Life with two dogs who hate each other
By Christie Keith
One day, as if out of the clear blue sky, my 6-year-old cattle dog mix, Scarlett, decided that Colleen, my 12-year-old chow mix, had to die.
Of course this didn't really come out of nowhere, and looking back with that 20/20 hindsight we all have, I can see many hints of the battle to come. Sadly, I misunderstood most of the warning signs and let denial make me blind to the rest. The result? A badly wounded Colleen, and my lifestyle in turmoil.
When female dogs fight, they aren't doing it ritualistically, but to determine which of the two is going to continue to draw breath when the fight is over. Advice to "let the two of them work it out" isn't going to cut it in this type of dominance battle. Usually, "working it out" involves the death or serious injury of the loser- and the winner doesn't generally fare too well either. In addition to the dangers to the dogs, the human family members can get hurt trying to break up the fights.
So, what can you do when a situation like this arises? I wanted my old peaceable kingdom back.
First of all, I took both dogs in for complete veterinary exams. Colleen is definitely getting old, and while she was the "alpha of the universe" for many years, illness or just general old age could make her a more attractive target for a challenger. A friend of mine who has Rottweilers, chows, and chow mixes herself, said, "I always worry, when a younger dog makes a move, if they KNOW something medical about the older that we haven't picked up yet. I have a few friends who have had alpha old bitches who had to be protected in their last years of life because the younger alpha-wanna-be would kill them, because even in their infirm state they would NEVER back down to the youngster." This described Colleen perfectly. Also, several common health problems, such as thyroid disease, can cause increased aggression in dogs, so it was important to get Scarlett examined as well. However, both came back with a clean bill of health.
I then consulted a number of trainers and a behaviorist, only to get some discouraging news. There's not a whole heck of a lot you can do about dominance aggression between bitches other than keep them separated. That was not what I wanted to hear, as keeping them apart was putting a lot of stress on my household.
One trainer advised me to reinforce Scarlett as the new "alpha," while another said that would simply make her MORE aggressive about protecting her rank. The most useful advice I got was to remember that the only alpha in my house is me, not either of the dogs, and that if I say "no fights," then they all have to live with that. My friend agreed, saying she would "avoid backing the younger dog. It will make her bolder and might push Colleen to fight harder to regain it."
Many people suggested I find a new home for Scarlett, but with her history of on-leash dog aggression (one of the signs I missed), this problem with Colleen, her inability to be around cats, and an extremely high energy level, it's very hard to imagine finding a home that would work for her. And of course, despite everything, I love her.
I've worked on increasing her obedience training, so she is more tuned in to me, and this helped me break up the last couple of fights. I actually moved to a new house where I was able to keep them separate more effectively. I take Scarlett out with me a lot, and have Colleen in my office with me a lot.
I also explored one option that I feel extremely optimistic about, and hope to write more about in a future article. I went to a seminar on "calming signals," a dog training and communication theory based on the work of Norwegian trainer Turid Rugaas, author of On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals. Given by Bonny Doon, CA's Jodi Frediani, it was a daylong, hands-on seminar, and Jodi did more with Scarlett in a fifteen minute demonstration than I've accomplished in years. I'm hoping that this will enable me to change the way Scarlett relates to other dogs, although only time will tell.
In the meantime, Scarlett sleeps in a crate next to my bed, and the two dogs are kept apart at all times, whether supervised or not. My new house has an excellent open plan that enables us all to be "together" even though a gate separates the space into two large areas. Colleen, as befits her status as my oldest and best-loved dog, gets more of my time and attention, but I make sure that Scarlett gets her share too. It's made my life a bit more complicated, but keeping Colleen safe is my responsibility, so I will find a way to make it work.
Wish us well.
Colleen passed away at the age of 15. The combination of separation and training, along with treatment by my homeopathic veterinarian, kept the rest of our years peaceful. There was never another fight, but Colleen and Scarlett never had any time together indoors without being separated. They were able to go on walks together easily. I miss Colleen more than words can ever tell, but there's no doubt things are easier now, for Scarlett and for me.