My first case in the pandemic, in May 2020, was my first ever online case. Peppa and Zoey are two gorgeous INDog-mixes. Unfortunately they had been getting into vicious fights, with Peppa instigating most of them! It is extremely hard to assess dog behaviour online, and equally hard to gauge the human-dog relationship digitally.
They were both female and littermates i.e same age. We see a high prevalence of dog-to-dog issues in multidog households particularly if they are over bonded and/or of similar age, so my first thought was that it could be an issue of hierarchy. But there could be other reasons – Was Peppa fearful of dogs? Was she being territorial (there were specific “red zone” areas in the house such as the bedroom, under the table)? Was it rough play gone to an extreme? Was she perhaps guarding her humans? Were there underlying medical reasons? Video calls, videos and whatsapp groups were immensely helpful and that’s what we had to make do with to understand why Peppa and Zoey were fighting.
We spent the first couple sessions working to understand dog body language and improving basic obedience commands. All the while, asking and re-asking, answering and re-answering things about the past history of fights, early stage development, style of play, history with other dogs etc.
My best guesstimate was the dogs were tussling over their status. Dogs live in a hierarchy, one dog is always higher in the status of the other and this order can change with time as well. There was ample evidence of the humans interfering with the hierarchy – correcting the growls, trying to get them to share space etc. The behaviour program I laid out involved 1) figuring out who was “higher” and encouraging that dog i.e restoring the hierarchy and 2) being fluent in dog body language to understand when and when not to intervene, starting with the absolute basics – calming signals.
I don’t use terms like “alpha”, “dominance” and “leadership” because they are often misinterpreted. These terms came out by poor scientific research, studies which have long since been discredited, and are used incorrectly a lot. A good leader communicates well, and does so peacefully. To learn more about these terms, please read this, this and this.
Outdoors, Zoey was the more confident one, while Peppa following her every move. However, based on detailed previous history, I determined that Peppa was “higher” e.g earlier, she would go to Zoey’s bowl to eat, and Zoey would walk away. (Again, I’d advise you to refrain thinking about “alpha” and “dominance” here) I could not run behaviour tests by myself so there was a lot of QnA and video sharing with the humans. The humans needed to encourage Peppa (praised and given lots of attention!), and discourage/ignore Zoey in each other’s presence. The humans also had strict instructions to not interfere when it comes to their resources such as bedroom, toys, food, space, thereby allowing Peppa to decide for the dogs. Zoey was always allowed to walk or stay away. If the owners thought the situation was getting too tense, they had to ask Zoey to walk away, and side with Peppa. It got off to a good start and I felt like I was on the right track.
The goal was to get the dogs to communicate peaceably again. In the next few weeks, we saw a lot of “walking away” and “avoidance” of each other. Soon, they were seen sharing space in the same room. Of course, there were some tense moments, some growls here and there but this is totally okay and normal. Peppa and Zoey are learning to communicate with each other better, and their humans are learning to understand and respect how their dogs live and communicate.