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A Real Doggy Dilemma

Joan Hunter Mayer on June 18, 2012

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 4 months ago have slept together, played with one another, 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 towards Charlie – especially when Charlie was around my husband or our son. We’d give Smokey a five to ten minute time-out, and then both dogs would be fine with each other.

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 towards one another, 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 close to 4 months, both dogs are living in the same house but in separate areas, they no longer can be in the same room nor can they actually see one another without wanting to charge each other.

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 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. Very important step to rule out medical issues when behavioral problems transpire.

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

  • If you haven’t done so already, check with your vet on the option of having both Smokey and Charlie neutered. There is a higher incident of interdog aggression be-tween intact males, especially those living under the same roof. No guarantee’s of course, but it could very well help.
  • Management: Continue to keep dogs separated until you can work with a professional certified pet dog trainer or veterinary behaviorist that has experience with aggression cases such as yours. For help finding a qualified professional, check out the IAABC consultant locator.
  • 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 one another, un-less you are in training mode.
  • Another management tool is a plastic basket muzzle for Smokey, to help prevent biting. However, this should not take place of training. A muzzle won’t train Smokey to like Charlie, but it can help prevent an actual bite incident
  • Training: You do mention that you’ve worked with a trainer, but it sounds like they suggested you use a technique called “flooding”, as opposed to “desensitization”. Depending upon the individual animal, the anxiety producing trigger, and timing of when you are delivering rewards or punishments, you can end up, often inadvertently, making matters worse. For a more in depth explanation of training terms, please see this dog training blog post about training terms.

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, something like steak. In a nut-shell, 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 at us learning to swim: looking at a picture of a pool, baby toe in kiddie pool, sitting in shallow end, wading in shallow end, walking around shallow end, face in water for split second, etc… Not 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 dog’s 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 exposed to more stress than they’ve already been. Because this situation has gone on for sometime, doesn’t seem to be getting better, and appears to have put both dogs and humans at risk of injury, I’d highly recommend seeking professional help so you can restore your happy canine home.

Dear Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick, Poncho the dog. Joan is a certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior coach. Poncho is a 10-pound mutt who knows a lot about canine and human behavior. Their column is known for its simple, commonsense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog.

Joan is also the founder of the Inquisitive Canine and developer of the Out of the Box Dog Training Game, where her love-of-dog training approach highlights the importance of understanding canine behavior. If you or your dog have questions about behavior, training or life with each other, please email them directly.Ask The Inquisitive Canine is written by Joan Mayer and her trusty sidekick Poncho. Joan is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer and Dog Behavior Counselor. Poncho is a ten pound mutt that knows a lot. Their column is known for its simple common sense approach to dog training and behavior, as well as its entertaining insight into implementing proven techniques that reward both owner and dog.

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