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Conflict Resolution in street dogs and what we can learn from them

Street dogs, or streeties as we lovingly call them, frequently interact with other animals (non-humans and humans). These interactions can go either way - but they benefit the most by resolving conflicts without getting into altercations. Fighting is a high-cost activity for individuals, and most street dogs prefer to resolve fights without getting into a physical fight.

About 12 streeties have lived near my house for a few years. Their friendships and groups have been so fluid that I have had difficulty understanding their equations even after spending so much time with them. It is fun to watch new friendships emerge, and new arguments occur. After having watched so many interactions play out amongst them, this incident is the one that has remained in my memory for a very long time.

Intro to Our Lovely Streeties

Rocky came into our street maybe sometime in October 2019. The only other street dog at the time was Dobby, a meek dog scared of humans and dogs. Rocky was a young, friendly, and chirpy dog adored by the residents of the neighbourhood. He was also great with our companion dogs when we went on walks. About 2 or 3 months later, more dogs entered the street, and I lovingly call them Chocolate, Biscuit, and Blacky.

In the book “What is a Dog,” authors Raymond and Lorna Coppinger hypothesise the main reasons street dogs get into fights - high-value food, a threat to territory, or the presence of a female in heat. With our streeties, Rocky and Blacky started getting into arguments (barking matches), and things became more stressful as the pandemic and lockdown hit and more dogs were trying to access limited resources!

Street dogs or free living dogs of Bangalore

Lockdown in March 2020

With the shutting of markets, food stalls, bakeries, and meat shops during the lockdown, the streeties everywhere (including ours) had to rely on the community residents and street dog caretaker groups to feed them. They were also missing social interactions and seeking connections with humans, which was abundant before the lockdown.

I had started spending individual time with each of my streeties dogs. And I started seeing how amazing and loving each of them was in their way. Chocolate would keep both her front paws on us, get us to massage her chest, and stand till she had enough of it. Biscuit and Dobby did not enjoy human contact at all. Blacky would come to us with his puppy dog eyes and ask us to stroke and pet him and keep inching closer. Rocky would lean into us and sometimes even lick us lovingly.

Throughout my interactions with these dogs, I saw that though other dogs were fluid about their groups and dynamics, Rocky and Blacky never got along. There were repeated instances of fights between them. Over time, they had marked their territories, and Rocky never crossed what seemed to be a virtual boundary.


The Incident

One day, as I returned home, I decided to go and spend some time with my street dogs. Rocky was asleep in his usual corner, and Blacky sat on a ramp. As expected, they were within their respective “territories.” I decided not to disturb Rocky from his sleep. So I approached Blacky and sat with him for a while. After a while, I heard a low growl and looked around to see Rocky and Whiney (another dog whose story is for another time) standing a few feet away from us.

While I reassured Rocky with a hand gesture, I saw that Blacky decided to walk away. And as if Blacky had crossed some imaginary boundary, Rocky came quickly towards me, sniffed me, and sat next to me as I petted him and spoke to him.

So much happened in this interaction that we can very easily overlook. But I will try to break it down and discuss my observations and learnings.

  1. They both wanted to interact with me since I had built a relationship with these dogs. But because they both do not like each other and normally maintain distance from each other at most times, they preferred to take turns greeting and interacting with me.

  2. Reassurance, in this case, helped in de-escalating this situation. Since Rocky was at a distance, I used a reassuring hand gesture to tell him that “it is completely okay, and he can relax.” This gesture worked wonders for both of them to return to a calmer state and rationally choose their next move.

  3. Growling is a distance-creating signal used by dogs. When Rocky gave a low growl, Blacky readily understood what that meant. Ignoring this signal can turn conflicts into fights. This situation may have played out very differently if the dogs feared for survival or were emotionally dysregulated.

  4. Once Blacky understood what Rocky seemed to communicate, he acted upon that communication by creating more distance between them and walking away. The fact that Blacky had space and the choice to act is a big factor in how this incident played out. Having the freedom to walk away from a situation can have a massive impact on how one responds to a trigger.


What does this mean for our companion dogs?

A few things about this incident show what happens with street dogs and contrast it with our companion dogs.

Space, Freedom, and Agency

Most of the social interactions our dogs have with humans, other dogs, other animals, or anything else in the world really do not always happen on their terms. Who to meet, when to meet, how to meet, whether to meet at all, what are the exit options available - these are not decisions our dogs often have the freedom to make.

