Speaking of Dogs: The Fight Before Christmas

Some of the most cringe-worthy phone calls I receive are those from desperate pet owners describing how their two dogs have, “started fighting out of the blue.”

I cringe because 99.9% of the time, the call comes long after the first dog fight and now, the fights have escalated in both frequency and intensity.

If one dog is in the hospital being treated for combat wounds – or if a person was bitten trying to break up the fight – a piece of my dog-training spirit dies.

Dog housemates fight for a variety of reasons but it’s never, ever out of the blue, or for no reason, or because “she’s protecting me.” I guarantee there are plenty of warnings in dozens of little events leading up to the fight. Trouble is, the messages are delivered in the subtle non-verbal communication of dogs and if you’re not a student of canine body language, you’ll miss them.

Our dog friends laugh at the human notion of “sharing.” To a dog, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is also mine. So it makes sense that most housemate disputes are due to competition over what we dog trainers call, “high value resources.” Your home is filled with doggie bounty and to Willie and Rex, the following assets are worth defending:

  • Food. For most dogs, food is numero uno

  • Choice resting areas. Especially the couch or your bed

  • Toys

  • Attention from you

  • Thresholds, particularly those to the house, yard, or car

To illustrate this, let me tell you the tale of what we fondly refer to as The Christmas Morning Melee.

It all began so innocently with my misguided attempt to create a Norman Rockwell Christmas… with pugs.

Chaz and Newt – Christmas Combatants.

Our friend had come bearing gifts for the dogs. Chaz (pug) and Newt (pug/Boston terrier) had received a four-foot long Christmas stocking stuffed with toys and treats. After some ooing and ahhing, we placed it on top of the other presents under the tree. The stocking was clear plastic so the pugs could see exactly what was in store for them. While the humans enjoyed delicious Christmas brunch, Chaz and Newt monitored the enchanting gift.

Chaz and Newt are the very best of friends. They are constant companions and spend their days lounging on the same bed, each chewing one of their numerous toys. There is rarely a dispute, though occasionally, one pug will attempt a hostile takeover of the other’s toy.  If it turns into a pushing contest, complete with low growls, we instantly direct the instigator to a different toy and bed. If that doesn’t work, the troublemaker goes to his crate and we confiscate the toy.

But that’s not how it went down that particular Christmas Day.

When it was time to open the much anticipated presents, Mark and I settled onto the couch, a pug nestled in each lap, the giant Stocking of Plenty spanning the tiny distance between us. Can you count the high-value resources mentioned in that last sentence? I see four, with the stocking ready to explode into twenty-four.

With the benevolent gift-giver looking on, we urged Chaz and Newt to open their present. No encouragement needed. They tore into that stocking like lions on a fresh kill.

The contents were everything they’d imagined. Look, a squeaky squirrel! Tasty snacks! A rawhide bone! A ball! A fuzzy frog! Another ball, with a bell inside…!

Basking in the adorableness of the moment I neglected to notice that Chaz and Newt’s excitement was escalating. I failed to observe that Chaz’s body was doing little “freezes” when Newt pulled an item from the stocking. I didn’t see Chaz shooting hard looks, whites of his eyes showing, at brother Newt. I didn’t catch that Chaz was morphing into Pugzilla.

Suddenly, the gnarlyist pug fight in the history of pugs erupted in our laps. Norman Rockwell turned cage match.

Oh, the squishy-faced, blubbery fury of it all. Pug mythology claims the word “pug” means “face like a fist” and those face-fists were a flyin’.

Mark and I immediately followed Dogfight-in-Your-Lap protocol by standing up and dumping both warriors, along with their trophy, on the floor. The fight only intensified and moved under the coffee table where the sounds of enraged snarly snorters sent visions of lacerations and popped-out eyeballs dancing through my head.

Mark grabbed Newt by the back legs, I did the same with Chaz and we pulled the combatants apart.

The housemate side-by-side-down-stay is a terrific way to settle disputes or to calm dogs after wild play. It is a gentle reminder that you, dear owner, are their benevolent CEO.

Once separated, the festivities screeched to a halt while the pugilists performed Phase Two of Dogfight protocol – the five minute, side-by-side down-stay.

This is where early training really pays off. When you ask your dog to lie down and stay, he adopts a passive position without force. Despite what you’ve seen on TV, alpha rolls and punishment after a fight only increases acrimony and the very real possibility that you’ll be bitten.  The five minute down-stay allows dogs to do something they’ve historically been praised for and gives everyone a chance to catch their breath.

That morning I stood in front of the pugs with arms crossed in quiet authority. Soon, they relaxed and forgot the fight. Peace and glad tidings for all.

We do Christmas differently now. Each dog receives one present to be unwrapped several feet from the others, creating a peaceful defensible space. If things get wonky, one of us can easily step between the dogs to deflect those quick freezes and sideways glances before they become “locked and loaded.”

The gifts are non-consumable and fun, but not knock-your-socks-off incredible. Each dog must keep his own present. No gift swapping or stealing allowed.

As for the Plastic Stocking of Plenty, the next day it was re-gifted to the local shelter for less fortunate dogs to enjoy.

