I am working at my computer totally immersed in what I am doing when I hear a very odd sound coming from Deuce. I turn and see that Deuce, who was lying on a bed next to me, is completely smacked tight to the wall with his face also turned away towards the wall. Next to him lies a Kong that I had previously given him. As I turn a bit to my left, I see Rio approaching the Kong.
I realize then what was going on: Deuce had already abandoned his Kong even though it still had sardines in it. Rio, the hound that she is, wanted a second serving.
My dogs are very good at giving each other space when it comes to enjoying a Kong filled with goodies, a bone and the like. I also manage them closely to ensure that they enjoy the goods in peace.
Dogs wanting each other’s resources is absolutely normal dog behavior, as is negotiating for resources. I wish you could have seen these two interact as I did! There communication was a very clear rendition of ritualized aggression between dogs. What I mean by aggression being ritualized is that dogs will signal in all sorts of ways that they do not mean to harm and they much rather not get into a real fight.
You see, fighting is expensive. If you fight, you might be the one injured or dead, with no genes to pass on to the next generation.
Now let’s get back to the incident of the Kong lying next to Deuce and how they went about negotiating this situation.
Deuce as described, is lying and perhaps even snoozing with his Kong nearby. Rio approaches the Kong as she does thousands of times once Deuce had either finished his or decided he is done extracting the food. But this time, Deuce was communicating to Rio that he was not okay with her having the Kong. A clear case of: Hey! This is mine!
Deuce produced a very low growl with his body stiff and away from Rio (and the Kong). I noticed that he was totally adverting Rio by looking away from her. As a response to Deuce’s growl and his own body language, Rio stopped her approach to the Kong.
I immediately took stock of the situation by retrieving the Kong from the ground. I praised both dogs for not escalating the situation, but diffusing the conflict. I reached into the Kong and gave servings of sardines to both of the dogs. Once the Kong was empty we all went back to work and snoozing.
While I know my dogs well and I know how to make the best of a conflict like this, I am not suggesting for one second that people try this at home. It is always best to help the dogs not get into conflict over resources. Yes, aggression is a highly ritualized business- full of threats and accommodations, but dogs can also fight over resources. I would hate for someone to be bitten as they intervene between their two posturing dogs.
Now, there are a couple of interesting lessons to glean from a situation like this. I wish folks are made aware of and implement the following:
- Learn what is valuable for your dog. Dogs do have individual preferences and these preferences vary depending on satiation levels (for that resource at a given time) and the context.
- Manage any resource that dogs find somewhat valuable. Again, this will be different for any group of dogs living together.
- Learn to read (observe) dog body language as this (and vocalization) are the best avenues we have in understanding a situation. For example: Deuce could have given Rio a hard stare, exposing his teeth, but instead he diffused by looking away from Rio.
- Reinforce your dogs when they act as peace makers instead of fighters. Remember that laws of learning tell us that whatever behavior we reinforce we will see more of. In this situation here, the reinforcer was to pay each dog with what they wanted at the moment. The specific behaviors that I was reinforcing were both dogs diffusing the situation and communicating to each other: Deuce by growling at Rio and freezing while looking away; and Rio by stopping in her tracks when she heard Deuce growl, instead of engaging on a full-on physical fight.
There are always dogs that will choose to fight first, skipping most of the ritualized aspects of conflict. They have learned that fighting (I am describing fighting as physical contact that may produce damage – or not) pays off. However, (most) of these dogs can also be taught that fighting is not necessarily the best option. Most dogs, however; will posture and engage in ritualized behaviors instead of fighting, or they will give ample warning even before a fight takes place.