What is sibling rivalry?Sibling rivalry is common between two or more dogs living together in the same household. It often involves acts of aggression, ranging from minor up to very serious incidents. As an owner, seeing such an event unfold before your eyes, is a highly stressful and emotional experience, especially if one dog is bitten or hurt by the other.
Why does sibling rivalry occur?
Sibling rivalry is often caused by jealousy (particularly by one dog towards the other), competition for resources and shared space, intense arousal and excitement, as well as an inherent need by one dog in particular, for absolute attention from their owner.
It’s important to note that, more often than not, the aggressor dog is not bad, simply competing, highly aroused or excited and so, as an owner, it’s imperative that you don’t perceive the dog as dangerous or threatening and behave differently towards your pet dog.
How to prevent sibling rivalry.
Although it can be difficult to completely prevent, there are specific strategies and targeted routines that owners can put in place that can significantly minimise the occurrence of sibling rivalry. These are more likely to be effective when both dogs have known one another and/or lived together for a period of time, and otherwise have good social skills with each other. But, on occasions, become embroiled in acts of aggression, whether it be minor or in some cases very serious.
Outlined below are strategies and routines that can substantially minimise the occurrence of sibling rivalry.
Participating in shared activities together.
Enabling both of your dogs to engage in shared activities together, can help them to build and foster a closer and more harmonious relationship. These activities can include going on fun walks together; exploring the same outside areas together including both sniffing the same spot at the same time (a real winner in our opinion!); having a friendly play fight including a tug or war with a rope; and playing ball and chase games together.
What’s important is that as your two dogs engage in these shared activities, you identify and reward all calm, relaxed and playful behaviours in real time, and as you see it happening. This reward can be either giving your dogs a tasty treat at the same time, a mutual pat or excitable verbal praise. Or a combination of all three. The timing of the reward will be important so that the correct message can be relayed to your dogs – ie that when both dogs are nearby to one another and are being nice and friendly toward each other, they will be handsomely rewarded by their owner for their good behaviour.
As well as reinforcing and rewarding outdoor activities, reinforcement should also be applied during moments of calm, friendly and relaxed behaviour between your dogs when both are inside. If your two dogs are lying down near each other resting, then reward both of them for doing this. If you catch them sniffing or licking one another at various times, then also immediately reward this. From personal experience, I will always do this when our two Weimaraner’s are having playful or tender moments together. Over time, this helps to strengthen their relationship and reduce competitiveness often triggered by our female Weim.
In doing the above, whether it be inside or outside, you can greatly assist in steering the relationship in the right direction and help to minimise the chance of sibling rivalry. Sending the right messages to both of your dogs at the right time will have a prominent effect on how they perceive one another. It will be necessary though to consistently and repetitively reinforce and reward these desired behaviours whenever possible, so as to have the desired effect.
What’s important is that you reward any behaviours that your dogs display towards one another, that you have deemed to be positive and friendly.
Keeping everything in balance.
Keeping everything in balance simply involves ensuring that your two dogs get the same thing at roughly the same time. The goal here is to ensure that one dog – particularly the aggressor – does not feel that he/she is potentially missing out. Some examples can include being fed at the same time in their allocated eating areas; being given a toy to play with; having their leads put on prior to going for a walk; and about to leave the family home together.
In applying the above, I will always sit both of my Weimaraner’s down, side-by-side, prior to giving them each a treat, and then continue to alternate who receives the next treat first. Their facial expressions and body language consistently demonstrate that they understand this alternating arrangement and are happy with this.
It’s important to ensure that your two dogs sit before being given food, an item (ie toy), or before they are about to participate in any type of activity together. You may also alternate between dogs as to who receives the food/item/treat first. Like with shared activities, constantly reinforce and reward all compliant behaviour shown by your dogs, particularly as they are sitting down nearby one another in a relaxed manner.
Focusing more attention on the aggressor.Quite often with sibling rivalry, one of your dogs is more likely to be the first to become aggressive with your other dog, particularly in certain contexts and situations. Although this may not be the case with all incidents that occur, certainly in the majority of situations the same dog will nearly always be the aggressor while the other will merely react to this overt aggression.
If you find that this is the situation, then – while still being mindful of the need for balance (as discussed above), it is recommended that you provide more attention to the aggressor dog before showing any attention towards your other dog. Always ensure however both dogs can see one another so that the aggressor dog is fully aware that you have gone to he/she first. The goal of this approach is to help diffuse any jealousy, frustration or competitiveness that the aggressor dog is feeling towards the other, especially in relation to gaining your attention, focus and company. After showing this attention, it is then ok to go towards your other dog and show the same behaviour.
The above approach could be applied during cuddle time, for example, when you physically embrace the aggressor dog while using a lot of upbeat verbal praise as part of showing your attention. Following this, then go to your other dog while the aggressor dog is watching on and do the same. This approach can also be applied when you first return home and want to give both your dogs your attention. Simply go to the aggressor dog first, and then the other. Again, ensure that both dogs can see one another while doing this.
Minimise triggers and pressure points.
This involves avoiding scenarios and situations which will more often than not, lead to your dogs being triggered into aggressive reactions with one another.
A prime example could be your two dogs competing for space at the front door, especially if they know you are about to take them for a special outing. Due to their heightened arousal and excitement, one dog could attack the other through redirected aggression (that is, using aggression towards the other dog as a way of coping with the heightened anxiety/excitement of knowing he/she is about to go somewhere fun). Equivalently, meal time may trigger aggressive reactions due to the anticipation of about to be fed, especially if the two dogs are eating too close together.
In order to help avoid these types of situations, it is first necessary to be able to identify and anticipate in advance when, and in what context, an event is likely to occur. In being aware of this, you can then put in place specific safeguards including keeping your dogs adequately spaced apart, especially when eating; under a controlled condition such as in a compliant sit or drop; use of a doggie gate to help separate them in times of high arousal (so one dog is on each side of the gate); or use of distractions such as new toys or high value treats to divert their focus away from each other, when high arousal and excitement is present.
In summary, getting more confident in understanding the triggers that cause aggressive reactions, and putting remediations in place ahead of time, will go a long way towards preventing a future event from occurring.
As I said at the top of this article, it can be a stressful and emotional time in your household if sibling rivalry is occurring between your dogs. If you're interested in continuing the conversation, talk to Active Creatures.