As a behaviour veterinarian, I occasionally get asked about rehoming a pet that is having issues.
Generally, with animals that have a mental health disorder such as anxiety, relocating them to another home can be difficult. It often just puts the problem onto another family and can make the animal in question worse.
Anxious pets need predictability and consistency, so putting them through the shelter system or rehoming privately to another family can be very disruptive to their emotional stability.
However, there is one situation where rehoming can work really well and should be considered as a potential treatment option. This is in the case of inter-dog aggression within the home.
When two dogs fight in a family, it can be very difficult for their caregivers both emotionally and practically.
Although dogs, like us, are a social species, it doesn’t follow that they automatically can, or want to, live with another dog.
It is currently estimated that mental health disorders in dogs occur at a frequency of at least 1 in 5.
A dog that has an agonistic and stressed relationship with another dog (within the home) often have an underlying anxiety disorder that impedes their ability to process the body language and behaviour of the other dog. Where both dogs suffer with mental health issues, the problem can be even more significant.
Part of my job is to assess which dog (or dogs) has the problem. Sometimes this can be harder than it sounds – often the dog that is seen as overtly aggressive may just be acting in a defensive way because the other dog is giving off agonistic signals that are missed by the owner.
Most clients want to ‘try to make it work’ because they love both their dogs and find it hard to make a decision as to which they will ‘keep’ and which they will try to ‘rehome’. After all it’s a bit like asking someone to choose between their kids. So inevitably we implement a treatment plan for both dogs.
Treatment for inter dog aggression generally consists of medication (where appropriate), management (separation of the dogs physically within the home to prevent the fighting continuing) and behavioural modification (to teach each dog a more appropriate behavioural repertoire).
This gives us the very best chance of resolving the situation so that both dogs can remain in the original home happily and safely.
But sometimes even with all of the above, it just isn’t enough to repair a fractured relationship.
I compare it to that of a domestic violence situation. Even if a violent partner seeks help for their own behaviour and promises that they will never resort to aggression again, their victim may find the memories of previous attacks too hard to get past. I believe this happens in dogs too.
Emotionally significant events (both good and bad) are ‘burnt into our brains’ and remain in our memories for life.
I have one wonderful and committed client that went through this very problem with her two beautiful boys, Barney and Trouble. The dogs had a history of multiple fights a day, which were increasing in severity.
Trouble is a great dog but fixates on things and keeping his arousal levels under control is a constant challenge.
Ultimately, after a year of medication and A LOT of work from their owner, teaching them to be the best dogs they could be, they still were nowhere near capable of interacting safely together off lead.
Barney, over the course of his treatment, went from being a fear aggressive/reactive dog when out walking, to a more confident and socially stable boy. This meant that when a suitable home became available, with a female dog of similar breed/size, it was practical to try.
I have no doubt that had Barney been introduced to another dog at the start of his treatment journey, when he was still fighting with Trouble and reacting to every dog he saw out on the street, he would not have coped in a new home with an unknown dog.
But armed with a new found confidence and better social skills he became a suitable candidate for a multi-dog home.
Barney is still on medication and his new owners are committed to continuing with his ongoing behavioural modification plan, but he is certainly thriving with his new canine companion.
As for Trouble, he is still very much a work in progress, but has settled into the role of ‘an only child’. His owner can now enjoy walking him and spending time with him on a ‘one on one’ basis and I have no doubt that the reduction in stress for everyone will see continued improvement in Trouble’s behaviour.
Rehoming dogs that can’t live together can be a legitimate outcome. But the responsibility falls on the original owner to make sure that the dog/s are emotionally resilient enough to cope with the change. When they do, and when everyone involved in the dogs care are on the same page, positive outcomes can, and do, occur.
If you have two dogs that are fighting, seek help as soon as possible. Treatment should be instituted to improve each dogs’ wellbeing and emotional health.
However, if things don’t work out as you had hoped, and the dogs’ relationship is too fractured to repair, rehoming one to a suitable home should not be seen as failure.
It is, perhaps, the most selfless thing an owner can do for the dogs they love.
Dr Emma Hughes, BSc (Hons); MSc (Animal Behaviour & Welfare); BVSc (Hons); MANZCVS (Veterinary Behaviour)