When your dogs fight with each other.
Dog fights are scary.
They are loud and furious and intense. While most end almost as quickly as they start and with little more than lots of flying fur and superficial scratches, some end with severe injury to one or more of the dogs involved. Some even result in death.
But what happens when the dogs in question are your dogs? What happens when there is no identifiable trigger? What happens when the fight ends with serious damage to one or more of your beloved dogs?
For more than a decade, I have had a multi-dog household. It’s time consuming and more expensive and multiple dogs produce exponentially greater amounts of dog hair and dirt than you would think. There has to be some Neil Degrasse Tyson advanced physics and mathematics formula that explains how three dogs living under the same roof can produce forty two times as much mess as three individual dogs but they also produce exponentially more love and puppy kisses so it all works out.
Last summer, I packed up my whole life, including my crew of three (Simon, Piper and Zora), and moved to Kansas City, MO to become the VP of Operations at a local animal shelter. Within weeks of arriving, my oldest dog, 14 1/2 year old, Zora let me know that she was ready to depart the physical world. It was devastating and I decided that we would not be bringing a third dog back into the house for quite some time. Famous last words…
Enter office foster, Lila, formerly Patsy, in November of 2017. It was an immediate love-fest. Lila is a sweet, mild-mannered love bug that just gently crawled into my lap and my heart. Protest as I might, it was pretty obvious that Lila was going to be coming home with me.
I knew that female dogs don’t always get along but Piper had lived with Zora since she was a puppy with no issues and Lila had displayed only submissive behavior with all other dogs when behaviorally assessed at the shelter. Still, I wanted to do everything right in terms of setting Piper, Simon and Lila up for success. We started by having members of the shelter’s behavior team do a dog-to-dog introduction with Lila and Simon and then with Lila and Piper.
All went beautifully so we decided to do a Slumber Party – a week long trial just to make sure everything would go smoothly with bringing Lila into the home. Again, all went well so we made it official. We continued with our practice of crating for meals and supervising toy play to minimize resource guarding. We crated and rotated a fair amount in order to give everyone down time and followed best practice guidelines for introducing new dogs to an existing crew.
As she became more comfortable, Lila started to show us her puppy-like silly side – she bounces like Tigger – and her snuggly, people-pleasing personality helped her pass the Humane Education dog certification test. Lila took appropriate corrections from both Simon and Piper and the three dogs started playing together, sleeping together and settling into a routine. It seemed like we had found a wonderful “new normal.” Aside from a few very minor “sibling scuffles”, there were no major issues for the first six months.
April 13, 2017
This is an embarrassing and difficult story to tell. Embarrassing because it’s not a story I ever thought I would have to tell. As someone who works daily in animal welfare, I know how judgmental people can be about bully breed type dogs and about the choices that some people have to make about rehoming a pet. Difficult because I fiercely love all of my dogs and I brought Lila into the family so I feel tremendous guilt about the story I am about to share.
I have never been particularly superstitious. In fact, Friday the 13th has always been a pretty average day for me. Actually, it has typically been a pretty great day. All that changed this past April 13th. My world was turned upside down when Lila and Piper got into a horrific fight.
Lila, who is two, and Piper, almost four, were out in the yard, relaxing in the sun, with supervision, when a fight started that was loud enough and lasted long enough for my neighbor from two doors down to hear what was happening and rush down to help break up the fight. To his credit, Simon did a full on “Peace. Out” and took himself up on the porch out of the fray.
The good news is that neither dog redirected on a person as every attempt was made to break up the fight: water was thrown on the dogs; the metal dustpan was banged loudly against the porch railing; every effort was made to distract the dogs. It wasn’t until my neighbor opened and slammed the gate that the fighting finally stopped. When the dust settled, Lila had a few superficial scratches and two gashes that would require a single staple each but Piper was a bloody mess that resulted in a weeklong stay in the ICU and ultimately the loss of her left eye.
This has been one of the most traumatic things I’ve ever had to deal with and it has taken its toll on everyone – except for maybe Simon because he’s kind of oblivious and he doesn’t have to be crated at all since he can be out with both Lila and Piper. We have been crating and rotating in separate rooms since the incident which is exhausting and emotionally challenging for everyone in the house.
While Piper has healed from her wounds and is navigating her physical world like a champ (dogs are truly resilient), she has definitely not forgiven or forgotten Lila’s behavior. Piper has become a bit more tentative and more reactive when other dogs approach on walks and she is stressed when she hears Lila in the other room. We are slowly rebuilding her confidence. Thankfully, Piper and Simon are fine and Piper has relaxed enough to start initiating play with him again.
Keeping Lila and Piper separated at all times is also having a negative impact on Lila who wants to be with her people all the time and is struggling with more time in the kennel. With more time in the kennel, Lila is regressing a bit on some of the training progress we had made prior to the incident.
Why Did My Dogs Fight?
Was it because it was Friday the 13th? Was it the weather? We’d had tornado warnings all that afternoon. Was it something specific that no one saw that triggered the fight? Was it same sex aggression?
While most fights start with some sort of trigger such as resource guarding food, treats or toys, same-sex dogs don’t always require a trigger to start a fight. With Lila and Piper’s fight, there was no identifiable trigger. Some dogs will fight to establish dominance or to eliminate a potential rival, making warning signs difficult to catch or interpret.
I called a behaviorist to come assess the situation. It took her less than ten minutes of observing my dogs to determine that Lila is not dog aggressive, as she has no issues with Simon and has never displayed any aggression towards other dogs we see on our walks or when I take her to work with me at the shelter. However, after seeing the damage Lila did to Piper, the behaviorist was absolutely clear that Lila should not live with Piper, as this type of fight is statistically guaranteed to happen again should Lila and Piper ever have access to one another. She was quite clear that Lila should be re-homed as either an only dog or only with a larger, chill male dog.
As I said, I was aware that there is a greater chance of issues between dogs of the same sex, particularly if both are females. What I didn’t know was that even if both dogs have been altered, as is the case with Lila and Piper, when they reach 2-4 years of age, female dogs still reach “sexual maturity” which can lead to increased tension and potential conflicts. While this is true for every breed when the dogs involved are high energy, high arousal dogs, the consequences can be severe as they were with Lila and Piper.
When the behaviorist told us that Lila could no longer live with Piper, I was devastated. While I knew it was unlikely, I was hoping that she would have some magic formula for how we could go back to how things had been prior to the incident. For several months, we tried crating and rotating but it created stress and tension for all involved. While I am extremely fortunate that my daughter is going to be able to move out on her own (Yay!! And, FINALLY – but that’s a story for another post 😉 ) and take Lila with her, it has taken several months for us to find an affordable housing option that allows dogs. As luck has it, my daughter and Lila will be moving in just five houses down the block but I realize this is not an option for everyone and I know that the decision to re-home a pet is soul-crushing, even if it’s the right decision for all involved.
Have you experienced a dog fight in your home?
As always, this is a judgment-free zone and I want to create a safe and supportive space for anyone to share your experiences with dogs in a multi dog household fighting with each other. All of us, but especially those of us in animal welfare, need to do a better job of setting aside the “holier than thou” ‘tudes so please share your experiences below in the comments and let’s have a productive discussion. (Note: All negative comments will be held for a future post)