When one dog in a home starts to attack another, an owner will often contact me in distress, fearful that they will have to re-home one of their beloved dogs and at a loss to provide any clue as to what has caused the attacks. "They are completely random," an owner will say.

As a life-long observer of dog behavior, I have learned that dogs never do anything randomly; their actions are orchestrated by a combination of instinctual and learned behaviors.

So unless a dog is suffering from a serious medical condition that causes it to lash out in rage attacks without warning, or is genetically predisposed to an aggressive temperament, these outbursts are usually caused by an owner's failure to establish rules and boundaries for the dog's behavior.

The owners never see the attacks coming because they miss the clear indicators the dog gives signaling his intent and fail to block the dog's decision to attack, which the dog interprets as verification that he is making the right choice.

To compound the problem, once an attack is in progress the owner may yell or scream, which increases the excitement level and may have more of a cheerleading effect than the desired one of disapproval.

Then to add insult to injury, the owner reprimands the attacker and has a pity-party for the dog that was attacked, which places a bigger target on the weaker dog's back.

Sound confusing? How's this for an example?

Two dogs with no rules or boundaries for their behavior co-exist peacefully most of the time. When the youngest starts to mature it begins to display dominant posture and bullies its more passive housemate. As time goes on the younger dog attempts to control the other's movements and access to resources such as sleeping places, toys or the owners. When the weaker dog (determined by the energy it projects, not necessarily size) commits any perceived violation, the more dominant dog instinctively disciplines the other dog to emphasize its position. This may start with simple body blocks, but soon may escalate to full-blown displays that almost always occur in the owner's presence.

Because the owner never suspects or recognizes the dominant dog's intent or warning signs, no attempt is made to deflect the dog's intentions before they can be acted on. In other words, the owner is behaving like a passive observer rather than a decisive leader.

This is further aggravated when the owner gives sympathetic attention to the attacked dog and punishes the attacker for a behavior he perceives he was being given permission for, which in turn only creates more conflict for this already insecure dog.

The good news? Attacks that amount to no more than bruised feelings, wet fur and jangled owner nerves can usually be resolved immediately when owners start acting like leaders and educate themselves to recognize instinctive signals dogs use to communicate.

Without changing our own behavior, how can we ask our dogs to change theirs?


Bakersfield Pet Food Pantry's emergency pet food distribution has moved!

It's now at 4700 Easton Drive, No. 29. It's open from 11 a.m. to noon Saturdays.

-- Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at csi4k9s@yahoo.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.