Interdog aggression can strike with deadly consequences

Interdog aggression can strike with deadly consequences

Jan 01, 2002

Dogs within the same household can become violent with each other. In the case study explored this month, one dog is killed by another. The story of these dogs illustrates the classic interdog aggression scenario and all its misperceptions perfectly.

Readers should know that I did not see these dogs. All of my information came from the owner of the dogs after the event. Accordingly, the format will be a narrative, not a case report.

The story

The client wrote to me five days after the event because she was thinking of euthanizing two of her dogs. The client shares a house with a roommate and both have dogs. Prior to the tragedy the household consisted of: a 1.5-year-old unspayed, female, Pembroke Welsh Corgi belonging to the roommate, a 12-year-old male, castrated, hound-terrier mix that weighed about 70 pounds, a 45-pound, 7-year-old, female, spayed Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a 10-year-old, female, spayed German Shorthaired Pointer belonging to the roommate, a 45-pound, 7-year-old, neutered, male Border Collie/Cocker mix, a 13-year-old, female, spayed Cocker Spaniel, and a 3-year-old female, spayed Siberian Husky.

The first three dogs were the ones involved in the attack in which the Corgi was killed. All of the dogs were in the three-quarter acre yard when the attack occurred but none of the other dogs appeared to be involved. In addition to being large, the fenced yard has a series of dog pens, kennels, houses, etc. arranged in a way to ensure that each dog can have space and can get away from others.

The client realized that there were many dynamics in what she termed the "pack" behavior, so she provided detailed descriptions of each dog.

Closer look

The German Shorthaired Pointer was "spoiled" early in life and has developed a problem biting people, but not dogs, within the past two years. She has lived with the client's dogs for two years and seems to find security in being in the group. She is neither the most forceful or most deferential dog in the group, but sometimes needs a little extra space.

The Border Collie mix is totally "submissive" to the hound-terrier mix. The Border Collie mix would occasionally get into "obsessive" moods where he would posture over the hound cross and give him "the eye". Otherwise, he appeared to be totally playful and outgoing with the other dogs and with people. This dog has always been with the client and the rest of the group since early puppyhood.

After the attack, the client gave the Border Collie mix to a friend because she was afraid for him. Although he was not involved in the attack, she did not understand what had changed so quickly and did not want to put him at risk. And, as her friends had been saying, seven dogs is a lot and may have been too many.

The 13-year-old Cocker Spaniel has always seemed to be on her own planet. At the time of the attack she was almost totally blind and deaf. She had also been with the client and group since puppyhood, and until a month before the attack no one had ever seemed to notice her.

Savage attack

However, a month before the tragedy, the Corgi savagely attacked the Cocker with no provocation that anyone could note. The Corgi drew blood from the Cocker's ears and face before the client physically intervened. The hound mix spent the next four days cleaning the Cocker's ears and babysitting her. The client noted in her letter that she, unfortunately, just thought this was "cute" at the time. She didn't see what the hound mix saw: that the other dogs needed protection from the Corgi.

The Husky has always been outgoing, but like the Border Collie cross was always "submissive" in the "pack". She apparently tried to be everyone's friend. Even the older hound mix would run and play with her. The Husky seemed to be particularly fond of the Corgi, and they seemed to be "best buddies."

Three to four months before the attack the Corgi started to be very hard on the Husky: games that seemingly started playfully ended with the Corgi hanging from the Husky's throat. The Husky seems confused at first, but after the Corgi hung from her throat a few more times, the Husky became patently scared.

The client also noted that whenever the Husky and the Corgi engaged like this, all of the other dogs moved and stayed away.

All of the client's dogs are kept in a 6-ft. by 24-ft. kennel with houses and fans during the day if the weather is good. If the weather is poor, they each have their own crates in the house. The client's dogs are separated from the roommate's dogs when they are kenneled. At night they all sleep on their own dog beds in the house. Each dog eats in his or her own crate.

