The other day a client called, wanting my perspective on a problem she just couldn't solve. Two years ago she'd adopted two Labradoodle puppies, and together we potty trained Ruby and Rosco and taught them good manners with fun & enthusiasm. Within months, they responded to all the basic directions - including sit, stay, come, go to a place and leave it. They were model family dogs, happily walking on a loose leash with the family's six-year-old daughter, Becky.
On the phone, Sue, AKA Ruby & Rosco's mom, outlined her aggravation. The dogs got along fine except when she gave them chew bones. When she did, Ruby would throat growl and glare viciously at her brother Rosco. Although Ruby never bit him, she had charged over their daughter Becky to snap at him. Sue was worried Ruby might redirect her aggression to her daughter.
“How do you manage the situation now?” I asked.
"Well," Sue told me, "I avoid giving them the type of bones that bring it on. But the other day Ruby found something out in the yard and started growling again. I had no trouble taking it away from her - she never growls at me - but our daughter Becky was scared. Ruby is the sweetest thing otherwise. You remember from their puppy training - she has always been so affectionate. I just don't get it."
We scheduled a time for me to pay a house call. Here's what happened.
After reconnecting with balls and biscuits, I asked Sue a series of telling questions:
- What do you do before you give them a bone?
- What time of day do you give the bones?
- Where does Ruby go?
- What does Rosco do?
- How do the dogs act toward each other?
- Who starts growling?
- Does the other dog respond, walk away or stare?
Here's the short skinny:
Sue asks the dogs to sit before offering the bone. Next, Ruby races to the family room with her bone and then lays on the floor beside the couch and starts chewing immediately.
Rosco, on the other hand, saunters behind her, but instead of eating his bone, he drops it, preferring to eyeball his sister nearby. Sometimes, he eyeballs her at her level; other times he'll sit on the coach and glare down at her from on high.
Probing further I asked, "How do you stop them? Do your daughter or husband step in?"
Sue was very honest: "I have to admit I shout at her a lot. I've tried leaving her on a leash and putting her in her crate, but Rosco follows her and honestly, that makes it worse. I've taken the bone away, which works - but doesn't solve the problem. Becky gets scared and runs away; Dan loves the dog but just calls me when they act up."
One more thing, I questioned, "When does Rosco eat his bone?"
"When Ruby finishes hers."
"What happens when Rosco chews his bone - any shenanigans?
"Nothing, it only happens when Ruby is chewing her bone, and Rosco stares at or approaches her.”
I knew exactly what was going on: I didn't even have to be there.
This was sibling rivalry, canine-style, and something that comes up often in a phone consultation.
This bone caper wasn't a Ruby problem after all. It was a "Rosco being an annoying brother" problem. And one that is thankfully easy to solve!
Sure, Ruby's growl was startling. It causes anyone listening to flinch.
But Rosco knew that his sister was all bark-n-growl, no bite.
Ruby was doing the teenage equivalencing of shouting at her brother to GO AWAY.
I reminded Sue that Ruby had never shown any aggression to people. She was passive and inhibited whether sitting with her family or greeting strangers on the street. She had never coveted or clamped down on a toy when asked to "Drop it." Dogs, like people, don't change their stripes. Knowing that, helped Sue let go of that fear.
I also pointed out that she should offer bones when the dogs are tired; not as a replacement for play and rough-housing. Bones are great when the weather's bad if your dogs are chill, but for now, these two were getting too riled up.
Here is my 5 Step Plan for Fur-Child, Sibling Rivalry.
1) Remember, dogs who live together are siblings and siblings squabble. No one gets along perfectly all the time. Anything short of bloodshed is normal and can be managed easily, like Ruby growling at her brother, the equivalent to a teenager's "GO AWAY"!
2) Siblings get a thrill from getting each other into trouble. Dogs are no exception. While Ruby seemed the culprit, Rosco was thoroughly enjoying pushing his sister's buttons, so to speak.
3) Your fur-children may be addicted to your love and attention. Many dogs are as happy with negative attention as they are with positive attention. Be careful not to rush to the rescue too soon: you'll make tensions worse. When a dog is over-stressed, he/she will growl louder, bark more, and get snappy. As we had seen with Ruby & Rosco.
4) Focus on the positive, reinforce good behavior. Sue now took out the bones and stayed with the dogs while Ruby chewed her savory snack. First, she directed Ruby to her spot on the floor and Rosco to a location on the couch, out of eyeshot. She instructs both Sit and Stay, offering Ruby's bone first, Rosco’s last. Next, she sits between them and pets Rosco while Ruby savors her chew. After five seconds of calm, non-growly, chewing, Ruby gets a treat (and keeps her bone). If Rosco tries to shift or move, Sue reminds him to Stay and continues to pet him.
5) Keep calm & keep perspective. If Ruby growls, she growls. Nobody jumps at, lunges toward or yells at her. Rosco will be happy, getting full-on attention, and learning that he gets rewards too for ignoring his sister.
The reality? Imagine yourself, eating a a yummy treat: Would you want anyone, gazing at you while you savored the moment? Of course not!
Dogs and people are more alike than we're different. So remember: Life's just a journey. Grab your dog, and c’mon let's play!