Dog fights

Can dogs teach us anything about getting along?

Certain dog breeds have a harder time sharing space. - Shutterstock

A number of years ago, taking leave of friends on the Cape in mid-November, I wished each “Happy Thanksgiving” as I headed out. One gently took my hand, replying softly, “We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.” While many in the United States gather with family to give thanks, others, particularly many Native Americans like my Mashpee Wampanoag friend, commemorate this Thursday as a day of mourning. Recent events, from Standing Rock to Aleppo, the election to the international surge in hate crimes — all these highlight not only how our country is divided, but how all humanity struggles, despite the fact that we are all the same species. Homo sapiens. Regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, whatever. Even Republicans and Democrats. Same species.

Every year I sing in a winter concert led by my friend Roberta Kirn. This time the program includes “The Dog Song,” also known as “Dog Dog” or “My Dog Loves Your Dog.” This little ditty, famous as a civil rights anthem, includes the lyrics “My dog loves your dog and your dog loves my dog … then why can’t we sit under the apple tree?” Bernard LaFayette Jr., distinguished scholar-in-residence at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta and co-writer of the song, explained the lyrics this way in an article in the Bark: “I was raised in Florida during segregation. There was this white family and my family, and we both had dogs. It didn’t make any sense to me that we kids couldn’t play together when all the dogs would just rip and run and get along fine.”

So what does any of this have to do with veterinary medicine? Well, as I said to Roberta at rehearsal, the problem is that all dogs actually don’t get along fine. Let’s talk about dog fights.

Chihuahuas and Great Pyrenees. Pit bulls and poodles. Different breeds with differing appearances, behaviors, temperaments, and functions, but all the same species. Canis familiaris. Dogs are essentially pack animals with an inherent sense of social order. A pack will usually have one dominant (alpha) male and one dominant female. But most dogs these days no longer live in large packs, so what’s the dynamic in smaller groupings? Two-dog households are fairly common. Dogs of opposite gender often get along well, while pairing two males or two females may increase the risk of sparring. Intact male dogs fight the most. Females fight less often, but when they do, can be more vicious. Growing up together does not preclude fighting once they reach “social maturity.” With both genders, neutering reduces but does not eliminate aggression.

When getting a dog, do your homework; certain breeds have a harder time sharing space. A 2008 study titled “Breed differences in canine aggression” found Akitas and pit bulls scored very high for dog-related aggression. That’s no surprise. But so did Jack Russell terriers, Chihuahuas, and dachshunds. The least aggressive toward both humans and dogs included golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, Bernese mountain dogs, Brittany spaniels, greyhounds, and whippets, but the study did not include all of the hundreds of known breeds, and individual animals can always defy their breed’s reputation. Getting a mutt? Consider what’s in the mix. A rescue? Remember that past trauma, or poor socialization, can result in increased aggressiveness.

It’s not always an out-and-out brawl. Aggressive dogs may intimidate submissive dogs with growling, lip curling, dominant posture, eye contact, and other body language. If there is a little pushiness between them, but both dogs seem relaxed, don’t worry. That’s just normal jockeying for position. And not every fight is about dominance. Dogs are like toddlers. They fight over resources. Food, treats, toys. They also compete for your attention, which is as prized as a tennis ball or chew toy. Your job is to minimize situations that provoke aggression. Keep things noncompetitive. Separate food bowls. Supervise play with high-value toys. Give every dog its dose of loving.

It’s a different set of circumstances when your dog is interacting with unknown dogs on “neutral” territory: the dog park, the beach. Here the animals have to figure out how to establish a temporary social hierarchy. Not all dogs are emotionally equipped to handle this. Some just aren’t party animals. If you know your dog has issues, be smart. Be responsible. There is no guaranteed “cure” for dogs prone to fighting. It’s up to you to avoid public situations. Instead, choose a playmate your pooch gets along with. Have supervised playdates in a safe location. Avoid overexcitement. Work with a trainer. If you must take a potentially aggressive dog out and about, consider using a head halter and basket muzzle, two humane ways for you to keep your pup well controlled.

If a fight does occur, what should you do? Don’t just grab him. That’s how you end up at the emergency room. Besides, interjecting yourself in the middle may actually cause a fight to escalate, as can yelling and hitting. In some circumstances you can just wait for a slow count of 10, and the dogs may immediately settle it themselves and stop. (This is not a good idea in what we vets call “big dog, little dog” interactions, as large dogs can very quickly inflict fatal injuries on smaller dogs.) Douse fighting dogs with water from a hose or bucket. Use an object to separate them — whatever is handy. Your beach chair. Your umbrella. Just not your hand or leg. Once separated, try to divert their attention from each other. Call your pup by name, using a cheerful tone. Praise him calmly for disengaging.

Maybe we can apply these techniques to our own species. Call one another cheerfully by name. Praise each other when we stay calm and don’t fight. But I’m getting my bucket of water ready, just in case some big old dog needs help chilling out. Please join us to sing “The Dog Song” and other songs of peace, light, and hope on Sunday, Dec. 18, at 5 pm, at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center. Let’s be diverse, not divisive.