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Training Tips for Dog-Eat-Dog Sibling Rivalry

June 9, 2011

Dear Inquisitive Canine:

I have two male Yorkshire terriers, Smokey and Charlie. They are about 2 years old, half-brothers (same father), and up until four months ago they slept together, played with each other and even ate and drank from the same bowls.

After breeding Smokey (in our home), we noticed that he started to become upset at various times toward Charlie — especially when Charlie was around my husband or our son. We’d give Smokey a five- to 10-minute timeout, and then both dogs would be fine.

Over time, we started to notice that Charlie would hide under the dining room table until Smokey would walk away from the food bowl — then Charlie would come out to eat. On occasion, Smokey would come running back, prompting Charlie to run back under the table, so we decided to use separate bowls.

We’ve tried desensitizing them (as our trainer put it), by placing each in their own crate, facing toward each other, barking and going nuts trying to figure out how to get out of the crate to get to the other dog. We’ve taken them to our vet, who says there is nothing physically wrong with either dog.

It has been nearly four months, both dogs are living in the same house but in separate areas, they no longer can be in the same room, nor can one actually see the other without wanting to charge at it.

I’m about ready to give up. Please help!

— Smokey and Charlie’s Mother

Dear Smokey and Charlie’s Mom:

Wow, this is indeed quite a doggy dilemma you have on your hands. I’m sure it’s a scenario you never imagined would happen.

I have to commend you on your keen observational skills. It seems you have become an expert in reading Charlie and Smokey’s body language. Bravo! I’d also like to acknowledge your efforts by having both dogs examined by your veterinarian. That’s a very important step to rule out medical issues when behavioral problems transpire.

Depending on what your goals, you might want to consider the following:

  • If you haven’t done so already, check with your vet on the option of having Smokey and Charlie neutered. There is a higher incidence of interdog aggression between intact males, especially those living under the same roof. There’s no guarantee, of course, but it could help.
  • Continue to keep the dogs separated until you can work with a professional certified pet dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist who has experience with aggression cases such as yours. For help finding a qualified professional, check out these resources for dog owners.
  • Each dog should still have walks, outings and play time with each family member. The only change in their routine should be that they are isolated from each other, unless you’re in training mode.
  • Another management tool is a plastic basket muzzle for Smokey, to help prevent biting. However, this should not take the place of training. A muzzle won’t train Smokey to like Charlie, but it can help prevent an actual bite incident.

You mentioned that you’ve worked with a trainer, but it sounds as if he or she suggested you use a technique called “flooding,” as opposed to “desensitization.” Depending on the individual animal, the anxiety-producing trigger, and timing of your rewards or punishments, can — often inadvertently — make matters worse.

The type of training steps will definitely revolve around the counter-conditioning and desensitization path. This is another type of “exposure treatment,” but one where the anxiety-producing trigger — in this case each dog — is delivered at very low intensity, while at the same time being paired with something each dog loves, such as steak. In a nutshell, the presence of Smokey will predict fabulous and wonderful things for Charlie, and vice versa.

Right now, the mere sight of the other causes emotional turmoil. To reverse that, you need to pair each dog with something the other dog loves, then they’ll learn to once again love each other.

It’s often best to follow a “slow and steady wins the race” plan. Think of it as learning to swim: looking at a picture of a pool, baby toe in the kiddie pool, sitting in the shallow end, wading in the shallow end, walking around the shallow end, face in the water for a split second, etc. As opposed to being pushed off the high-dive into the deep end with no lifeguard around. It’s not the most effective way for humans to learn, and I’m sure you’d agree that dogs don’t learn well this way either.

You’ve done the right thing by managing your environment. You certainly don’t want your dogs practicing behaviors you don’t want, or being subjected to more stressful situations than they have already. Because this scenario has gone on for some time, it doesn’t seem to be getting better and it appears to have put both dogs and humans at risk of injury, I would highly recommend seeking professional help so you can restore your happy canine home. To help find a qualified certified dog trainer, check the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers website for a one who can offer services that pertain to your situation.


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