Recently I had a discussion with good friends and colleagues about how to handle difficult cases in which two dogs have engaged in extremely serious fights in the home. We found ourselves sorting through what factors need to be considered if re-homing is on the table. This is a common problem brought to behaviorists; I must have seen hundreds of clients who had dogs who did not get along. At all. I don’t mean dogs who had minor tiffs, or dogs who were occasionally possessive-aggressive (“My couch! My human!), but dogs who had truly serious issues and were making life at home less than relaxing, if not downright dangerous. Sometimes they had serious, injurious fights, sometimes one dog lived in obvious terror of the other, even though actual fights were rare or non existent, and sometimes the owners managed the situation but the dogs could never, ever, be allowed to be in the same room with the risk of extreme stress or injury.
Some cases appear to be so serious that they call for the immediate re-homing of one dog, but that is a lot easier to do if you’re not the one who is in love with both dogs. Or can’t imagine either dog going to a good home if you decide to give it up. Or believe that it is never ethical to send one dog from one family into another. Cases like these can make the decision terribly difficult, which is why it is tremendously helpful to have a template of questions to consider when faced with a difficult decision: Continue to try to treat the problem, manage the problem, or rehome one of the dogs? Here is my list, with gratitude to colleagues Kelly, Meg and Jamie for the inclusion of their wisdom and experience:
Job one is risk assessment. That is always true when one is dealing with aggression, and it is equally true here. First and foremost, you need to ask: How dangerous are the fights to the dogs? Noisy skirmishes are unpleasant and upsetting, but don’t always lead to any damage, either physically or psychologically. Have there been 5 instances of growls and brief tiffs, or have the dogs engaged in several fights in which one dog or both dogs were badly injured? I’ve had numerous clients who told me, with clear confidence, that one of their dogs wants to kill the other. I’ve had many clients whose dogs injured the other horrifically, and could barely be pulled off before the other dog was killed. I would never say never, but once things have escalated to that point, the odds of either dog being safe again is small.
In addition, what about the risk to the owners? We all know that breaking up a dog fight can be dangerous. I’ve had plenty of owners bitten by dogs while doing so. I well remember, how could I forget?, holding two fighting female Border Collies up in the air, each grasped by the base of the tail and lifted off the ground as advised by the books. (“If you lift the hindquarters from the ground the dogs will stop fighting.”) These visiting bitches (don’t you love that I can say bitch here?) had not read that chapter and were going at it like food processors on WHIP when my Great Pyrenees, Tulip, ran around the corner, leapt into the air with a roaring bark, scared the crap out of all three of us, and ended the fight then and there. But most of us don’t have a Great Pyrenees in our pocket when a fight starts, and can be at great risk when trying to break up an altercation. I’ve had client who were badly bitten by their own dogs, some who were seriously injured in other ways (injured knees, bad backs, etc.) and some who had to be hospitalized. There are ways to break up a fight that decrease the chance of being injured (don’t grab collars, grab the base of the tail or try to use a door or board between the dogs, etc.) but the fact is that there is always a danger, and it’s important to ask what is the chance that someone could be injured by one of the dogs.
Risk assessment is all about probabilities and consequences, and how willing people are to play the odds when they aren’t in their favor. Because a decision about whether to treat, manage only or re-home has to be based on the probability of success, there is something important to keep in mind: whether one will bet on relatively bad odds is always dependent upon the consequences. In other words, what would happen if management broke down, and someone forgot to close a door? Or there was a regression during treatment? How serious would a mistake or setback be? If losing the bet meant that the two dogs get into a short scuffle, some people might say “Well, if the odds are 5-10% it might happen again, that would be acceptable.” But if the consequence of a fight is a serious injury, several serious injuries to multiple victims, or even death (and yes, that is definitely a possibility in some cases), most people wouldn’t accept 10% odds, perhaps not even 1%. A willingness to take risks is very personal, so each dog owner has to decide what level of risk they are willing, and comfortable, to take.
Management: Speaking of probability, what is the probability that management can be accomplished 100% correctly? If the dog isn’t re-homed, then management will be a key to safety, both during treatment or if the dogs are simply going to be kept separate for the rest of their life. Owners must realistically assess how likely it is that they can manage the dogs 100% of the time. That means no mistakes, no absent-minded forgetting to shut a door or drop food between the dogs. I’d estimate that a significant number of clients can manage things safely for a period of months during treatment, but very few for a the life time of the dogs. That is why one must ask: What does a regression look like? A horrific fight in which the two dogs both need medical care and the owner goes to the hospital? If things are that serious, the odds of of it happening again don’t have to be very high to suggest that re-homing should be high on the list of considerations.
