Ritualized Aggression in Dogs
One important consideration when dogs "fight" over toys is determining whether the dogs are truly fighting with the intent to harm or whether they are trying to solve conflict without harm using ritualized aggression.
Let's face it: in nature, real fighting can be very costly. Two animals fighting can do a lot of harm to each other and this can deeply impact animals who live in groups where all members depend on one another. Such animals therefore had to find a way to solve conflict without harming each other.
While dogs are no longer wild animals, the instinct to not harm each other should still be there. This instinct though requires that the dogs are properly raised in a nurturing environment and that they are socialized from an early age so to learn ritualized aggressive displays that are meant to solve conflict.
Puppies tend to learn the ABCs of ritualized aggression when they are still in the litter. At some point, the litter mates will start playing and they will often engage in loud disputes that can be quite scary to hear. While the puppies may sound like they are killing each other, they rarely if ever get hurt.
Interaction after interaction, puppies become quite fluent in using "their words" rather than hurting each other during disputes. Even if they do happen to make contact, puppies should use inhibited bites so that they can't hurt each other seriously.
Once sent to their new homes, it's the responsibility of new puppy owners to maintain their puppies "fluent" on ritualized aggression by socializing the puppies with a variety of dogs of different breeds, sizes, and play styles. This continuing education is important and often puppy classes is one of the best places to start.
"Most owners find even the most normal and ritualized levels of aggression distressing to witness. Their goal is to have no aggression of even the most ritualized sort delivered even in normal contexts. This is the equivalent of me requiring you to go through to the end of your life without ever once losing your temper." ~Jean Donaldson, Fight, A Practical Guide To The Treatment Of Dog-Dog Aggression
A Matter of Resource Guarding
Many dogs who are well socialized and play well at the dog park, may transform into the doggy version of the Incredible Hulk when toys are around. This can happen with new encounters or among dogs who know each other well and share the household.
These altercations are often at their worse when there are new toys around because their novelty makes them far more valuable. Many dogs though will still put up an aggressive display with common toys left around.
Most signs of toy resource guarding take place when a dog is in possession of a toy and another dog approaches, or when two dogs are both moving towards a toy.
Fortunately, most dogs can't bite if their mouth is kept busy with a toy, so often these sources of conflict don't end in much more than growling. However, real fights can and do occur in presence of toys, so cases of dogs who resource guard toys should not be taken lightly.
Whether or not intervention is needed is often a matter of several factors. The most important being whether there is a history of fights leading to injuries (puncture wounds) or whether the battles are starting to occur with increased frequency (like a few times a day).
Minor disputes over toys that occur once in a blue moon and/or without any history of injury with the dogs "using their words" may not require intervention, however, close supervision is always important.
Normal Dog Play
It can happen that novice dog owners struggle differentiating between play fighting and true fighting. The fact is, when dogs play with toys, many of their components of play may involve elements observed in true fighting.
For example, one dog may grab one end of a toy and the other dog the other, and next, both dogs may start tugging and growling. The growls may sound very vicious, but often this is just play.
In another circumstance, one dog may grab one toy in the mouth and the other dog may chase and try to steal it. The dog with they toy in the mouth may therefore growl and even snarl, wrinkling the upper lip exposing the teeth, every time the other dog comes near. This is often an innocent game of keep away and often times there are role reversals with the dog taking turns in trying to "steal." However, some times dogs stealing toys from each other may lead to fights so close monitoring is always needed.
In general though, despite the growling and snarling, dogs who are playing display loose and wiggly body language. The barks are often high-pitched and dogs often display metasignals such as play bows to demonstrate that they are just engaging in play.
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs can fight over toys, but it might not always be easy for dog owners to determine whether the fights need intervention or not. While some conflict over toys is normal, actual real fights are not. If you have any doubts, it is always best to consult with a behavior professional to play it safe.
The behavior professional will take an in-depth history of both dogs and may evaluate the dog's behaviors closely. Following are some tips for dealing with minor cases of dogs fighting over toys.
- If disputes are very mild and nobody gets hurt, always supervise your dogs when they have access to toys and a have a plan in place should you notice things escalating (see below for some plans and back-up plans).
- Avoid letting your dogs "work it out." If there are actual fights, keep the dogs separated when toys are used. In other words, when using toys to play with your dogs or to keep them busy, keep the dogs away from each other.
- Keep toys away when the dogs are together so to remove the source of conflict.
- If you wish to proceed beyond avoidance, consider a full behavior consultation with a professional for and evaluation and for the implementation of dog behavior modification. This is for safety and for correct implementation of behavior modification.
- With the help of a professional, various methods can be used. For example, through desensitization and counterconditioning, the dog prone to guarding toys may be conditioned to look forward to having the other dog around when enjoying a toy or the dog approaching the guarder can be taught to avoid the guarding dog when he has a toy (e.g. this latter dog can be trained to follow you out to the yard where he is given a treat).
- For mild cases, have a primary plan in place to avoid a fight from escalating. One way to do this is to train a very strong cue that tells both dogs that they should come to you and stop focusing on each other. Once the dogs rush towards you, run together towards the kitchen where you will give the dogs a tasty treat and perhaps then go spend some time in the yard. Have a professional help you out in building a strong response to such cues.
- Have a secondary plan in place to break up a dog fight should it erupt. Keep pot lids handy to clash together or an air horn to blow to distract your dogs from each other. Then, immediately redirect them to another activity (join you in the yard, hold a down stay and then reward etc).