My Dog is Starting to Attack his Mother: 7 Steps to Regain Peace

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We’ve already covered a few different cases where dogs don’t get along, but this Ask a Behavior Consultant post is different. If you’re dealing with aggression between dogs in your home, you may want to check out these other topics as well:

As some background, our anonymous writer has an 18-month-old male Great Dane. He’s always gotten along well with his mother, another Great Dane owned by the writer’s mother. Lately, he’s started to growl and attack – no blood yet – whenever they’re in close proximity. This is often triggered by food or a prized sleeping space but has expanded to include fights in tight quarters with no apparent trigger. The Dane’s canine mother will fight back, but so far she isn’t picking fights too.

There are a few things that are interesting about this case:

  1. The dogs are related and have known each other since the puppy’s birth.
  2. The dogs have a previously good relationship.
  3. These problems are appearing as the male hits sexual/social maturity. Aggression often rears its head around 18 months of age. He is intact, but most studies show neutering has no effect on aggression.
  4. These are very large dogs living together in a single household. If this situation escalates, it could easily become quite dangerous for all involved.

So What Should We Do?

Intrahousehold aggression can be exhausting and scary to deal with, but we’ve got well-established steps to work on improving the situation. This is a broad overview. For real help, we recommend working with a 1:1 behavior consultant to navigate potential difficulties.

  1. Mitigate, manage, avoid. The most important thing to do first is to “stop the bleed.” Using gates, doors, leashes, and communication between humans, the dogs cannot be able to continue fighting. If we are not in “trainer mode” and aren’t 100% sure that the dogs will not get into a fight, there needs to be 1+ physical barriers separating the dogs. This is tricky with dogs sharing a household, but is important.
  2. Vet Check. While aggression often shows up around 18 months of age (if it’s going to show up), it’s also important to check with a skilled veterinarian if you’re seeing a sudden behavior change. The aggressor could be struggling with pain, GI issues, seizures, hormonal or endocrine imbalances, or a variety of other things. All of these can cause increases in irritability or aggression. This may warrant a special trip to a behavior specialist, not your general vet. Treating the underlying medical conditions and/or providing the dog with appropriate behavior medications sets you up for success.
  3. Teach Helpful Skills. Obedience will not fix aggression, but having some cues in your dog’s repertoire will help. At a minimum, I like to teach dogs a hand target and a “go to mat” behavior. In this case, we’ll use hand targets to move the dogs around each other and a mat behavior to send the dogs away from each other. Teach these skills while the dogs are 100% separated and get to the point that both dogs can comply with the cues around a variety of distractions (for a fun list of distractions and suggestions for building up to them, check out the “Can You Listen When” game).
  4. Familiarize Yourself with Safety Skills. Our goal going forward is to avoid any more fights, but mistakes happen. Check out this article on 7 ways to break up a dog fight to ensure you’re ready if a slip-up occurs.
  5. Carefully Rebuild the Dog’s Relationship. There are often specific times and places that the dogs CAN get along. Usually, we find success in walking the dogs together. Find times and places that the dogs get along 100% of the time and capitalize on that. Remember, the dogs are separated otherwise. Ensure that the dogs continue having a safe, friendly relationship wherever possible.
  6. Put Your Training Wheels On. Now it’s time to start reintroducing the dogs in careful setups. Don’t intentionally trigger the dogs, so find a time and place that is less stressful than mealtimes or a tight hallway. Have both dogs on leashes attached to firm objects AND a physical barrier between them. Put both dogs on their mats and start to feed them treats for looking at each other, then looking away. Start there, but over time move towards having the dogs move around, move closer together, or interact with valued resources. I’m being intentionally vague here because this stage of training is where you absolutely should have the guidance of a professional trainer. If you’d like to hire us for remote assistance, click here.
  7. Maintain the Peace. Sadly, we probably can’t expect these dogs to be 100% trustworthy together again. Expect to need to manage them during meal times, times of high excitement, in tight areas, and potentially other situations. After a series of fights, it’s best to be safe and leave the dogs physically separated whenever you’re not supervising AND in an extremely low-risk scenario.

I hope this helps you get started on the right foot to reduce fights between family member dogs. Check out our e-book on helping aggressive dogs if you need additional help or book a video training call with us.

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