Case Study: Stress and Fights in a New Home Living with Another Dog

Sep 2, 2019 | Animal Behavior, Pet Guardians, Training

Fights when aroused

© Theo Stewart

An elderly family member is no longer able to look after her dog, so her Cairn terrier Ben has gone to live with a couple and their dog Bonnie, a Labrador cocker spaniel mix. She’s small in size, no bigger than a cocker.


Each dog is great individually but being together is a challenge for both of them. In the short while that Ben has been living with his new family, there have been a couple of fights and another few altercations that the owners have interrupted. Six-year-old Bonnie is used to being the only dog in the household. She’s extremely well behaved. However, Ben “stirs her up” and as soon as there is any arousal in the air it upsets her and she growls at him. Although Ben submits and appeases, she may still go for him. If she does, he retaliates and she comes off worse. One of the fights resulted in a $125 vet bill for damage around Bonnie’s eye.

Dramatic Change

Ben has a lot of habituating to daily life and getting used to things. Previously, he lived in a very quiet place with an elderly lady. He is terrified of things like the vacuum cleaner, lawn mower and hosepipe. On walks he is scared of vehicles and bicycles. Because of the built-up effect of stress and tension, he is likely to be in a permanently emotionally aroused state inside the home. It is this inner stressed state and fears that Bonnie may be picking up on.

There was graphic evidence of this when I was at the home. The cat, who had been keeping out of Ben’s way, got too close to him and jumped up onto the kitchen counter in a panic. Bonnie’s immediate reaction was one of aggression towards the cat. This never normally happens as she and the cat get on very well.

Bonnie is struggling to cope with Ben’s emotional arousal. The aggressive incidents happen at predictable times when there is excitement or barking. She will try to hump Ben. When the humans are out of the way, however, the dogs relax. They sleep. When the couple goes out, they come back to drowsy dogs.

Another factor makes it vital that there are no more fights. They have a friend with an 8-year-old boy coming to live with them in the very near future. The child is wary of dogs. So, we will work on the root cause of the problem that is causing the fights: Ben’s state of mind. He needs desensitizing and counterconditioning to all those fears he’s having to cope with. The couple should, for now, completely avoid those that they can – like the vacuum cleaner and the hosepipe. There is enough other stuff to deal with.

Enjoying walks is a priority, so they will work on Ben’s fear of traffic. At a distance Ben is comfortable with, they will associate moving vehicles with special tasty food. Without the deadline and concerns about the child coming, they could have relaxed and taken their time, but this puts a bit of urgency into the situation. However, it’s important they take things a step at a time and not to rush it.

Being Together

When Ben first arrived in the home the dogs were freely together. Then there were the couple of fights. From then on, the dogs were kept totally apart, if not on a leash. Just before I conducted the in-home consult, this had progressed back to the dogs being together but separated if there were signs of trouble. I am worried, however, that this could occur too late.

In addition to helping Ben, there are the usual flash points of arousal that could result in fights. These include when someone comes to the house, if the dogs rush out into the garden barking, and if someone walks past the fence. Resources cause fights, so no balls, toys or food should be about when the two dogs are together.

Separated unless Calm

I prefer for now to keep the dogs apart. This should be the new default. They should only be together at selected and safe times, until the child and his mother have settled in anyway. It’s vital the two dogs no longer rehearse the behavior. Removing rehearsal will help to remove fights from their repertoire. I witnessed just how good the dogs are with one another in the short periods when nothing is “stirring them up.” This is a good sign and a good place to start.

NB: For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’. If you listen to ‘other people’ or find instructions on the internet or TV that are inaccurate, outdated, aversive or not tailored to your own dog it can do more harm than good. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in North America. Click here to find a force-free Pet Professional Guild trainer/behavior consultant in the British Isles and Europe.