Fighting Border Collies

I recently got a new Border Collie and it turns to nip my other Border Collie whenever I go to correct the new one. It also attacks other dogs that it meets on our walks. What should I do about it?

Well... it obviously depends on the particular situation. But with a knowledge of the functional reasons behind the behavior, we can use that knowledge to help us work with the situation.

For the dog that turns to its packmate and nips it in aggressive encounters with other entities, we then realize that there are a few things we can do to help prevent this (if it truly is a problem - I say this because I don't really consider it a problem unless it is dangerous to the other dog). One thing to do is to keep the other dog out of the situation when the tensions arise - e.g. if you don't want the vase smashed in an argument with your spouse, remove the vase when a conflict arises. Stepping in between the two dogs can prevent the reaction IF you are dominant to that dog. If you are dominant, then the other dog won't risk venting on you. If you aren't, then you may become the punching bag. And lastly, one could help reduce the aggressive tension in the dog by removing the dog from the situation, removing the aggressive target, or by redirecting the dog's focus to other activities (displacement behaviors). Since I believe it is the owner that is the origin of this behavior, the answer is to either remove the other dog before correction or to correct in a less aggressive manner.

For those with dog-aggressive dogs, obviously the first place to start is with proper puppy socialization. Dogs must realize that other dogs (or other people for people-aggressive dogs) are members of the same species and should not be seen as aggressive threats. This is why proper puppy socialization is so critical. However, "should haves" and "could haves" do not help these folks now. And even properly socialized dogs are going to display aggressive tendencies to other dogs and people at certain points (just like properly socialized human siblings or young playmates may demonstrate aggression to one another occasionally). Your dog can be socialized like crazy and still show aggression from time to time.

To deal with these circumstances, we must look to basic dog behavior to find mechanisms to help us cope with the problem. Obviously we can't turn back the hands of time. Some dogs can be resocialized, given enough exposure to other dogs or humans to realize that they should be accepted as non-threats. Others can't. For those we turn to one of the few tools we have left - alpha dominance. If we are truly the dominant alpha dog member, then we can use this to help prevent these behaviors. Of course, if the person isn't the alpha dog, we need to first correct this before having any hope of avoiding the other problems.

Assuming that this isn't the case, we utilize what we know with aggression and dominance to help us solve the problems. For dogs fighting in-house we do something completely different from aggressive dog encounters on the street with strange dogs. In-house, we first must realize that a hierarchy is inevitable. There is no such things as "equal" in the dog world. We also must realize that the dogs need to work this "pecking order" out for themselves. You may think you can impose a hierarchy on your own for whatever order you wish, but the dogs won't accept it entirely. Alpha dogs don't get in the middle of submembers' squabbles. For the most part, neither should you. Remember, out and out fighting is rare. It may sound like bloody murder but it isn't. Most aggression is simply show and for the most part, humans misinterpret this as more serious than it is. Breaking these up prevents the dogs from establishing their hierarchy - working it out for themselves. You may stop it now but the next time, when your back is turned, the more dominant dog will take that opportunity to REALLY put the other dog in its place. You can, for example, slowly establish your dominance over your little brother by moving him off the couch, flicking his ear, taking his toy away from him, all over a long period of time. None of these are very serious and yet taken together, convey a very strong sense of dominance. However, if you've only got one shot at it, you better make it count. This usually involves a baseball bat of some kind.

So, for the most part, people need to stay out of the in-house dog squabbles. By continually breaking them up (a natural human reaction), you're only setting them up for even more aggressive encounters. If you feel the need to step in, do so by coming down on the lesser dog, thereby reinforcing the hierarchy. This of course assumes you know who is more dominant. Most folks think they know but don't. In general, they should stay out of things. The only time to get involved is if it becomes serious - i.e. bloodshed is involved. At that point it must be broken up and both dogs must understand that serious disruptive aggression will not be tolerated by the alpha dog. Split them up and send them on their ways. Don't go overboard. You may have to patch a wound but don't do so coddling the animal. Show your displeasure at having to fix things that shouldn't have gotten to this point. For some closely matched dogs, the occasional cut or wound may be inevitable (as it is with kids). Just make your point and go on.

For dogs that are strangers, you must use your position as alpha dog to your advantage. YOU should be the one to initiate aggressive encounters. YOU should be the one to determine the course of action, not the lesser dog. Lesser dogs displaying aggression before the alpha are not tolerated. It isn't their position to get us into a fight if I don't want to.

So the first thing is to make sure you are alpha. Your dog should be looking to you to figure out what to do in any new encounter. For some folks, simply reestablishing their role as leader is enough to do this. You should lead the pack into new encounters - your dog shouldn't be pulling at the leash. Upon meeting a new dog, your dog is put into a down-stay behind you. You then approach the other dog (if you want to) and make the encounter. Then your dog should pick up on the cues from you and act accordingly.

For others, this is the first step. Even if they are the alpha dog and their dog is turning to them to pick up signals of what to do, their owner is displaying fear, panic, aggression, or other negative signs. The dog picks up on this and does exactly what it should do - come to the defense of its alpha dog. It becomes a self-perpetuating circle as the owner sees the aggression in its own dog in one encounter. In the next encounter, the owner fears more aggression, the dog picks up on the concern and reads this as a signal to become defensive, that encounter becomes aggressive, and the owner's concern grows even further with the next encounter. This is often where you need outside help to come in and help you interpret your cues and help you overcome your insecurity. It isn't easy but comes with time and lots of work.

For other circumstances, we'd have to know the entire scenario in order to be able to help. Physically abusing dogs can produce fear-aggressive dogs but it is not the only way. Improper socialization, improper alpha reaction and many other things can also produce an aggressive dog. Know what causes aggression in the first place and develop a solution based on that knowledge. This is why it is far more important to understand the underlying cause then to seek a rote solution to a generalized class of behaviors.

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Page last updated April 1, 1997. All material Copyright © 2004 Border Collie Rescue, Inc. and Dr. Nicholas B. Carter
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