"Sibling" Rivalry: Can't We All just Get Along?

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Dogs are social animals whose evolutionary history makes them willing and able to live in groups.  Group living enabled wolves to work together to obtain food, raise their young and defend their territory.  It would be counter-productive for members of a group to fight with each other and risk injury.  Although domestic dogs are not wolves, they do have a social structure in which each dog is either dominant (leader) or subordinate in its relationship with each pack member.  This is a "dominance hierarchy".  The leader or "alpha" dog has first access to all "critical" resources, such as food, resting places, territory and favored possessions.  Assertion of dominance is generally communicated through facial expressions, body postures and actions.  Fighting is RARE, since as soon as the subordinate submits or defers to the alpha animal, the challenge is finished.

Fights between "siblings" or dogs in the same household are often about dominance or social status.  Social status aggression most often occurs when dogs reach social maturity at 12-36 months of age.  Fights will be about those resources that are considered import to the dogs.  Therefore fights may occur over treats, owner’s attention, greeting the owner upon return, sleeping positions near the owner, entering or exiting the home, high arousal situations such as fence running, or movement through tight spaces.  These fights occur most often between dogs of near equal status and often, but not always, dogs of the same sex, and seem to be most severe between female dogs.

Don’t make the mistake of trying to treat two dogs as equals, as that will only serve to counter the natural tendency toward a hierarchy.  The dog that is the more dominant dog needs to be supported in its position and the more subordinate must be taught to accept the relationship.  When you support or encourage the subordinate dog, the dominant dog may begin to challenge and fight, in an effort to keep the lower ranking dog in its “place.”  If you then discipline the dominant dog, or pull the dominant dog away, you have favored, supported and come to the aid of the subordinate dog.

Conflicts may occur when the dominance status is ambiguous or when they are particularly close in rank.  After the decline, illness or death of an older dog, fighting may begin in the remaining dogs even when one is clearly dominant.  This is because the older dog may have been dominant to both dogs, and now they are trying to establish new positions. In any case the fighting can be severe and injurious.  Although you should generally attempt to allow the dogs to resolve their differences on their own you will need to intervene if there is the potential for injury.  Under NO circumstances should the dogs be allowed to “fight it out.”

Aggression between household dogs can be difficult to treat.  You need to identify the subordinate dog and ensure that you are not encouraging the subordinate dog to challenge the more dominant.  A common owner error is the desire to make life "fair".  This often results in owners allowing subordinate dog’s access to resources, such as attention, treats, toys, or entry into territory that they would not normally have.  If you encourage or protect the subordinate dog, it may be "tempted" to break the rules, and the dominant dog may become aggressive to enforce the rules.  If you then punish the dominant dog for aggression, the subordinate dog learns it can engage in prohibited behavior while the owner is present.  This is why, in some households, there is no fighting when the owners are gone.  The subordinate is aware of the hierarchy and does nothing to challenge the dominate dog, unless the owners are around to intervene.

Although the dominance relationship between the two dogs must be dealt with, the first step is for the owner to gain control over both dogs.  As the owner or “parent” your presence and commands should be sufficient to prevent all dominance challenges between dogs and to intervene as needed when threats emerge.  Control of each dog is achieved through the use of verbal commands, by leaving a leash and head halter attached for immediate control and by withholding all rewards unless earned!  Attention on demand not only encourages situations where one dog may challenge the other, but also allows your dogs to control you.  Inattention on demand teaches the dogs that all rewards are provided only when you choose and reduces or eliminates those situations where challenges might occur.  Head halter with leash control and obedience-reward based training of each dog should first be done separately. 

Care must be exercised to watch for bullies who do not allow other dogs any status and are not consistent in the application of threats and response to deference.  All dogs must have some status and the ability to respond in an appropriate manner and thus avoid aggression.  If you are petting the dominant dog and the subordinate dog approaches, make it wait.  Importantly, you must avoid all circumstances that elicit aggression.  If the dogs are likely to fight when you are away or when you return home, separate the dogs whenever you are out, or not available to supervise.

In most cases, sibling rivalry can be treated and managed, however, in some cases, despite owner control and intervention, aggression may persist.  In those cases alternate living arrangements for one of the animals may need to be made.

This is often a complex situation needing professional guidance.   There are a number of very competent trainers that would be qualified to work with you, if needed.  Please feel free to contact me either by phone or email if you need further information or referrals.  rsjones@jefferspet.com  or   1-800-533-3377 ext. 381

Renee Jones is a certified professional dog trainer, having received instruction from canine behaviorist Dr. Pamela Reid, plus nationally acclaimed trainers: Patricia McConnell, Pia Silvani, and Jean Donaldson, to name a few. She is a member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC).  She serves as a Pet Marketing and Canine Specialist for JeffersPet and JeffersPet.com.

Questions about this article, training, or non-emergent health concerns are welcome. Renee can be reached most days from 9am – 5pm Central Time (Mon-Fri).

Information given here is meant to be helpful and/or educational. It is, in no way, intended to supersede, challenge or supplant the diagnosis, treatment or advice of a licensed veterinarian.

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  • TS from Wylie

    Great article!!!

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