An elderly family member is no longer able to look after her dog and he now has a new home. Cairn Terrier Ben has gone to live with the couple and their dog Bonnie.
Bonnie is a Labrador Cocker Spaniel mix (the Labrador next door called to visit the mother dog!). She’s small, no bigger than a Cocker.
A couple of fights
Each dog is great individually but being together is a challenge for both. In the short while that Ben has been living with them, there have been a couple of fights and another few altercations that they have interrupted.
Six-year-old Bonnie is used to being the only dog in the household. She’s extremely well behaved and obedient. However, Ben stirs her up and as soon as there is any arousal in the air it upsets her. She growls at him. Although Ben submits and appeases, once she goes for him he retaliates and she comes off worse.
One of the fights resulted in a hundred-pound vet bill for damage around Bonnie’s eye.
Ben’s life has changed dramatically.
Ben has a lot of habituating to daily life and getting used to things. He lived in a very quiet place with an old lady.
He is terrified of home things like the vacuum cleaner, lawn mower and hose. On walks he is scared of vehicles and bicycles.
Because of the built-up effect of stress and tension, at the moment he will be in permanent aroused state inside.
It’s his inner stressed state and fears that Bonnie is probably picking up on. This makes her reactive.
There was graphic evidence when I was there. The cat who had been keeping out of Ben’s way, got too close to Ben. She jumped up onto the kitchen side in a panic. Bonnie’s immediate reaction was of aggression towards the cat. This never normally happens as she and the cat get on very well.
Bonnie can’t cope with Ben’s arousal and this is causing the fights.
The incidents happen at predictable times when there is excitement or barking. She will hump Ben. I feel she’s attempting to relieve her own inner stress whilst trying to get some control over him.
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.
A child is coming to live with them
Another factor makes it vital that there are no more fights. They have a friend with an eight-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 desensitising and counter-conditioning to all those fears he’s having to cope with.
The couple should, for now, completely avoid those that they can – like vacuum cleaner and hose. There is enough other stuff to deal with.
Enjoying walks is a priority, so they will work on his fear of traffic. From a distance from them that Ben’s comfortable, 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 don’t rush it (a stitch in time saves nine and all that).
When should the dogs be together?
When Ben first arrived the dogs were freely together. Then there were the couple of fights.
Next the dogs were kept totally apart if not on lead.
Just before I came this had progressed back to the dogs being together – separated if there were signs of trouble. I am worried this could be 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 they 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.
Dogs separated by a gate unless all is calm.
I prefer for now keeping the two apart at times when they can’t be sure things will be fairly calm. ‘Apart’ should be the new default with ‘together’ only 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 behaviour. Removing rehearsal will help to remove fights from their repertoire rather than the opposite.
I witnessed just how good they are with one another in the short periods when nothing was stirring them up. In many cases dogs can’t be in the same room – or even look at one another – without breaking into an attack of rage.
It’s a good sign.