The Dynamics of Canine Social Structures

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

My dog, Crisco, and I just moved into a house owned by a friend who also owns a dog, Radar. Both dogs are neutered males of about the same size and age, but Crisco is a wimp. Radar keeps trying to jump on Crisco and I keep stopping him because I don’t want him to hurt my dog. My housemate insists I’m only making things worse. Who’s right?

Watching dogs wrangle to work out a stable social can frazzle our nerves to the point we feel driven to abort the process any way we can. And nowhere do we feel more driven to do this than when our own dog seems likely to get the worst of it. Even so, it may make sense to resist that urge for several very sound canine behavioral reasons.

First,  dogs need a stable social structure to feel comfortable. And dogs establish that stable structure via ritualized behaviors designed to conserve energy and keep the peace. For example, if Radar wants to be leader he may place his front paws on Crisco’s shoulders to signal his dominance. If Crisco goes down, rolls over, exposes his abdomen, and maybe even urinates, he signals his willingness to accept a subordinate position and that ends it.

Although Crisco’s response may break his owner’s heart, consider what happens if he doesn’t go down. Under those circumstances, he and Radar most likely will fight until one dog manages to pin the other to the ground, i.e, forces him to assume that subordinate posture.

Owners or other people who try to interfere with this natural and essential peace-keeping process make life more difficult for their pets on two fronts. One: they force their dogs to live in an unstable mental environment relative to each other. This creates tension and stress that may undermine the animals’ behavioral and/or physical health. Two: human interference feeds more energy into the process. While initially Crisco and Radar  were willing to circle, sniff, and otherwise exchange more subtle body language cues to communicate their status and possibly head off a fight, the awareness that someone may try to stop them may propel them immediately into the fight mode.

As if all this weren’t bad enough, people who yell at, hit, squirt, or otherwise try to break up fighting dogs also may incite their pets to put more energy into their displays than the dogs would if left alone. This occurs because canine rank-establishing and predatory behaviors occur on the same continuum, with the former being a less energetic version of the latter. If Crisco’s owner feeds a lot of sound, motion, and other stimuli into the process, she may drive two dogs engaged in  lower-energy ritualistic displays for rank into harder-mouthed predatory ones during which the animals sink their teeth into each other deeply.

Such owner input also may precipitate even more disaster if Crisco perceives his owner as his valuable possession. Under those circumstances, and wimp though he may be, he may interpret her distress as a reason to attack Radar even more fiercely to protect his owner. If she tries to pull Crisco off Radar, she stands a good chance of being bitten by her own pet who would, quite rightfully, view this as gross insubordination on her part.

So what should owners do when their dog fights with other dogs? Ideally they should stay out of it, especially if they know the dog takes a proprietary view of them. If human emotions negate doing that, one strategy involves observing the fight long enough to determine who’s getting the worst of it and yanking the loser’s hind legs out from under him. Because the dogs are fighting to determine rank, helping the winner assert his position can shorten that process.

But this often may be easier said that done for multiple reasons. A big one is that those who don’t recognize the vital role a stable social structure plays in canine well-being may see sticking up for the underdog as the only caring response to a dog fight. However once we realize what a wonderful energy-conserving, peace-keeping system those canine scuffles represent, we can respond in a manner that will enhance rather than undermine this process.