By Charlene Marchand
For Capital Region Independent Media
At a time when many families are adding new “kids” to the household, I want to focus on an important aspect of canine mental health. This discussion will be about sibling rivalry.
To define our terms: dogs, living in the same household, that snarl, growl and begin posturing can progress to fighting and are experiencing a problem with sibling rivalry (whether they are siblings or not).
Usually, these continued struggles are a result of the animals not establishing their own pecking order or dominance hierarchy. Strong, secure “Number One” dogs – who many refer to as “dominant” – do not fight with insecure dogs who are “destabilized” in their home “pack.” Struggles usually occur between dogs of “almost equal” status. I refer to them as “mid-liners.”
Unfortunately, we often interfere inappropriately with the establishment of hierarchies in our households.
This occurs when family members correct or punish the aggression, and inadvertently encourage competitive behaviors and relationships. What happens as a result is that the submissive dog’s status becomes elevated, while the dominant dog’s status is lowered or compromised by our involvement. We are helping to keep the levels of dominance nearly equal, and subsequently these struggles, arguments and fights will escalate.
Situations such as competition for “mommy” or “daddy,” and competition over toys, food, etc., can trigger these hostile encounters.
What to do, what to do! Obviously, trigger situations need to be avoided. Dogs need time to adjust. We usually move too soon. We must assure the resident dog that all is still OK, while ensuring that the newcomer is comfortable with their position in the “pack.”
If the dogs begin to fight in your presence, you must reassure the aggressor, and reprimand the submissive dog. Your praise will help make the one dog more dominant, which will contribute to the rapid establishment of a stable social structure.
Handling techniques at home, in particular, should reinforce the status of the dog. You always feed, pet and praise the dominant dog first. If aggressive competition already exists, the submissive animal (or less dominant) should be “ignored” while you proceed to lavish attention on the dominant dog, until he or she is secure with his/her status.
Many behaviorists recommend setting up situations where you praise, feed and pet the dominant dog while the submissive one watches. This can be done successfully using a kennel or crate for the beta animal. If the situation at home is already too explosive, you can work the dogs in a neutral territory initially, moving to home turf later.
To quote Dr. Nicholas Dodman, head of the Animal Behavior Program at Tufts Behavior Clinic, “…it is extremely distressing to have dog fights in your home. However, sibling rivalry is one of the easier problems to solve, once you realize that DOGS DO NOT EXPECT TO LIVE AS EQUALS. Both dogs will be happier and more secure with a stable social order.”
Feel free to call us with any questions at 518-828-6044 or visit our website at www.cghs.org. Our Food Bank is open to any from the public in need of pet food or for those wishing to donate food from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. All of our cats and kittens are “Furrever Free” with all expenses paid. Spay/neuter clinics for cats are $86 male or female, including a rabies vaccination and a 5-in-1 feline distemper combination vaccination. Nail clipping services are available every Saturday from 10-11 a.m. at the shelter for a donation of $10 for cats and $15 for dogs (currently prepaid only).
Charlene Marchand is the chairperson of the Columbia-Greene Humane Society/SPCA Board of Directors. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.