There was only one exception: before the Corgi began to terrorize the Husky, they both shared a giant run most times. After the Corgi began to hang from the Husky's neck, the Corgi was moved into a smaller run next to the Husky.

The client has always obedience trained her dogs and has had large groups of dogs before. At one point she had eight Siberians and three other dogs, including two of those discussed.

She has been involved in sled dog events and training, shown in conformation and in obedience training. As part of these activities she met many people with many dogs, and when a friend died, she took in her two old Siberians a year earlier.

These dogs also live on the property, but not with the other dogs. The inherited elderly female Siberian does not get along with other female dogs, so the client kept these two dogs on an adjacent piece of land.

This was comprised of a 30-ft. by 18-ft. "habitat" with a 10-ft. by 12-ft. building, pool, etc. While her dogs ignored both of these elderly Siberians, she was not willing to expose her roommate's dogs to them directly.

At about a year of age the Corgi began to run the fence line separating her from the elderly Siberians and barking non-stop. The client responded by starting to train the Corgi in some basic obedience, but stopped when she became busy at work. As the running and barking continued unabated, the rest of the dogs were becoming unnerved by the constant commotion. So, the client tried a shock-based, bark collar for the Corgi. This approach lasted a week, since the Corgi only seems confused by it and began to direct aggression to other dogs.

Torment began

In the month prior to the attack, the client noticed that the Corgi really began to torment the Bull Terrier. Any time the client was not directly present, the Corgi went after this dog. As soon as the dogs were let outside, the Corgi bit at the Bull Terrier's heels, feet, face and throat. The Bull Terrier snapped at the Corgi once, but usually she redirected her attention to the Husky, snapping and clicking her teeth, but never making contact. The client noted that while she has allowed her dogs to settle things among themselves in the past, she has never allowed them to have a knock-down, drag-out fight.

The client noted that if she had to pick an "alpha" dog from the group, before the attack, she would have picked the 12-year-old hound mix. He likes peace, and she described him as a "quiet enforcer."

On the night of the attack the client returned home a little later than usual. It had been cold, so the dogs had been in their runs. It was too dark to see well when the client let the dogs out of their runs. This concerned the client because the first 10 minutes when they were out was the time of biggest upheaval.

Because of her compromised ability to monitor them, the client put the Bull Terrier on a leash and let all dogs out in the order she always did. After 10 minutes, everyone had settled down so the client took the Bull Terrier off the leash. All the dogs then "piled up" at the back door for dinner. The porch light was on, so the client went into the house to make dinner for all the dogs. After about 20 minutes she went outside to let the dogs in, but didn't notice anything until they had all zipped into their crates and the Corgi was missing. The client went into the yard to look for her and found her outside the back door, dead.

A check of the other dogs revealed that the Bull Terrier has some cuts that looked like teeth slashes inside her nostrils, some smaller cuts on her head, and blood on her collar.

The hound mix was covered in blood - his muzzle, the top of his head, both of his ears - but the blood was not his and there wasn't a mark on him.

The client called her sister and had both of these dogs taken to a kennel.

The Corgi, when examined, had bite marks on her chin and tongue, and five to six deep punctures on her throat.

What happened here?

How could something go so wrong in a household that had done so much in order to meet each dogs' needs?

Quite simply, the Corgi was changing - behaviorally, neurochemically and socially - as she reached social maturity (theoretical mean ~ 18-24 months; range 12-36 months). The Bull Terrier noticed it, and the Husky noticed it, and changed their behaviors as a result of it.

The client noticed it too, but not in the way that the dogs did. Simply, the hound mix, the dog the client felt wanted peace, protected the Bull Terrier from what was like an offensive attack by the Corgi.

He had shown signs of intervening to stop the Corgi's obnoxious behavior toward the other dogs before: remember his care of the Cocker?

All the information necessary to understand this tragedy is contained in the client's descriptions. So many of her comments highlight myths and problems in interpretations about canine behavior that it are worthwhile addressing next month one-by-one.