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What’s It About?

From the award-winning author of Culture Clash, Mine!, and Oh Behave! A practical guide to the treatment of dog-dog aggression. This down-to-earth manual will teach you how to use behavior modification to retrain a dog that bullies other dogs or becomes fearful when approached by other dogs. Includes descriptions of common types of aggression, assessing prognosis, remedial socialization, on-leash manners training, proximity sensitivity, play style and skills, resource guarding, and prevention.

 Jean has over 30 years experience in dog behaviour and training and is the Founder and Director of the San Francisco SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers. Jean is author of the award winning book, The Culture Clash.

Published 2004 Dogwise ebooks


Dog to dog aggression is a common problem that occurs in a variety of contexts. It can be particularly distressing for owners and needs immediate and professional attention.

In this book, award-winning author and highly influential dog trainer, Jean Donalson, provides a practical guide to the treatment of dog-dog aggression. Written in Donaldson’s down to earth and common sense style, ‘Fight’ explores the roots of dog social behaviour, the common presentations of dog-dog aggression, and how to use behaviour modification techniques to remedy them.

Donaldson begins by looking at whether aggression is normal or abnormal behaviour. She explains that aggression is hugely prevalent amongs animals in a natural setting, and, like fear, it is good in that it enhances survival and reproduction changes. Our problem is that we make the assumption that domestication has obliterated all aggression, with the exception of pathological, which is not in fact the case.

Donaldson continues by considering ritualised aggression, which she compares to a boxing match in humans. Although at the end of each fight there is a definitive winner, the rules that govern the match stop there being excessive injury or death, something that is very risky and also requires high energy expenditure. When dogs engage in ritualised aggression they will bite with non- maiming force as their intention is not to kill. As owners we often find even ritualised aggression distressing and our goal is for this never to occur. Donaldson compares this to asking us to go through our whole lives without once losing our temper, something which is obviously unrealistic. However, this does not mean we should just ‘let them work it out’ and refrain from all intervention.

We are then introduced to the behaviourist model, and Donaldson explains the difference between the behaviourist model, the medical model and the traditional dog training approach.  She also comments on which of these she prefers and why. Donaldson next looks at the nature vs. nurture debate, and explains how trainers often fall into the trap of believing behaviour that can be modified is learned and that which can’t is genetic. The reality is that the two are closely intertwined, with the environment also playing a substantial role.  The only way we can change behaviour, genetic or learned, is through the tools of operant conditioning.

Donaldson then moves on to looking at dog social structure paradigms and how this relates to aggression. She explains that there is very little research on social organisation in domestic dogs and therefore this leaves the situation a little muddled. There are many different ideas and theories on the hierarchies that dogs organise themselves into, as listed below:

  • Strict linear hierarchies
  • Non transitive or triangular hierarchies
  • Contextual dominance relationships
  • Subordinance hierarchies
  • Separate sex systems
  • Amorphous tiers
  • Any of the above with the add on of role reversal
  • Any of the above with the add on of retention clauses

She then looks at the most common types of dog-dog aggression, explaining the reasons  why certain dogs don’t do well with others.

Donaldson continues by explaining that although dogs are hugely social creatures , there are a great many dogs that lack the experience of meeting, greeting and interacting with other dogs. This can cause them to react in two different ways – either  as over the top ‘tarzans’ or with proximity sensitivity. She then gives us a typical history of dogs of both these types, explaining what behaviour they are like to display and why, and how in both cases this behaviour can escalate to aggression. Donaldson also comments on, and explains, some common causes of dog-dog aggression, which include bullying, play skills deficits, dog-dog resource guarding and compulsive fighting.

She then discusses the most important prognostic factor in dog-dog aggression, which is the degree of acquired bite inhibition (ABI). This refers to how much damage is done when the dog bites and is critical in determining the speed and approach of a dog’s rehabilitation. Donaldson provides us with detailed information on to how to assess this, as well as explaining these other factors that we need to consider when assessing prognosis. They are:

  • Owner commitment and compliance
  • Bite threshold and presence of protracted warning
  • Dog learning rate
  • Available recruitment pool

Donaldson next explains how to go about resolving ‘tarzan’ style aggression, recommending a combination of remedial off-leash socialisation with carefully selected dogs, and operantly conditioning better manners for on leash encounters. She explains which types of dogs are suitable candidates for this approach, as well as offering advice on dog selection, preparation and how to break up dog fights, including dealing with latch ons.  She continues by informing us of how these sessions should run, what to do if fighting does occur, how many of these play sessions we should expose the dog to, and when is the right time to start introducing them to regular dogs.

Donaldson then focuses on leash manners for the tarzan-style dog that has poor bite inhibition.  She discusses the use of halters, giving us a step by step guide to head halter desensitisation, client mentoring and then basic meet and greet handling practice and loose lead walking exercises. We are then ready to move on to on leash meet and greets with ‘tarzan’. Donaldson comments that this is a differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviour, or operant counterconditioning exercise, and explains in detail the process that should be followed. She also adds a word about ‘growly dog’ classes.

Next Donaldson moves on to resolving proximity sensitivity, introducing us to the principles of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. She explains how we can use these principles so the dog is able to produce a CER – a conditioned emotional response.  Donaldson explains how we can learn to recognise this CER, as well as informing us of the variables that can be used to manipulate stimulus intensity. She provides us with some step by step exercises, using desensitisation and counter-conditioning for proximity sensitivity, also looking at counter-conditioning without sensitisation and predictability. She then looks at operant mindset versus classical conditioning, as well as providing some operant exercises and sample operant conditioning rungs for proximity sensitive dogs. Donaldson continues by discussing combing classical and operant conditioning and mentions the use of medication in severe cases.

Donaldson next examines affiliative behaviours and meta-communication, explaining what to look out for when two dogs meet. Before addressing the resolution of bullying and play skills deficits, Donaldson explains what normal dog play should look like. She then compares this to the play of a bully, or dog with play skills deficit, explaining how we can distinguish one from the other. She continues by telling us how we can use negative punishment to resolve these issues, and. in the case of play skills deficit, why prompting self-interruption prior to negative punishment can be particularly effective.

Donaldson then moves on to looking at how to resolve dog-dog resource guarding. She explains the importance of resource management before discussing the various techniques that can be used for improving resource guarding. These are;

  • Desensitization and counter-conditioning
  • Operant conditioning of guarding dog
  • Operant conditioning of non-guarding dog

Donaldson talks us through all of the above techniques and explains how we can mix and match these for specific case types, providing step by step details on exercises to use.  In regards to resource guarding, she also mentions sibling rivalry (two dogs in the same household), predation and predatory drift and compulsive fighting.

Finally, Donaldson provides a number of measures that owners, dog professionals and public officials could take to reduce the incidence of intra specific aggression in dogs.

Detailed and informative,  Pia Silvani describes this as “ A long overdue book brimming with pertinent information about a cluster of complex behavioral problems that have perplexed dog trainers for years.”


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