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Family Dogs


We recently presented a webinar on “Creating and Maintaining Healthy Relationships among Family Dogs”. According to a Gallup Poll and statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 40% of dog owners have more than one dog. . Yet the quality of these relationships and the frequency of fighting or conflict among family dogs are not known.

Dogs are very social critters, and being alone is a big stressor for most of them. Intuitively, we would think that the benefits of living with another dog would usually outweigh the disadvantages, but this is not always the case. The personality characteristics of individual dogs, their breed type, their gender and spay/neuter status, their early socialization and later experiences all influence how likely it is that two or more dogs in the same family will get along.

It’s common for dog owners to “explain away” the first several fights their dogs may have. Reasons include one dog not feeling well, one having a bad day, one was protecting something, or one was mad at the other over a perceived slight or special treatment. In our experience, once fighting begins, fights will continue to occur, even if intermittently, without good professional intervention. If your dogs are fighting you should consider contacting your veterinarian immediately so that possible medical reasons (there are a number of possibilities) can be evaluated and if medical problems are ruled out, may refer you to a behavior or training professional.

We suspect that even when outright fighting isn’t occurring among family dogs, in many cases the behavior of one dog is adversely affecting the quality of life of another. There are a number of steps you can take to improve the relationship among the dogs in your family that in our experience reduce the chances of fighting. And in most (but not all) cases warning signs that the relationship was in trouble were evident before a fight occurred. When you know what preventative steps to take and warning signs of problems, you are better equipped to help your dogs benefit from each other’s company and live peaceably together.

3 Steps to Consider to Improve Relationships Among Family Dogs and Minimize Conflict

1. Feed each dog from his/her own bowl, and place the bowls in different locations rather than next to one another. Don’t allow one dog to take food from another’s bowl.

2. Exciting potentially competitive situations, are common contexts for fights. Don’t allow dogs to rush through doorways, hallways or down stairs while pushing and shoving one another. Have the dogs sit, stay or wait, or even guide one or both dogs on leash. Create a predictable order of who follows who which will stop any “jockeying for position”.

3. Try to provide multiple “copies” of favored or new toys. If you have 2 dogs, buy 3 of the exact same toy, so that one toy is always available. If one dog consistently guards or hoards all the toys, that’s a big red warning sign that a fight could be in the future (see warning signs below).

3 Warning Signs of Unhealthy Family Dog Relationships

1. One dog regularly “bullies” or threatens the other, even though the victim dog is trying to avoid conflict. It’s not acceptable for one dog to try to prevent another’s access from virtually everything important, such as toys, access to the owner, or ability to run and play.

2. “Play” that is too intense or really isn’t play at all. Play is characterized by play bows and a variety of behaviors, including pawing, rolling over, chasing, and pretend biting. Interactions that consist primarily of one dog threatening or chasing the other, and the second dog running away or acting afraid or defensive, are more likely signs of bullying than play.

3. One dog consistently staring at the other for a considerable time, especially if this is accompanied by stalking or extreme body tenseness and causes the other dog to be fearful.

If you see these signs repeatedly, it may be time to call a behavior or training professional.


Dr. Suzanne Hetts and her husband Dr. Dan Estep are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists. They provide professional behavior education services online, and resources to prevent and resolve pet behavior problems to both pet pros and pet owners. Coral, their diva-dog Irish setter provides daily inspiration. - See more at:


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