BDLD (Big Dog Little Dog) Deadly Encounters
The first entry in Photon’s file was BDLD, the veterinary abbreviation for “big dog little dog”. By the time he arrived at our clinic, Photon, a middle-aged, mixed-breed dog with predominant Spaniel traits, was at death’s door. As the little dog lay on the table, his worried owner reviewed the radiographs with us: as a radiologist in human medicine, he was quite capable of understanding the gravity of Photon’s situation.
In truth, Photon’s owner could not quite believe what had befallen his pet. Not for a moment had Dr. Corbett ever thought there was anything wrong with the “let them fight it out – they will sort it out” approach to dogfights. While at the dog park earlier that day, Photon had met a German Shepherd cross and, as expected, the ritual canine greeting soon occurred: both dogs became intensely engaged in sniffing each other’s private parts. They quickly discovered that both were missing their testicles, as both had been neutered. Suddenly, for no apparent reason that either owner could fathom, the hackles of the Shepherd cross went up and, in a flash, the dogs were embroiled in a frenzied, snarling struggle. Watching, Dr. Corbett thought the brawl would be over in seconds; once both dogs figured who was “top dog,” they’d ease up, and then get along fine on subsequent encounters.
Dr. Corbett was right on only one point: the skirmish was over in seconds. Photon yelped sharply as he went down, and he stayed down as the other dog was pulled away. Panting heavily, the small Spaniel mix lay where he’d fallen, unable to stand up. At that point, his owner scooped him up and rushed him to our clinic, where we immediately began working on him.
The injured dog was clearly in distress, and not a pretty sight. Besides a couple of perforating bite wounds to Photon’s neck, severe skin hemorrhages were evident over his entire abdomen. As is common in dog bite incidents, strong pressure from the larger dog’s biting teeth had caused trauma and bleeding of the inner layers of the little dog’s skin, causing mottled discoloration but no actual perforations of the skin. If only the skin is traumatized, such a wound will likely heal over a few days to weeks, with or without sloughing, and with the help of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory meds, depending on the extent of the damage. In Photon’s case, unfortunately, the damage was also internal: either his spleen or liver had sustained a tear. The little fellow was bleeding internally into his abdomen.
In the end, the physical damage he’d sustained was simply too much for the small Spaniel mix. Before a blood transfusion could be initiated, Photon passed away from his injuries before the eyes of his distraught owner. As shocked as he was by the rapid set of events, Dr. Corbett was equally distressed by his own role in his pet’s death: he knew he could have prevented it.
Dogfights do not happen only at dog parks and off-leash areas, nor do they occur only between dogs unfamiliar with each other. Sometimes they occur in the same household, as in the case of Dell and Pixel. These two sisters are Great Pyrenees-Collie crosses, each weighing around forty kilograms and fully grown by two years of age.
Mr. Nicks, a computer programmer, initially intended to adopt only one dog, but when the time came to pick up Pixel, Dell was the last remaining puppy of a litter of eleven, and no one was coming for her. So Mr. Nicks, being a compassionate guy and unaware of potential future difficulties that could arise during interactions between two dogs of the same sex, took both puppies home with him.
Until all the trouble began, Dell and Pixel had been getting along well. They shared a large outside enclosure, and a ten-by-twelve-foot pen inside in a double-door garage, where they played nicely with each other. They went for daily walks on their leashes, and behaved well with other dogs and people they met along the way.
While they were home alone one day, one of the sisters decided to break the peace treaty. When Mr. Nicks arrived home from work that day, he found both dogs covered in blood and limping badly. At first glance, it looked like a horror show gone wild: Dell and Pixel had had a fight in his absence and, judging by the injuries to both dogs, there had not been a clear winner. Roughly the same number of stitches was required to mend the lacerations on each dog’s front legs and neck: about forty per dog. During their stay in the veterinary hospital, neither dog seemed bothered by the other’s presence, but then again they were heavily sedated following their wound repairs.
Over the following month, Dell and Pixel returned to our emergency services twice more for bite wound repairs. Obviously, the aggression level between them was rapidly escalating, as the injuries were more severe each time. Mr. Nicks faced a tough question: could Dell and Pixel continue to share the same home without literally killing each other?
To understand aggression in dogs, we must travel back in time and look at their closest living ancestors and relatives: wolves, wild dogs, and dingoes. All share similar social behavior, typical of life within a pack. Without a doubt, dogs are pack animals and, like all pack animals, they must have a social order to maintain harmony and avoid infighting. Feral dogs, which live their daily lives together just like wolves do, must work out a permanent pack structure. However, companion dogs that work or play together but do not live together need only to agree on workable rules for the interaction time, not on a permanent pack structure. Therein lies an important distinction: successful interactive co-existence dictates that dogs living together, such as Dell and Pixel, must establish a permanent pack order, while dogs meeting on occasion, such as Photon and the German Shepherd cross at the park, must establish workable rules only for their few specific encounters.
So why do dogs fight? The answer is often unknown to us, and frequently depends on whether dogs are trying to establish a permanent pack order or workable rules. In the wild, a canine misfit within a pack would usually leave the pack in search of another one where it would be better accepted. For obvious reasons, this escape mechanism is not available to most dogs living in the same household, and it thus becomes the responsibility of their owners to keep them safe.
