Dog Fights: How the Presence of Dominance Aggression and Defensive Aggression Can Make For A BAD SITUATION! (And The Difference Between A Dog Fight And A Dominance Scuffle!)

(Originally written back in 2000) — Last week I recorded a one-hour audio tape interview with Pit Bull Expert, Breeder and Dog Trainer Leri Hansen.

The name of this audio tape program will be titled, “Pit Bull Ownership Success Secrets!” (the master copy of this program was lost, years ago.) This was to be the first in a series of audio tape programs I was going to be doing on several of the most popular breeds.

(We didn’t release the program on Pit Bull’s because of a malfunction with our recording equipment. We later got the problem fixed and have produced programs on both the Akita and the Rottweiler). But the reason I’m mentioning this now is that one of the topics we covered, albeit in the context of the history of the Pit Bull, is the subject of dog aggression.

While we didn’t have time to delve into the topic of dog aggression to the extent that many listeners would probably like (there’s MUCH more to Pit Bulls than simply dog aggression!)… I did want to devote some time to explaining the subject because… regardless of your breed of choice… sooner or later, you’ll be confronted by a potential dog fight.

Even if it isn’t your dog, it’s good to know what’s going on when you see two dogs interact. But first, let me point out the fact that not all dog fights are actually dog fights. Let me say that again, because it sounded VAGUELY IMPORTANT!

Not All Dog Fights Are Dog Fights!

Many of you already know my stand on dog parks. I don’t like them. There are many reasons for this: First, very few of the dogs are under voice control. Secondly, there’s no check for shots, or dogs with health problems or diseases. And third, the owners who frequent these parks rarely have an adequate understanding of canine social rituals, and don’t know the difference between:

A Dog Fight vs. A Dominance Scuffle!

And so there ends up being as many humans yelling and screaming at each other as there are dogs in conflict… because most owners don’t know the difference between a dog fight and a dominance scuffle! So, the question begs to be asked,

“What is a dominance scuffle and how is it different from a dog fight?”

Well… a dominance scuffle is quite simply: two dogs working out who’s the more dominant dog and who’s the subordinate dog. And while this may LOOK like a dog fight to the untrained eye… it’s much different.

Suffice to say that the major noticeable difference is that the dominance scuffle lacks the intensity that a real dog fight would have. And although there may be some light scratches, in general the dogs aren’t really biting to injure, but rather biting to give the other a correction.

This is similar to the type of thing you do when you give your dog a “pop” and “release” with your leash and dog training collar. A dominance scuffle may be accompanied by lots of barking, growling, snapping, yelping and rolling around… but it basically gets worked out in a matter of minutes with one dog submitting and going limp, and then the more dominant dog walking away.

Or the more submissive dog may retreat to a corner of the territory and assume a submissive body posture. Now, to understand a true dog fight, we will look at how the dominance scuffle goes awry.

Usually, one of three things happen in a true dog fight:

A.) Two super-dominant dogs engage, and both will fight to the death.

The reality of finding two such super-dominant dogs is pretty slim. Yes, it can happen. But it’s not the most frequent cause of dog fights.

B.) One dominant dog will engage a less dominant dog, but the less dominant dog will click into what we professional dog trainers call “Defense”… in which case, the dog now perceives itself as fighting for it’s life.

We usually see this type of behavior in a dog which has missed it’s six to eight week-old critical stage, where it learns from the other puppies in the litter how to interact with other dogs, I.E. dominance and submission. Defense without ultimate submission can also be learned if a dog within it’s first year of life is dominated by another dog, and upon submission, the more dominant dog doesn’t let up. And when the puppy learns that the submission doesn’t work… and he tries something else… Defense… and this defensive behavior is rewarded by the dominating dog (who may not be a truly dominant dog)… then the puppy learns that this is a behavior which works! Thus, it’s reinforced.

C.) Two Defensive Dogs engage each other. In this case, usually one of the dogs has learned that if he sees another dog, he takes the Mel-the-Cook-on-Alice attitude. As Mel, the Cook on the hit T.V. show “Alice,” used to say: “The Best Defense is a Good Offense!” So, the defensive dog starts the wheel spinning by attacking… but this attack is really based in fear and insecurity.

However, the dog who is being attacked now has no choice but to click into Defense, and counter-attack. And back and forth, until one of the dogs is dead, or outside interference breaks the dogs appart.

Now, the thing about Defense (with a capital ‘D’) is that the dog is not simply putting up a counter fight– which is what the dog in the dominance scuffle is doing– but rather perceives himself in a life-and-death situation. So, in other words, he’s not just jockeying for position. He’s fighting for his life! In a future article, I will discuss how to teach a defensive dog to tolerate… and in many cases, playfully interact… with other dogs it would formerly feel threatened by.

I used this technique on my dog, Forbes, a Pit Bull I adopted from the Hawthorne Animal Shelter. When I first got Forbes, he tried to kill my parent’s Rottweiler. (A miscommunication between owners unknowingly created a situation where both dogs where loose in the same area for a few moments!) Now, after successfully using this technique, these two dogs are best of friends and can play for hours without any problems. But it all comes down to using the right techniques.