Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: Dog-on-dog aggression

Some pooches just don’t play well with others.

—Ali Saminsky

Hi Tom,

I recently adopted a medium-size 2-year-old male Doberman mix. He loves people, and is the sweetest boy at home, but he completely loses it when he sees other dogs. He starts barking, jumping, and behaving aggressively, and he’s even bit another dog on one occasion. My neighbor also has a dog, and we at least need them to tolerate each other, and maybe even become friends. How do I safely socialize him at this age?



Dear Ali,

Mark Twain said, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And that describes me. I like to say I made my living getting paid to play intelligently with dogs. Best job in the world! Yet, in spite of what Twain said, even the “best” job will have its difficult days and will be work work, not fun work.

Even for the professional baseball player who loves to play baseball, or the professional musician who loves to play piano and sing — they too will have days of not-fun work. My lessons fell generally into one of two groups: manners and problems. Of my average 15 to 20 training appointments per week, half were for basic manners, like not peeing on the expensive white shag carpet, or crotch-sniffing your pastor when he or she comes to visit, or helping oneself to the turkey on Thanksgiving while the whole family is in the den toasting their good fortune, or sending Dad to the chiropractor after every “tug of war” walk.

The other half, problems, were often more fun because they were more challenging, one would think. The worst behavioral problem is aggression toward people, and thankfully, Ali, your dog Dobemix doesn’t have that issue. However, dog-on-dog aggression is next on the list, and having worked with dog-hating dogs for decades, it’s in the category of work work.

Having absolutely no idea of what happened to Dobemix for the critically important, formative first two years of his life, suffice it to say that he would have gotten an “F” on his report card when it came to “works and plays well with others.” While it’s not necessary that he gets to the point where he happily wants to meet other dogs to inhale the perfume of the butt, it is, however, necessary that he be able to at least pass a dog without feeling the need to eviscerate it. The way I deal with this depends on the intensity of the aggression. The fact that Dobemix bit another dog, and “completely loses it,” tells me that the intensity level is likely very strong.

I remember a first lesson with a beagle in NYC that got so crazed at the sight of another dog that I wouldn’t have been able to get his attention if I hit him over the head with a baseball bat. Dobemix needs to be taught what I taught that beagle, namely, Leave it, look at me, and heel. The “leave it” command must initially apply to anything but another dog. I put a vibration collar on Beagle and had someone put a plate with a hamburger on it on the floor. When Beagle was about to grab the burger, I told him to “leave it,” and pushed the button on the remote, which caused the collar on his neck to vibrate, startling him into stopping in his tracks. Then he got treats and praise for leaving it. Another dog is the last thing I want him to “leave,” because I don’t want him to relate the negativity of the startling vibration particularly to a dog, but rather that he should “leave” anything that he’s focused on when I say “leave!” This lesson was then repeated with many different foods and objects, leading up to squirrels outside, and then to dogs. Too often, these lessons initially had me dealing with such vicious aggression that it was very serious work work, definitely not fun.

As for your neighbor’s dog, that may be somewhat difficult. Most humans, when they see a neighbor or person they don’t like, don’t attack, they simply ignore that person. Often with dogs, not so. They attack! I had a client with a Rotty in NYC that hated and lunged at all standard poodles because a neighbor’s standard poodle growled and lunged at him when he was a puppy. Talk about discriminatory profiling!

I often suggest the “exchanging of scents” to create positive associations. Rub Dobemix with two dish towels, and have your neighbor put them under his dog’s food bowl and where he sleeps. And have your neighbor give you two such towels smelling of his dog, to put under Dobemix’s bowl and bed. This way each dog is getting a positive association with the other dog’s scent, where they eat and sleep.

However, in this case I wouldn’t “exchange scents” because they already don’t like each other, and smelling the other dog in such coveted locations might actually increase their territorial anger and aggression. After both dogs have been taught “leave it,” it’s time for you and your neighbor to meet far away from your homes and take a long walk together while keeping the dogs separated from each other, on the outside of you and your neighbor.

Lots of light talk, laughter, and treats on this walk as you eventually head back to the house, peacefully. I’ve successfully dealt with this type of dog- on-dog aggression quite often, and with some time and patience, your dog will stop embarrassing you on your daily outings. Ali, you will need the help of a pro to attain harmonious walks.

Good luck,

The Dogcharmer

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