New Mexico's Pet ResourceSUMMER 2004

Pack Aggression in Family Dogs, Part I:
An Unexpected Tragedy

by Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Friday, February 13th was a horrific day that the Gable family will never forget. Jane Gable is a dog lover. She has worked with several canine rescues and shelters over the years. On that fateful Friday, Jane’s canine family included seven dogs, all adopted from rescues and shelters. The dogs ranged in age from 2 years old to 12 years old. Her human family consisted of her spouse, Martin, and two children, 12-year-old Mike and 15-year-old Liz.

As is her morning ritual, Jane was in the backyard doing poop patrol. Mike was outside, too, helping with the necessary chore of cleaning up after the family dogs. All seven dogs were romping about the yard, chasing after lizards and sniffing the latest scents. Suddenly, senior dog Princess yipped aloud in pain. She had been playing chase with a few of the dogs and had been bumped hard by a younger dog named Genie. At the sound of Princess’s distress, the youngest dog, Jack, immediately and ferociously attacked Princess. Jane and Mike attempted to separate the dogs. Jack’s tenacious grip on Princess could not be broken. As Princess squealed, the other dogs joined in the attack on the elder female. During an attempt to rescue Princess, an older male dog named Charlie attacked Mike. In the aftermath of the attack, the backyard looked like a war zone.

Hearing the melee, Liz called 911. Mike, accompanied by Jane, was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Martin and Liz drove the mangled body of Princess to the vet, not certain whether she was still alive.

Princess underwent four hours of emergency surgery. Her wounds were massive and she did not survive the night. Mike was admitted to the hospital. His lacerations, primarily to his arms, were too numerous and deep to suture in the ER. Mike underwent general anesthesia and the massive injuries were repaired in the operating room. Two weeks later, Mike underwent a skin graft procedure to repair the worst wound: a slash to his right bicep.

The day after the nightmare attack, Jack was euthanized by animal control. Since he had bitten Mike, Charlie was held in quarantine for two weeks to see if he had rabies. At the end of that period, Charlie was also euthanized. As he was put to rest, Jane held and comforted Charlie, who had been with her family for years.

What happened? A family of seven compatible dogs, most of whom had lived together peacefully for years, was suddenly and swiftly beset by a horrible dog fight. There are several possible explanations that lie in the ancestral pack behavior that is the genetic heritage of domestic dogs. The sound that the elder dog, Princess, made when she was hurt is most likely the stimulus that set off the attack. Part of the social behavior of a pack is to do what is in the best interest of the group. A weak or injured dog can be a liability, and it may be in the best interest of the group to take down a member that can no longer contribute. The social order of the pack is maintained through a dominance hierarchy. Each dog knows his or her place in the group—who ranks above and who ranks below. As dominant members of the pack age and are no longer able to handle duties at the head of the pack, the younger dogs will initiate fights over leadership. These fights may happen repeatedly until a younger, stronger dog wins the leadership position. Per their hunting ancestry, dogs will attack when they hear the distress cry of a prey species. Other members of the pack are likely to join in the takedown. A squirrel, the family cat or even another dog can trigger the prey drive. It is likely that Princess’s cries stimulated the prey drive in Jack. When Jack attacked Princess, the rest of the pack responded as if on a hunt and joined in the attack. Combined with this was Princess’s age. She was no match for the younger dogs. Once such a fight begins, it is dangerous and difficult to stop.

If you have two or more dogs, you will experience some pack behavior. The dogs will need to set up their dominance hierarchy. A dominance hierarchy is dynamic. Once established, it is subject to change over the years as the dogs age or become infirm. With regard to hunting, even two dogs can be stimulated to hunt as a pair in response to appropriate prey cues like a squealing sound. Families with multiple dogs need to realize that this type of behavior can occur at any time, even after years without incident.

What can you do? First, prevention is best. Be vigilant. Spend enough time with your dogs to know what is going on with the individuals and the group. Is change occurring within their dominance hierarchy? Are younger dogs growling at dogs who were once their superiors in the hierarchy? Are the younger dogs challenging the older ones for access to food, preferred sleeping beds, or a perch on the family sofa? Make sure any aging or infirm dogs are not placed in vulnerable situations with younger dogs. Let the elder dog outside separately from younger challengers. Some shelters and rescues put muzzles on their dogs when they let them out to play in groups. If the play then escalates to fighting, no one is seriously hurt.

If the worst happens and a fight occurs, first and foremost you need to consider the safety of your human family. Teach your children NEVER to intervene in a dog fight. Teach them to immediately leave the area and report to a responsible adult. Teach them to walk away— NOT RUN. Running can cause the dogs to give chase as if after prey. Breaking up a dog fight is dangerous work. In the next issue of PETroglyphs, Part II will focus on methods to break up dog fights.

Life for the Gable family is not quite back to normal. Mike is doing well and will recover completely from his injuries. Jane says that Mike has been a tough kid throughout the ordeal, and a great help to her emotionally. “The house feels empty—three dogs gone —and four others upset and confused. The rest of us are truly heartbroken,” is how she expressed the pain that this experience has brought to her family. Jane hopes that others will learn from her tragic experience, and that no one—neither dog nor human—will have to go through the loss and suffering brought on by an unexpected dog fight.

(Names and minor details have been changed to protect the identity of the family.)

Part II

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is an animal behaviorist and educator who worked at the Boston Zoos for 15 years. She lives in Cerrillos with her husband, five rescued dogs (three greyhounds, two terriers) and three horses.

HOME   NM Resources   Archives   Links   Top