never thought they'd go before.

I'm willing to bet dramatic displays of dog/dog aggression have made much of society "uncomfortable" for centuries, however back in the day, people were well versed in animal-think enough to sort it out without much ado. Unlike today when it causes a bit of a panic in dog owners of every breed. (Consider sport dog affectionados - agility especially - who whisper to each other about relentless and damaging fights between their herding breed stars at home. What to do?!)

The lovely lessons from the Vick dogs and many other fighting yard survivors now integrated into homes comes from APBTs with pedigree, which makes them all the more valuable to owners of non-pits and wanna-be pit bulls out there. Blessed beasts, blessed lessons of human responsibility - no matter what the genetic make up might be.

Rockster1039 said...

This is really informative, I'm definitely bookmarking it for future reference. Thanks for the heads up!

Dianne said...

As always, Donna, a really lovely walk through what we learned from these and other
fighting (or fought) dogs. The very first pit bull I got to know well volunteering at
the Washington Animal Rescue League, Chardonnay, was the most dog social dog I have ever met. She
had fight scars on her face and she had a good mean look to her. Yet when we took her
to an adoption event at a garden nursery, she spent a lot of her time alerting us to the
cars/trucks that had dogs inside. She thought they should come out and play with her.
She also loved kids.

I wish articles like this could get more wide-spread publicity. I continue to try to
educate people when they ask about pits. Unfortunately there is a lot of mis-information
out there on the world wide web. I had a good laugh at the folks who had done their research
and informed me that pit bulls were climbers, they could even climb trees like a cat!
(Don Cleary tells me this is "out there"). And some folks seem to think the lessons learned
from the Vick dogs are that Badd Newz dogs weren't "game" dogs. Have you read
Badd Newz: the Untold story of the Michael vick case ?

If you haven't read it you should, just because its so full of bad information about rescue.
The chapters on the resistance to arresting Vick are very good, though. Any way, her conclusion
about the sweet nature of the Vick dogs was because they were "bad" fighting dogs. Having observed
the range of personalities from Hector to Frodo, I think Roo's assessment of Hector is the best.
He fought because that was what was asked of him but it was not his true nature. How could
a successful pack animal survive if it fought?

By the way, I'd like to point out that in the Yori pack, it's Mindy Lou (on Clara's lap)
who rules the roost.

Sarah Ryan said...

Thanks very much for sharing. I am sharing with others. Having been owned by dogs for 20 years, I find I'm still learning all the time. When I lived in Seattle, I used to take my dogs to the many dog parks all the time. Then, one incident changed everything for me. A bunch of dogs ganged up on a medium-sized female and, in a horrible flash, she was lying on her side with a terrible injury. Now, we make our own dog park in the backyard by having doggy friends come over.

NightlySun said...

Impressive! Well done!

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