Had Blacky and Rocky been forced into interaction or even been closer than they deemed comfortable, this situation could have escalated like we see it does with many of our companion dogs. Once the dogs escalate, we use labels like "aggressive" and further escalate our "methods" to suppress this so-called aggression.

Instead, this incident shows how critical agency and freedom are when dogs interact. It shows that we need to rethink what we are doing with the social situations we put our dogs in.

Space is the other critical component here. When dogs meet, more space they have to create distance between each other, if necessary, helps in facilitating good quality social interactions. We can never decide a comfortable distance for a dog - only a dog can decide this. So, the larger the space available, the more comfortable they may feel walking away.

Respect a growl

A growling dog is not a bad dog. Let us respect a growling dog and understand that they are desperately asking for space when they are growling.

The fact that they have resorted to growling shows that they have already been pushed into an uncomfortable space. Rocky clearly communicated with a growl, and Blacky walked away. Even in the dog world, two emotionally regulated dogs have the ability to communicate and respond clearly. Unfortunately, when we see our companion dogs growl, we react by labeling them "aggressive" and want to suppress the behaviour or mask it by replacing it with "acceptable" behaviours. This approach does not address the underlying message the dog is communicating or the reasons for the discomfort experienced by the dog.

I would always respect a growl and, as the first step, give the dog the space they are looking for. I would then figure out what the various factors - biological, psychological, and environmental factors - that led to the dog feeling uncomfortable are.

Role of Emotional Regulation in such situations

The incident we saw between Blacky and Rocky is also an example of how it would escalate if the dogs were emotionally dysregulated.

Emotional dysregulation, to put it simply, is having big emotions and being unable to process and react to them in healthier ways. When an individual experiences big emotions (both "good" or "bad"), it impedes their rationality and ability to make sound decisions at the moment. Couple this with underdeveloped cognitive skills, and such situations are a disaster waiting to happen, putting the individual and those around them at risk.

If Rocky or Blacky were dysregulated, they would not be able to communicate effectively, process the communication and respond in a way that would de-escalate the tension.

This is critical because our companion dogs are mostly emotionally dysregulated and cannot process and react appropriately. But equally important is that we have not put effort into building their emotional resilience and cognitive abilities. Teaching a few commands does not mean they have learned the real skills necessary to navigate stressful situations in a healthy manner and recover from them easily.

Finally, dogs seem to know what to do in difficult situations. They don't need to be “taught” what they need to do or what we think they should do. They are well-equipped to cope with difficult situations. They need us to provide them with an environment that is not chronically stressful (it is crucial to understand stress) and be safe and reassuring individuals our dogs can look towards for emotional support and safety.

A Look at Conflicts and Conflict Resolution

Conflicts are quite common in human and non-human relationships. Trying to achieve a non-conflicting relationship can only create unrealistic goals and expectations, leading to perceived failure when conflict occurs.

Animals, including our dogs, seem to know how to resolve conflicts without leading to bloodshed (On War and Peace in Animals and Man by Tinbergen, 1968). What we see with Rocky and Blacky is a conflict that elicits withdrawal behaviour. We may often see conflicts arising in our dogs’ lives - maybe with other dogs, animals, or humans. What our dogs need, then, is not training on not getting into conflicts but the emotional understanding and the cognitive strength to resolve the conflict in a way that works for everyone. Rocky and Blacky showed us that it is possible. There are many more such examples.

Final Take

Street dogs act as a great model for how dogs are naturally meant to be and help us with a direction on how we can provide a life for our dogs to replicate their natural ethogram as best as possible. It was also interesting to see that even “enemies” in the dog world can co-exist peacefully without feeling threatened and constantly getting into fights at small encounters. If this is what “fighting like dogs” means, I will advocate this manner of fighting!

If your dog cannot resolve conflicts and finds it hard to emotionally regulate themselves, it is time to seek professional consultation. Book a FREE Discovery Call and learn how I can help you and your dog!


About The Author – Sowjanya S Vijayanagar

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Sowjanya is a certified Canine Behaviour Consultant. She works with dog parents who are struggling to understand their dogs. She is also an Associate Member of Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE). In addition, she is a canine ethology research enthusiast and hopes to work on various research projects.

Her dogs, Sammy and Zoey, inspired her to embark on this learning journey, and they will forever be her teachers!


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