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Size Doesn’t Matter in This Multi-Dog Household

February 20, 2011

Q: Dear Inquisitive Canine,

I have 2 dogs, a Dane and a Chihuahua. The Chihuahua intimidates the Dane. She won’t let him eat, play with toys, or do anything. I have to separate them or else he would live in a corner. She doesn’t bite or attack him. All it takes is a look or at most a growl. What can I do to restore my happy home?

My friend “Shirley” says the Dane is a wimp, but he’s fine with other dogs, and so is the Chihua-hua. Help!

Thanks from the war zone

A: Dear War Zone,

Ah yes, “sibling rivalry.” It’s a shame when family members don’t get along. Humans have been known to have arguments now and again, and from my experience as a certified professional dog trainer I can tell you that our pet dogs are really no different.

From what you’ve described, it sounds like the Dane is being quite the “gentleman.” He is listen-ing to his sister, reading all of her doggy body language and vocal communication, and doing what any smart dog would do – not challenge her. It’s safer for him to back off, than to treat her like a squeaky toy and get in huge trouble. You, and your friend “Shirley” can be thankful that he is a good listener.

As for your Chihuahua, she has certainly developed some undesired coping skills, at least by human standards. She may have at one time been unhappy about something and expressed her-self using normal doggy communication (hard stare and growls). Her discontent may have gone unnoticed or ignored – by the Dane and/or by you. If this is true, and she was completely ignored, then she will have gotten louder (or more assertive and intimidating) with each episode, until someone paid attention!

Other possible “triggers” could be “resources” and/or the Dane himself. Resource guarding is a strongly hard-wired (DNA) behavior, and can rear its ugly head at any time. For your Chihuahua, the resources could be food, a food bowl, toys, attention from you, or anything else she considers “valuable”. What started out as a “normal” reaction to wanting to guard things, turned ugly be-cause once again she was either ignored, or she got “in trouble”! Maybe yelled at? Sent to her room? “Grounded”? Banished to the dungeon?

If this is true, and the attention she is receiving is more of “getting in trouble”, then she may have also started to associate the Dane with feelings of anxiety and frustration every time he is around, and in turn, lets these feelings be known right from the get-go.

Then there’s the human component: their communication starts (growls, hard stares), you tense up because you don’t like this type of behavior – maybe using a not so cheerful voice – which predicts nothing good for her, resulting in chaos and unhappiness all around.

No matter the cause, the approach is the same: create an environment where both dogs love being around each other. How do you achieve this? Simple. Pair each dog with something the other dog loves, then they’ll start to love that dog. Take it slow and steady – baby steps if you will. When you’re not training, manage your environment to help prevent both dogs from practicing objectionable behaviors.

  • Training:
    • The goal is to change your dogs’ perspective of how they see each other using classi-cal conditioning techniques. Pretty “fancy” for dog training. But it’s simple and it works! Right now it sounds like the mere sight of one another brings on feelings of dread. You want to re-verse that, right? This is the plan:
      • The Chihuahua gets steak (or other high value yummies) and attention (happy talk from you) whenever the Dane is around. She’s ignored and gets nothing when he isn’t there.
      • She gets lots of rewards whenever she is behaving nicely towards the Dane.
      • If she behaves in a negative way, she doesn’t get yelled at. You can confine her to her own room, but again while providing enrichment (food toys, chewies etc…).
      • Her only “punishment” is that she doesn’t get the high value food and attention from the rest of the family. Think of it as sending a child to their room with snacks and a video game, not “grounding” them.
    • The Dane gets lots of yummy steak (or other high value reward) whenever the Chihuahua is around. Pair her with something he loves, and he will love her…eventually. But it takes time, patience, and consistency.
  • Management: remove all objects the Chihuahua likes to “guard” (or gets bossy over). Keep them apart from each other if necessary, but if you’re confining them to separate areas, provide enrichment so it’s not so much of a punishment. Include chewies, interactive food toys, etc. Also, make sure they’re tired from exercise so they’ll want to nap.

Most importantly, reward desired behaviors. Catch your dogs in the act of doing what you want, then reward them for it. Even being in the same room, and ignoring each other can be re-warded. It’ll flow over into “creating pleasant associations.” Both dogs will begin to associate the other dog being around with good things for themselves. You’ll know it’s working when they look at each other, then look at you for their reward. What a nice, simple, and quiet way to create a “no war” zone.

Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by certified professional dog trainer Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick Poncho the dog. Joan is the founder of the Inquisitive Canine and developer of the Out of the Box Dog Training Game, If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, please email them directly.


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