Quality of Life for the Dogs: One very important question to ask relates to the dog’s quality of life. In many cases, the dogs have made it clear that they are extremely stressed in each others presence. In this situation, the dogs are absolutely aware that the other dog is living in the house, and that all it takes is an open door for one dog to attack the other. In other words, without needing the cognitive ability of a human, dogs can be well aware that they are living on the edge of serious injury or death at any given moment. I describe it to my clients as living in a house with a serial killer on the other side of the door, when you have no ability to control when the door is opened. A difficult way to live indeed.
Quality of Life for the Owners: And of course, an incredibly difficult way for the owners to live, too. I’ve had several hundred clients (over 25 years) in similar situations, and to a person they have told me that after they re-homed one of the dogs they had no idea, absolutely none, how exhausting it was to live with the stress of 2 dogs who wanted to kill one another until after one of the dogs left. I absolutely understand (been there, done that) how painful it is to re-home a dog you love. Truly, I absolutely get it. It needs to be acknowledged; it is like a death in a way. But if two dogs are truly hell bent on hurting each other, it is also giving life back to the dogs, and back to one’s self, given how stressful and exhausting it is to have one’s home the middle of a battlefield. One potential that has helped many clients is to board one dog, or send it to a friend (obviously this must be a safe scenario). Give it a 3 days, 5 days or a week, and see what life is like with just one dog. It is usually so very much easier to make a decision when the dogs are not sitting at your feet while you are talking.
It’s all about the dog. The toughest cases are the ones in which the owners adore both dogs, but the dogs truly despise one another. It happens, and it is heartbreaking, but in those cases, I would argue that love means putting the dogs first. I know, ouch. But better to make the tough decision and get it behind you than living every day in fear that something horrible is about to happen.
Remember here that I am talking about worst case scenarios. Many cases of dogs not getting along can be handled without having to consider re-homing. (See Feeling Outnumbered book and DVD for ideas about how to prevent and manage minor to moderate stress between dogs.) However, sometimes dogs dislike each other as much as some people do, and forcing them to live together can create serious problems to their and the owner’s safety. I hope you haven’t even been in that situation, but if you have, or have worked on this with clients, I’d love to hear from you.
MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE FARM: Several of my friends are at the sheep dog trial I’d be at if Willie hadn’t been recovering from an injury all summer. True confessions, I’m a little bummed that we’re not there ourselves. When the weather prediction was hot and humid it didn’t feel so bad, but today the weather is perfect and I’d love to be hanging out with friends watching great dogs work and–hope springs eternal–feeling good or inspired or educated–by our own run. But still, Willie got to move the sheep up into the pasture this morning, and maybe maybe, he’ll be healthy enough to go to a friends and work her sheep this afternoon. He worked the most ever (since early spring) on Friday, and he clearly needed a rest yesterday. So we are just taking it one day at a time. None of this bothers Willie of course, he is thrilled to be off leash and playing outside and romping with his rubber stick and getting to work sheep, even if not for very long. Right now he’s napping in his crate (door open, his choice, he loves it) and just looking at him makes me happy.
And then, of course, there’s food, always a way to make me happy. Yesterday was pretty much all about food. Not so much eating it, but processing the gazillion pounds of it that streams into the house this time of year from our CSA (Vermont Valley Community Farm), along with our yard and gardens of others. I made apple-pear-plum butter (plums from behind the farmhouse, apples and pears from a friend’s), put massive amounts of eggplant, broccoli and corn in the freezer, cooked up edamame beans and soaked black beans to make a bean/bean/corn salad today, cleaned and cooked up green beans with butter and bacon (I know, I know) for dinner last night with roast chicken and potatoes. What else…. ? Oh yes, I made Zucchini Yum again, which uses zucchini (thank god), tomatoes (praise be to heaven) and onions all at once, freezes really well and is, well, really yummy. Here it is before I popped it in the freezer:
The rest of the weekend has been about seeing good friends and gardening, (read: Trisha and Jim dig like field hands trying to re-establish gardens after major earth moving work done earlier in the summer), and processing food. I’ll spare you the photographs of ugly patches of dug up dirt and me looking like I crawled out of a ditch. Here’s something a bit better: A healthy bee in the garden.
Just one more thing. As much as I love having fresh, local, organic food, please do not mention the word “tomato,” “eggplant” or “zucchini” to me. I’m just saying.