Among dogs, there appear to be established rules or guidelines for maintaining good social order. Growing up together and sharing the same home since puppyhood, as Dell and Pixel did, offers no guarantee of harmony when dogs reach maturity. Dominance is often fully expressed at maturity, which for canines is two years of age. So when a dog owner raves about how cute and cuddly his Rottweiler puppy is, and how well he sleeps on the couch, I can’t help but think to myself, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” In reality, this is the same Rottweiler that, at two years of age, will growl menacingly at its owner when the latter attempts to heave his full-grown Rottie off the couch.
Some people fear that dogs that develop aggression toward other dogs are at risk of developing aggression toward humans as well. Not necessarily so; dog-directed aggression is a poor prognostic indicator of whether a dog will develop aggression towards humans. These are usually two distinct and unrelated traits. Remember, dog-directed aggression often relates to establishing working rules or a pack order among dogs; humans are left out of this arrangement entirely.
For this reason, humans should establish themselves as clear pack leaders, not alpha dogs. Our clever canine friends can’t be fooled into thinking we are dogs, and therefore we are best left out of the pack structure altogether. At the same time, dogs need to develop confidence in their owners as trustworthy leaders, who will protect them and keep them safe in situations involving other dogs. Remember, unlike wolves, socially inept or “misfit” dogs at the park cannot run away and find another pack; they are stuck dealing with whatever dogs are present at that moment, on or off leash. The key factor here is at that moment. Many dog groups will work out rules, or a hierarchy, that will shift according to the activity they are involved in at the time, or at the moment. So the alpha role is a fluid one that can change as events or influencing factors change in the group. This is precisely why it can be so difficult to determine which is the alpha dog when breaking up a dogfight. If an individual must intervene, s/he should focus solely on stopping the fight, and avoid dispensing punishment or making accusatory eye contact. Whether we like it or not, dogs are social animals that will ultimately work through establishing a pack order. And some may get seriously hurt in the process. The frustrating part for us humans is that pack formation is like a secret society – and let’s face it, we are not privy to the special handshake that is the price of admission.
Although the premise is not yet fully understood or definitively established, the pairing of dogs of different sexes in the same house is often easier on the owner and promises greater harmony. Nature will favor the formation of a pack in such an instance: the male dog will naturally become the top male dog, and the female dog will assume the role of the top female dog. This would be much the same dynamic as between a reigning king and a queen, each having their own throne, as opposed to two princes or two princesses vying for a single throne.
When living together in a household, female dogs such as Dell and Pixel are more likely to fight to the death than males, because females apparently have a harder time working out a stable pack order. We do not know for sure whether spaying females and neutering males can help in this regard, or to what extent it might; but we do know that there are plenty of dogfights involving spayed or neutered dogs.
Aggression between dogs may occur at all ages, regardless of sex, and usually develops around a guarding obsession for certain resources – toys, food, water bowls, even a certain person or a certain place in the house or yard. Dogs will fight to gain or retain the right to a certain resource, and for this reason the obvious must be stated: in multiple-dog households, dogs should be fed apart from each other, and toys and chews should be given to individual dogs in their own personal space. You – yes, you reading this book – may be an “object of possession” for your dogs. How you dispense your words, your greetings, your eye contact, and your affection may interfere with the stabilization of a pack order. Again, not knowing the secret handshake to the secret society of dogs, we must be very observant and remain neutral in all aspects until clues become evident.
A word of caution: one of the most disheartening scenarios is for an owner to drop off his BDLD-injured dog at a veterinary hospital, then have to drive himself to a human hospital to get stitches on a bitten hand or wrist, along with a tetanus injection. Invariably, Health Services then get involved to establish whether the dog that did the biting is properly vaccinated against rabies. If not, an owner must be prepared for the ordeal that will surely follow and all the headaches that go with it. Therefore, the last resort for breaking up a dogfight is to grab a dog by the neck where all the biting is happening. If you do so, dear dog lover, you will undoubtedly become an accidental victim. If you simply must intervene to separate fighting dogs, say, “No!” repeatedly in a firm voice, and grab the dogs by their tails – but be willing to let go fast if a dog turns on you. Better yet, if you have access to a garden hose, aim a blast of water at the dogs’ faces. Or if you have access to a handy object like a folding chair or a large piece of wood, use it to pry apart the dogs’ jaws instead of using your hands to pull the animals apart.
So what happened to Dell and Pixel, the warring sisters? Three years after their frequent fighting episodes, both are still living in the same house, aggression free. Mr. Nicks took a chance by keeping both dogs, as one could easily have killed the other. Once he had made that decision, he managed the problem as well as he could. Dell and Pixel slept in separate crates at night, and were provided plenty of time apart during the day. Often, one stayed in the house while the other enjoyed the outside enclosure. And when they were together, Mr. Nicks deliberately became very indifferent and neutral in his attention toward both dogs. When he arrived home, he avoided creating a high level of excitement by not playing and talking enthusiastically to his dogs. Instead, he pretended they did not exist. As soon as they both calmed down, he greeted them with furtive eye contact and a quick pat on the neck.
Plenty of time apart, long walks, and a more neutral demeanor from their owner have allowed Dell and Pixel to harmoniously share a home together. But, as Mr. Nicks knows, a lapse into old habits could spell disaster for his beloved Great Pyrenees-Collie girls. And so he remains ever vigilant.