Letting Dogs “Fight It Out”

Does the common advice to “Let your dogs work out their own problems” really make sense? Learn when it’s okay to stand back, and when you’ve got a potentially serious problem on your hands.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #182

Fairly often, I hear from listeners worried because their dogs are getting into fights with each other. And, fairly often, those listeners have gotten the advice to “let the dogs work it out.” Dogalini and Zippy, it’s said, are just sorting out their rank and as soon as one of them is clearly the alpha dog, peace will be restored. This week: when to let your dogs settle their own disputes, and when it’s dangerous to let things go.

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Easy answer first: You can let your dogs work out their own arguments if, and only if, there’s not much to work out. Five factors to look for:

Factor #1: Fair Warnings -- and Not Too Often, Either

The dogs give each other warnings, like a growl or a curled lip, when one has annoyed the other. And warnings happen only occasionally.

You should only let your dogs work out their own arguments if there’s not much to work out in the first place.

What’s “occasionally”? It depends! Most behaviorally healthy adult dogs will put up with a fair bit of pestering from young puppies. When the puppy hits the 4- or 5-month mark, expect the adult dog to take less guff; there may be some fierce-sounding scuffles for a few days, as Middle School–Age Dogalini learns the new rules. As for two adult dogs, I would raise my eyebrows if they were making ugly faces at each other every day, even if they didn’t actually fight.

Factor #2: The Dogs Respect Each Other’s Warnings

The recipient of that growl or lip curl or snap doesn’t persist in doing whatever annoyed her housemate dog, whether that’s trying to take a favored toy or soliciting play when the other dog prefers to rest. Nor does she retaliate; she just backs off.

Factor #3: The Dogs Are At Ease with Each Other

Most of the time, the dogs’ body language around each other is friendly and relaxed. They don’t have to be besties, but you don’t see Zippy slinking past Dogalini while she’s on her bed. You don’t see the dogs ostentatiously looking away from each other and ignoring each other. Dogalini doesn’t leave the room when Zippy comes in. You can pet each dog without the other shoving him out of the way or curling a lip at him.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).