It's a complicated problem, and if you've ever found yourself in the middle of two dogs you dearly love with a fighting habit, it's the kind of problem that keeps you awake at night. You just don't know when they're going to get into it again, and how bad it might be this time. o
Naturally, the next thought is can I separate them permanently? Not if you want to keep your sanity, you can't, but I know of folks with a pair of beloved dogs on 24 hour crate rotation schedules. That's how bad the aggression can get. I am also aware of folks who, on a singular failure of a 24-hour crating protocol like this one, lost either one or both of their dogs. The very worst case of all involves a woman who was herself killed when she missed a step of her management protocol and attempted to insert herself between her fighting dogs.
It's a brutal problem to have.
Like anything related to our dogs and their behavior, the best outcomes are won when we start early. But it's not always possible. When the fighting habit is already in place, we have to work fast and smart to ensure a few necessities are met right off the bat.
First, bite prevention. Not bite inhibition (this work is done much, much earlier in the dog's life), but bite prevention. This has to be total for inter-dog aggression to be handled quickly and well. A few options to executing bite prevention in a total sense are available; some of them swift and smart, others more painful and laborious (for both our dogs and us).
Crate Rotation: I touched on this a bit above. This is very hard work. It's also hard on the dogs who, necessarily, spend a great deal of time crated. It's particularly difficult to execute if the dogs once had free roam of the home and have experienced a change in their relationship. It can be done, and done well, but it may be the most labor intensive option out there.
With this kind of protocol, you rotate the dogs out-of-crate time, through feedings, walks, and time for affection and socialization. You've got to know that crate is locked down and closed (and even when we get these right every time, sometimes the equipment itself fails. It sucks but it happens), and the dog has to know that the crate time isn't forever. Ideally, the dog has learned to really enjoy crate time, even in lieu of the other household dog not having crate time at the same times. It can, however, help to ease the heartwrenching pain of interdog aggression among the humans in this particular equation, who don't have to choose between dogs or come to terms with the idea and appearance of their dog in a muzzle.
Muzzle Protocol: I'm a huge proponent of muzzle protocols. If it were up to me, licensing in any city center would be contingent on a muzzle protocol being in place, but I digress. While the muzzle protocol can allow both dogs to be out and about without tearing into one another, it has its risks, and they're not insignificant. The dogs can still do damage to one another via muzzle punching, pinning, and the like. Psychologically speaking, dogs can still experience psychological pain at the actions of another dog, through strategies like blocking access, stalking and spooking, etc. What the muzzle does is take about 98% of the life-threatening damage out of the picture when we have a household where interdog aggression is at play. Like the crating protocol, the muzzle, a piece of equipment, can fail too. What's more, some dogs are able to escape certain muzzles. Figuring this out through trial and error with a dog that's aggressive to another dog in the household is a very high-risk endeavor, and not recommended.
Rehoming: I'm not going to sugarcoat it. This option SUCKS. The emotional devastation, the heartbreak, the initial separation and the grief that follows. When it comes to us, the dog owners and trainers and lovers, well... This is the worst possible scenario, right?
Maybe not. It depends on your perspective. I'm not denying that the pain will be very real, and last a good long time. There's no question about it. But what is gained may well outweigh the cost, as hard as the price here is to pay. You will recover from the grief, and so will the dog you've chosen to rehome in order to protect both of the dogs you so dearly love and care for. What's more, if there's any opportunity to maintain a relationship with the rehomed dog, the separation and related grief need not be total. Oh, it'll still be there, and it will be hard, but your dogs will live and so will you. You will live FREE. Free of fear, free of pain and harm.
Interdog aggresssion is a difficult, difficult subject. It's hard to broach as a professional, and it's even more confusing to try to live with and live through. The options available, however, are worth thinking through. Sometimes the shorter-term agony is worth enduring when long life and good health are at stake. It's certainly worth our consideration.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, and Decoding the Dog Park.