The Fighting LGD
©Louise Liebenberg Feb 2020
Written for The Shepherds Magazine
Dogs live in social groups, as do wolves and most other canids. Living in a group or pack provides stability and protection to each member, it spreads the workload in looking after offspring, hunting together and of course protecting their territory. These social groups are often family groups comprising of parents, older siblings, younger siblings and some aunts and uncles. To work as a cohesive group these animals need to be able to communicate with each other and this communication is often in the form of subtle body language and sometimes overt displays of physical communication.
It is not in the best interest of a social group living animals to fight with one another causing injuries, disruption and sometimes death to a (pack) member. Livestock guardian dogs (LGD) are most effective if they work and live as a cohesive pack. Against apex predators it is pretty much the only way to ensure the safety of individual dogs and to provide a formidable front to the predators. Unfortunately, pack fighting does occur and the reasons why LGD fight are numerous. Some of the more common reasons for in pack fighting include; resources (resources can be food, toys, attention, space, the livestock, newborn lamb, water bowl etc.), or there could be rivalry (sibling or strange dogs), breeding rights, territory, redirected aggression, disruptions in social structures ( new dog brought into existing pack), in some instances because some dogs display inappropriate social behaviours/neurotic or extreme anxiety, aggressiveness due to pain or injury and underdeveloped or insufficient social communication skills in some dogs.
In stable packs most disputes can be solved with body language without the need to engage in fighting. Behaviours such as posturing, submissiveness, lip licking, ear carriage, positioning, tail set, wider eyes, raised hackles, stiff legged walking, growling, displaying the teeth as in growls or “smiles” and numerous other subtle signs are the language of dogs. Understanding this language can ensure that disputes can be settled without injury. In free living dog societies such as our LGD, or stray village dogs, dogs who are involved in aggressive confrontations, generally remove themselves from these situations and leave that group. In wolves these individuals that leave or are ousted from the pack are called dispersers. This removal from an aggressive situation is sometimes a reason why some LGD roam. They are avoiding being involved in pack fighting and are either evicted or choose to leave the pack.
|This is play behaviour, the dogs are play fighting, the paws on each other, mouthing. No escalation as they are playing.|
Not all dogs are equally skilled at communication (just like some people), single dog homes are often a prime example of this, where the singularly raised dog simply does not read social ques and body language of other dogs. They are often rude and do not respect boundaries of other dogs, this often leads to some harsh disciplining. People often ask how to introduce a puppy to their existing LGD group. If the pup was raised appropriately with its mother and litter mates to an adequate age, it will have learnt enough about dog language to be able to meet new dogs without being injured. Older dogs who are raised with other dogs, will also read and understand a new puppy’s body language and should not harm it. It is unnatural for older dogs to kill or seriously injure pups. Pups may be corrected for being overzealous or not respecting the space or warnings of an older dog, but these corrections are rarely physically injurious. The pup might sound as though he is being killed, but generally only his ego is hurt. Stable tempered dogs will not harm pups and so introductions should not be an issue.
|One of our LGD was serious injured during an inpack fight, it nearly cost this dog his life and cost many thousands of dollars in vet care. Today, despite some scarring and a half ear, he is still working.|
When pack fighting occurs with LGD it can be serious and highly disruptive to the working ability of the pack. The dogs are so busy fighting each other, that they have no attention for what is going on beyond these pack dynamics. In a study done by Robin Rigg’s in Georgia he noted that 4 dogs was the ideal number of dogs to have in a pack, larger numbers tended to be more focused ion trying to control and maintain their own pack dynamics rather than being attentive to their job. Similarly, I have found 3 to 4 mature dogs and a younger pup work well as a group. If the group is much bigger, the tensions do rise. This does not mean that it will always end in fighting, but I tend to see more signs of tension, particularly in posturing behaviour. If the dogs have a large area to work, then the tensions are diminished as there is enough space to get away and avoid conflict situations. Controlling things such as feeding time and attention will also reduce tensions among the dogs.
Although all fighting looks the same, the reasons for the fight are often very different.
When bitches are coming into heat, the tensions escalate with more posturing between the females and claiming behaviour from the males. These fights are related to the changes in hormones and potential status of the bitch.
|The tensions are running a little high in this interchange. The female on the right is in heat, the male is “guarding her”, the younger female on the left is being deferential to the breeding pair.|
Fighting over resources can often be easily managed by a shepherd, fighting over food can be resolved by tethering all the dogs separately until they have all eaten, or removal of a bone or toy. Whenever a resource fight occurs, removing the object or changing the management can help to avoid these fights.
