Dealing with Sibling Rivalry
Dog owners are keenly aware of the many benefits of sharing their life with a dog. But did you know that numerous scientific studies have found that dog ownership has a significant positive impact on our health, including lowering a person’s risk of heart disease?
Having one dog in the family is wonderful and provides opportunities for walks, cuddles, fun, and games. However, our busy lives can translate into having to leave our dogs for long hours alone at home, which is often less than ideal. Adding a companion for your companion can give them additional outlets when you aren’t available – or even when you are!
However, it is important to pick the right dog in order to ensure a smooth transition and a lifetime of love between your pets. Please give serious consideration to the reality that some dogs do prefer to be singletons and don’t want to share their human’s love or have other dogs in their space. Don’t try to force them into it, as it can have negative emotional and physical ramifications!
Households with multiple dogs can experience jealousy, resource guarding, and play that just becomes a little too excited, going from play fighting to a real fight. It is critical to look at the dynamics of sex and age on how behaviours work out, as not all combinations are equally successful.
Issues Related to Gender
A very important element to consider is the gender of the dogs involved, since the differences in sexes are real! While it is possible for any gender combination to work, a combination of a boy and girl or two boys are the preferred pairings. Scientific studies have shown that two girls are significantly more likely to fight at a dangerous and damaging level and that a boy and a girl are the least likely to experience problems.
Statistically, not only do we do see a heightened level of difficulty when integrating a female dog into a home with a single resident female dog, but the fights are more likely to result in real injury and even death. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case, such as females being more likely to resource guard both their owner and their things, including food, bones, beds, and toys from another female. Females are innately looking to protect resources for their unborn litters, which isn’t a consideration for males, who don’t participate at any level in parenthood.
This guarding often stays at a low threshold, but it can erupt suddenly in a silent but dangerous way. While most male aggression is ritualistic, with a high level of noise and posturing, fights between females can escalate very quickly, and they are far more likely to result in injury. Any inter-female aggression should be taken very seriously and interrupted immediately.
The Age-Old Question?
Age is also a major factor, as puppies are truly obnoxious in their play style and literally get in the face of other dogs. Most adult dogs are intolerant of this behaviour and may give a harsh correction to the puppy. A puppy under 10 months of age should be closely watched when interacting with dogs under 6 years of age and not allowed to play with a dog over 6 years if there is any indication that the older dog is not interested.
The early interactions between puppies and adult dogs can also have long-term repercussions. An adult dog that is consistently growling or physically correcting a puppy may be on the receiving end when the pup grows up and realizes that they are the stronger one now. The older dog will have shown them that physical corrections are okay.
Dogs are very observational learners, especially when young, so we need to ensure that they are getting a calm message from the older dog. This means that the pup should be tired out with toy and human interactions before being allowed to interact with the older dog. Be sure to interrupt overt grabbing by the puppy at the adult’s body and have them take frequent breaks to settle down. Note that the dogs’ body clocks may be different as well, so the older one may want to play sometimes – but not all the time! You can use gates at various times of day, when one dog is feeling tired and the other just keeps begging to play.
Dogs have personalities, too, and these differences can create strife in any pair. When that happens, it can be hard to tell when we need to step in and manage the situation and when we should let them work it out. The key is to minimize the triggers that cause fighting and to recognize how triggers can pile up.
Be aware of the interactions that are most likely to be dangerous, and be especially vigilant at those times. The three most likely triggers of over-arousal are:
- Protecting a bed or lap space
- High-value bones, toys, treats, or meals
- Arousing play
That last one can seem like an oxymoron – how can play be a problem? When dogs (or kids, for that matter) are playing, the activity can trigger the happy hormones called endorphins, but it can also trigger the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin as well as testosterone. When play continues uninterrupted, these hormones can create a more intense interaction, and the play can slip into actual aggression. Be sure to help your dogs take frequent breaks in play, to keep things from escalating.
Things like feeding dogs their meals or bones fully separated can go a long way to reduce anxiety over resources. Ideally, they should be completely out of each other’s sight and any leftovers should be picked up immediately.
Ultimately, we want to create a calm environment while our dogs are eating anything in order to reduce stress on the one that is most likely to be challenged. I recommend having dogs in separate rooms or crates if there has been any posturing at all. They can likely be together while the meal is being prepared, practising calmness at that time, but only if it doesn’t provoke any growling or snapping.
With lap or bed guarding, you can gently rest your hand on the collar of the dog already in place and lightly hold them there as the other dog approaches. Calming strokes on the back reduces their stress level, and the light collar hold prevents them from lunging at the other dog. Continue to pet them and give calm praise as the other dog gets up, and provide enough space so that they each have their own spot to lie down on. As long as it’s safe to do so and you don’t have any concerns about food guarding, you can also give your dogs treats to mark calm, friendly behaviour.
Any growling that continues beyond a small initial warning would result in that dog losing temporary access to the resting spot. They would calmly, but firmly be directed away from the area, helping them to understand that guarding is not ok with you. They would not be allowed to return to the spot for several minutes. We do not want to use any fear or forceful methods in these interactions, which would increase the dog’s perception that this is truly a negative situation. A light, trailing leash can be helpful for dogs that are demonstrating these behaviours frequently, as it to reduce the emotion in the interaction with the person moving them.
To do this, gently put them on the ground. If they posture again when they are allowed up, then they lose the privilege for the remainder of the evening or period that you are seated. Laps and beds are essentially treats that they need to earn!
If it’s their own bed or resting spot that is causing the reaction, then be sure that all dogs have their own unique place and encourage them to go to it. Once again, gates can be useful if there is too much arguing over a particular spot.
Long-Term Management for a Happy Home
If fighting is an ongoing concern, the dogs should not be left unattended together at all. While dogs are more likely to fight when their human is around, it can definitely happen just because they wanted to protect some resource or stop unwanted approaches. My house is pretty much permanently gated so that the dogs are safe!
Two or more dogs can be great for all involved, but please do pay proper attention to their interactions to keep everyone safe and happy! Always capture and praise the calm behaviour that you want to help the dogs understand this is what earns them positive attention.