Pat Starr and Lorraine McIntyre decided that their little dog Rocky needed a buddy. They bought Leo, an adorable bunch of poodle fluff.

But there was a problem.

“We called Leo the piranha mouth,” Starr says. The poodle’s aggressive play irritated Rocky. That eventually led to growls and snarls between the dogs and even a couple of teeth-baring, noisy fights.

Dreams of brotherly love can quickly turn to sibling rivalries and family feuds. If your dogs aren’t getting along, the time to get help is now.

Step one is a medical evaluation. Sometimes dogs are aggressive with other dogs (or with people) because they hurt. The only way for your dog to say, “Don’t touch my back – it’s sore!” is to bare his teeth. Solving the physical problem may solve the behavior problem. If your dog has bitten a person or if your dogs have had fights where there was an injury to a dog, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. This is beyond a simple dog-training problem.

Just because your dogs haven’t done serious damage to each other doesn’t mean you don’t have a serious issue. Early intervention in aggressive behavior is crucial to solving it.

What starts as stares and growls builds to fights. The more dogs have practiced aggressive behavior, the harder those habits are to change.

The signs you have a problem can be subtle. The booklet “Feeling Outnumbered? How to Manage and Enjoy Your Multi-Dog Household,” by Karen London and Patricia McConnell (Dog’s Best Friend, $9.95, 44 pages) gives 14 warning signs. (The booklet is available at

The warning signs are:

1. One dog constantly pushes the others aside for access to petting and attention.

2. Your dogs guard their food bowls.

3. The dogs are frequently up on their back paws during play.

4. One dog seems jealous of the attention you give another.

5. Your dogs always seem to watch each other warily.

6. One dog protects you (like a bone) from the other dogs.

7. Dirty looks, hard stares and glares are passing between two or more of your dogs.

8. You find yourself tense and anxious about what might happen between your dogs.

9. Your dogs exhibit stiff postures around each other.

10. One dog bullies the other, taking away all the treats and toys.

11. One of your dogs keeps the others from moving freely around the house.

12. One of your dogs slinks around the house avoiding the other dogs.

13. Your dogs growl, snap, show their teeth or lunge at each other.

14. Your dogs are fighting.

Rocky and Leo’s owners intervened before there were bites and while the dogs still got along most of the time. That made a difference in the outcome.

Dogs bickering, or worse, isn’t a “do-it-yourself” project. Trying to figure out which dog is instigating the problems and which one is reacting can be hard – and tough emotionally. Someone else can define the problem much more objectively.

A knowledgeable dog trainer can identify the dynamics. For example, Starr and McIntyre noticed that Rocky was growling at Leo. They didn’t realize that it was Leo who was always starting the trouble. Understanding which dog is instigating the problems, and what the triggers are, can help unravel the cycle of aggression.

A key is to learn to observe dog body language.

“People will say, “The dogs got along fine until this week, when they got into a huge fight,”‘ says Joan Armstrong, who owns Dog Days Dog Training in Vancouver, Wash. The fact is that close observation would have shown many signs of a problem long before the big fight. Armstrong trains people to watch their dog’s ears, tail, eyes and other body parts to find what the dog is communicating.

Almost everyone has heard the advice, “Just let the dogs work it out.” That’s a really bad idea.

“The dogs should be able to look to you,” Armstrong says. “They shouldn’t have to protect themselves and protect their own stuff because no one else will.”

Your gentle leadership can keep things calm. You are the one who sets the difference in tone. A dog trainer who is savvy in dealing with dog aggression can give you exercises that will teach your dogs to turn to you for leadership.

For example, one dog trainer teaches an exercise requiring dogs to enter or leave the house one at a time. The dogs wait together in a sit-stay and learn that the owner will call them one at a time. That teaches the dogs that the human is in charge and that they don’t have to argue with each other about which dog comes and goes first.

Identifying aggression triggers is a big part of the solution. If dogs are arguing over toys, don’t leave toys lying on the floor. If they are guarding their food from one another, feed them in their crates where they can’t stare and growl at each other. Some triggers need to be banned from the house because they cause so much conflict.

If your dogs aren’t getting along, you must separate them when you’re not there to supervise, and sometimes it’s best to separate them even when you are there.

“Harmony is at least 50 percent management,” Armstrong says. “On a short-term basis, it can be a fabulous tool.”

Sometimes, two dogs just don’t like each other. Dealing with the problem by merely separating two warring dogs has its limitations.

“Sooner or later, management always fails,” Armstrong says. “If you are keeping one dog safe by management, it will fail.” If their conflict is serious, eventually one will zip through an open door or crash a baby gate to fight with the other. You need a holistic approach of training and management – and a serious look at the two dogs involved – to make sure that both are safe and happy for the long term.

The good news for Rocky and Leo was that they basically liked each other. As their owners have learned to identify the Leo behaviors that start the problems, and stop them from happening, Rocky has begun to enjoy his little buddy. The two dogs have become a picture of brotherly love.

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