It is important to prevent fights from escalating, a fight over a resource, if not contained or corrected, could become fights over nothing. Dogs are not averse to a good brawl, so once fighting starts, the dogs do not mind keeping it going and continuously looking for a fight. The reason why they start fighting initially, is not always the reason why they continue to fight. Dogs hold a grudge, so once fighting starts it is usually very hard to prevent future fighting. They do not need “a reason” to fight other than they hold a grudge. It is therefore vital to try and stop fighting before it begins and escalates to the point where the dogs have zero tolerance for each other.
Other fighting that can occur is because an older dog dies and this creates instability within the pack, this chaos within the pack can lead to fighting with new roles needing to be established. The older dog could have been the “peacekeeper”, maintaining a stable relationship between the other dogs in the group. Another scenario, a younger, bolder, sexually mature dog might want to challenge the older, dog over breeding rights, or resources. Sometimes, the older dog will acquiesce, and things will settle down. In a situation where the older dog does not defer, serious injury can result. In many shepherds camps it is these old warrior dogs that are (who are well regarded by the shepherds) that get some added protection in the form of a wolf/spike collar to help prevent serious injuries due to in pack fighting.
|This old Macedonian sheepdog wears a spiked collar to protect this dog from in-pack fighting.|
In well structured packs, it is also prudent that we do not attempt to micromanage every interaction or disagreement between the dogs. They should be allowed to resolve their own differences through body language and dog communication, provided they are not fighting. There is a big difference between allowing them to resolve their issues through displays of body language and fighting.
The common advice given out is “let them fight it out, they will sort it out”. This is poor advice as most dogs do not actually “sort it out” or certainly, do not sort it out long enough to have stability in the pack. It usually ends with one dog being seriously injured or killed. In a good scenario this dog just leaves away pack to avoid been killed. Once dogs start to fight, it rarely stops. If nothing is resolved, these fights will escalate in intensity and frequency. It will come to a point where the two dogs can simply not even be in the same proximity to each other. This type of fighting does not resolve itself and ultimately, these dogs need to be permanently separated to avoid serious harm. Most often these types of fights occur when the dogs are similar in age, equivalent in strength, same sex and where the status within the pack is unclear.
In many regions in Europe, a traditional form of dog fighting (wrestling) takes place with the guardian dogs. It is not the fighting we know of pit bulls in dog fighting rings. For the shepherds it is to see which dogs display the most dominance (power and influence), bravery and courage. Many “fights” are lost or won by the displays of posturing. It is for many of the shepherds a way to “test” their dogs and breeding selection is based on the outcome of these fights.
Pasture breeding is another form of selection, where the female is free to choose her mate, and the males fight it out for breeding rights. This is regarded by many shepherds as “natural selection”, the strongest, toughest dog will get breeding rights to the female, therefore producing strong and tough pups for the future. Although this type of breeding is often frowned upon in the modern world, it is how our guardian dogs have been bred and selected for hundreds of generations.
In many cases, human intervention exacerbates the conflict between two dogs. The things we do could inadvertently cause more fighting. Having too many dogs in a small area, not enough work for the dogs, or we encourage resource guarding by providing toys and bones or we intervene during a “communication event” (stiff legged walking hackles raised etc.). Sometimes we do nothing, when we need to intervene or intervene in an inappropriate manner thereby escalating tensions or causing redirected aggression. When tensions are high between dogs, we need to be very mindful of our own actions so that we do not trigger the dogs to fight.
There are things we can do to help manage in-pack fighting which includes staggering of ages in the dogs, making opposite sex teams, spaying or neutering, having the appropriate number of dogs for the operation and livestock, feeding rituals (which can include tethering each dog while they eat or feeding far apart, or even self feeding systems), separation before escalation between dogs that are showing tension towards each other and selecting dogs that work well together. Sometimes, a dog simply does not fit in and is very disruptive to the pack, we have found rehoming such a dog helps keep the pack more stable. We focus on reducing stress and tension and in this keeps fighting to the minimum.
|Calmness and stability in a pack of dogs improves the ability of the dogs to protect the flock.|
I think the golden rule is to prevention is better than curing. Stopping all fighting (attacking each other) is easier than managing dogs who are willing and wanting to fight with each other. With each fight, the chances for escalation increases and the ferocity intensifies. Teenage squabbling will often escalate into fighting, so we are quick to separate teenagers and place them in a field with mature adults. Fighting is bad for the stability of the pack; it is bad for your wallet as vets are not cheap and bad for the dogs as they can be seriously hurt or even killed.