The moral of the story?  Harmony equals neutrality and management. I set my pugs up to fail by allowing them to obsess for two hours under the tree, elevating them to the couch, wedging them between two favorite people, and then encouraging them to compete over an amazing gift.

I say, let’s blame the whole thing on Norman Rockwell.

Carla Jackson is a professional pet dog trainer and owner of Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training, behavior consultations, puppy socialization and day training. You can find Jackson Ranch on Facebook, visit the Jackson Ranch website, or call (530)365-3800.

Carla Jackson
Carla Jackson is a professional pet dog trainer and owner of Jackson Ranch for Dogs, a kennel-free boarding and training facility. She specializes in private training, behavior consultations, puppy socialization and day training. You can find Jackson Ranch on Facebook, visit the Jackson Ranch website, or call (530)365-3800.
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15 Responses

  1. Avatar EasternCounty says:

    I cringe even now thinking back 40+ years when I expected our two dogs to "share." Where was my head?! Thank you, Carla, for illustrating that even you missed the signs.

  2. We forget how amped up Christmas really is — until the unexpected fight breaks out. You point out that it was all there to see, right there, brewing. How wonderful. I might have separated the dogs, then hid in the next room, letting the dogs "walk it off." What do I know? This advice is totally clear!

  3. DoniChamberlain DoniChamberlain says:

    Carla, another great column. It reminds me of the time about 10 years ago I witnessed a fight between two normally sweet dogs who'd grown up together since puppyhood at a B&B. The owners wanted to show us their cute donkey outside, and it was as if the dogs were jealous of the attention. A fight broke out, the owner's arm was broken while trying to stop the fight, and pepper spray used on the dogs ended up on the people. Both dogs required medical attention. It really was memorably horrible.

    • Doni, that sounds absolutely awful. I'd say that one had been gaining momentum for a long time. How unlucky to be there when the dogs finally got on each other's last nerve. I hope you were upwind from the pepper spray, which in my opinion, is one of the worst ways to break up a dogfight.

      • Doni Chamberlain Doni Chamberlain says:

        Well, I wasn't pepper-sprayed, but my then-husband was. But good to know that pepper spray is not a good idea. I love your articles, Carla, and I don't even own a dog!

  4. Thanks for yet another inspired and amusing column, Carla. You should write a book!

  5. Thanks Valerie! Good luck with your geriatric pooch 🙂

  6. Carla, Your writing skill parallels your skill with dogs. Admire all. Vivian and Baxter, of course

  7. Carla,
    You are a talented writer; parallels your gift with 4 legged critters.
    Vivian and Baxter, of course.

  8. Avatar jaonnesnyder says:

    What a great article Carla. Thank you. I love dogs but I know that that they have innate programming about pack hierarchy that we have to understand. Heck, it's like being a teacher. A student asked me if I liked him and I said "Yes I do, but I'm not going to act like it because it will only cause problems for you." The whole class laughed.

  9. Avatar John Lord says:

    Our three dogs, all different sizes and ages, get along marvelously and know that any of them can sleep in any of the many dog beds at any time. If one dog is already in the bed, the other will take the other bed, even if it's not their 'usual'. But we still feed them in 3 separate areas of the room where each dog knows "their" meal will be placed. When the largest dog finishes first (which is always), she will lie down watching the other two from about 6 feet away, waiting to see if anyone walks away with food uneaten. If they do, then she looks to me or my wife for an 'OK'. If I say "No – stay", she'll look disappointed, but will stay. The littlest dog and the oldest (middle sized, and also now deaf) can each eat their meal in peace, knowing 'Dad' or 'Mom' is monitoring the situation so they won't be interrupted. Occasionally, our oldest dog (the only one smart enough to quit eating when she feels she's had enough), will actually look over at the bigger dog and give a sort of "ok – you can have what's left" signal. Even so, the bigger dog will again check with me for confirmation. Meals are always peaceful at our house. You can see the separate placement of their eating spots here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luO3W_CUTL8 plus a short demonstration of two of them doing "sit" & "down" for hand signs.
    Play time: The biggest dog loves to run and fetch ball in the back yard, and the littlest will also play fetch, but I use TWO tennis balls and the little one is careful to avoid getting run over by the larger one. You can watch them "taking turns" and sometimes trading off balls with no fussing, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynF1AkR3Scw
    The littlest dog, a Terrier/Chihuahua mix, dotes on the biggest dog and loves to cuddle for warmth at naptime, as shown here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fenabxhHNF4
    Sometimes, our dogs are even actually useful, as shown here when our two oldest helped clean up a major cereal (Cheerios) spill in record time. No sugar, no milk, just dry cereal. I guess our kitchen floor really is clean enough to eat off of.
    If the video links are disallowed or blocked in the posts, I only have 5 videos on Youtube at youtube.com slash user slash collylord. Enjoy!

    • Doni Chamberlain Doni Chamberlain says:

      John, your dogs are lucky to have such a loving home with you and your wife. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  10. Avatar John Lord says:

    Oops! I forgot the cereal cleanup link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYYR4IVSq14 There's no audio because I was recording the video with what's really just a still digital camera, not a real camcorder.