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Alliance Aggression

How to Recognize and Solve Alliance Aggression

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Alliance Aggression

We want our puppies to love us, but getting too attached can cause problems.

© Amy Shojai, CABC

There are many kinds of aggression in dogs and alliance aggression is a unique category of dog behavior problems. Alliance aggression results when a dog protects owners from other dogs. This may appear to be similar to sibling rivalry or to behavior that looks like puppy jealousy.

Puppies that act out with alliance aggression feel protective of their owner and may be prompted to act with aggression if someone moves too quickly in your presence. They may also react to you being embraced and display splitting behavior, a type of calming signal that prompts the pup to get in between you and the person giving you the hug to split you apart. Dogs that react with alliance aggression typically target other dogs with aggression, though.

What Is Alliance Aggression?

With alliance aggression, the dog isn't aggressive when the owner's gone, only when the owner is present. Alliance aggression develops when a low-ranking dog (like a new puppy) becomes aggressive toward a higher-ranking usually older dog but only in the presence of the owner. The lower-ranking puppy (let's call her Fluffy) becomes aggressive to keep the higher-ranking dog (Max) away from her human (you). To do this, Fluffy snarls, snaps, growls and fights to drive the other dog away.

When you aren’t around, the two dogs get along fine because their status and rank within the family group is clear and Fluffy defers to Max. But when you're there, your presence actually elevates Fluffy’s status. Maybe she’s your favorite or you take up for her because she's smaller and more fragile. This works the same way as when a kid in school hangs back from the group, but gains enough confidence to try and get his way when backed up by a protector like his big brother.

If the lower status Fluffy also becomes overly attached which can also cause some separation anxiety behaviors, she’ll feel justified using aggression to keep Max away from you. In response, Max usually puts up with the abuse and keeps his distance and hangs out in a corner when you’re all in the same room together, rather than deal with Fluffy's nasty temper. But sometimes when Max has had enough or can't get out of the way in time, there's a fight.

How to Treat Alliance Aggression

You'll need to reduce Fluffy’s dependence on you to stop alliance aggression. However, the prognosis for fixing this type of behavior is poor because it's very difficult for owners to practice such tough-doggy-luv. It can be done if you follow the steps behaviorists recommend.

  • Totally IGNORE both dogs for three to four weeks. Ignoring the dogs reduces Fluffy’s dependence and avoids aggravating her aggression toward Max. Ignoring means you don’t speak to, look directly at, pet, or play with either dog. Yes, that's a tough job, but trust that it will be only for a short time. You'll have years together AFTER you get this problem fixed, and they'll be happier years because you practiced tough-doggy-luv.
  • Identify the top dog and treat him preferentially. Max should eat first, be the first let outside for bathroom breaks, receive the best treats first, and be allowed the best sleeping places (on the bed, for example). That will be especially tough for owners who actually like the "underdog" Fluffy the best.
  • Keep the dogs together as much as possible. They should be fine, since alliance aggression means they get along when alone together. If the dogs act aggressive to one another when you are NOT there, the behavior is not alliance aggression but another kind of puppy aggression.
  • Leave the dogs together when you are present, but be sure Fluffy wears a muzzle to protect Max from attack. Or you can have Fluffy wear a halter and leash so that you can safely and easily separate the pair if they start to rumble.
  • If a fight erupts, interrupt the dogs with a loud noise like an air horn to break their concentration, and then walk out of room. Fluffy won’t continue to squabble when you aren’t there.
  • Two people should walk the dogs at the same time, together, so neither receives preferential treatment. You walk Max while somebody else walks Fluffy.

Once the month-long “ignore period” is over, begin desensitization and counter conditioning to help Fluffy learn to accept Max in the same room with you. First, tie the dependent dog (Fluffy) at one end of the room so she can’t reach you or Max.

Conduct obedience training drills with Max in front of Sweetie, from the other end of the room. Have lots of treats ready to reward Fluffy for tolerating Max being near you. Don’t forget to treat Max, too.

Plan to drill each day for a short period. When Fluffy does well one day (no growling or aggressive behavior), then the next day reduce the distance between her tether spot and where you drill with Max. Continue to reduce distance between dogs slowly over a period of another two or three weeks.

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