Sibling Rivalry: When Canine Housemates Don’t Get Along

“Stop copying me!” I’d yell at my sister, next to me in the car backseat.

“Stop copying me!” she’d whine, then stick her tongue out at me.

Mercy, she was aggravating. My father would tell us both to be quiet. We’d glare at each other across the imaginary demarcation line in the middle of the bench seat, just waiting to snitch if the other dared cross. Looking back, we were both annoying.

I adore my sister now, but it didn’t always seem that way growing up. I’m sure my parents wondered why we couldn’t just get along, but at the time it wasn’t easy. I often think about this when I’m working with clients whose dogs just don’t get along. Fixing the problem isn’t always easy.

When dogs in the same family are at odds, the results can be heartbreaking, and sometimes dangerous. It might be something minor, just a growl here and there. It can also be deadly serious. Rushing a dog with puncture wounds to the emergency veterinarian is not how you imagined your life would be when you expanded your family. So what can you do?

Don’t Assume You’ve Identified the Instigator

It’s not always obvious who is picking the fight. Just because one dog is the first to attack doesn’t mean he started the argument. I once worked with a client who had two French Bulldogs who had been fighting. When we met, she pointed to the larger one and said, “Bruce is the one who starts it. He’s bitten Titus three times.” My observation was very different.

During my hour with them, the fawn male, Titus, would repeatedly stare at Bruce, without blinking. When Bruce would try to go through a doorway, Titus would anticipate his path, get there first, and block him. I also noticed Titus lying next to the water bowl. To the casual eye he could have been resting, but I noticed his body was stiff and he was staring at Bruce the entire time. He was actually guarding the water bowl, preventing Bruce from drinking.

Both dogs were friendly toward me. At one point I started petting Titus. Bruce started to come toward me, and Titus gave a quick glance in his direction. Bruce flinched and stepped back. Easy to overlook – unless you know what to look for.

Titus was aggravating and threatening Bruce. When Bruce had enough, he would lash out. Echoes of “But she started it!” played through my memory. You may need a professional’s trained eye to determine what’s going on in your household.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

If you are starting to see an issue with your dogs not getting along, don’t put off getting help. Do not let them “figure it out on their own.” Dogs make bad decisions all the time.

If your dogs are physically fighting, or if you have dogs of significantly different sizes so a fight would be seriously unmatched, get the help of a professional, reward-based trainer. Using punishment-based methods can increase aggression, and aggression is what we’re trying to resolve. In the meantime, here are some things to start:

  1. Keep dogs separated when you are not there to supervise them.
  2. Teach practical behaviors, such as Sit, Down, Stay, Come, and Leave It. Train until they listen to you and respond the first time you cue them, even during distractions. Use treats so they learn they get rewarded when they do what you ask.
  3. Watch for signs of aggravating or threatening behaviors, such as staring or blocking, and calmly and in an upbeat tone redirect or distract the dogs immediately.
  4. Do not let the dogs compete over you. For example, if you’re petting one dog and another cuts in, don’t reward that behavior by petting. Proactively ask him to sit as he approaches. He can wait his turn.
  5. Ensure all dogs are getting sufficient social, physical, and exploratory activities.
  6. Praise the dogs when they are together and acting nicely.

While it’s true that not all conflicts can be resolved, many can. Bruce and Titus did very well with behavior modification, and now live in a peaceful household. And my sister and I are truly friends.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Teoti Anderson, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP, is the vice president of A Dog’s Best Friend, located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A professional dog trainer for more than 23 years, she is the author of The Dog Behavior Problem Solver, Dog Fancy Ultimate Guide to Dog Training, Animal Planet Dogs 101 Dog Training, Puppy Care and Training, The Super Simple Guide to Housetraining, Quick & Easy Crate Training, and Your Outta Control Puppy. A popular conference speaker, she has given presentations to pet owners, humane organizations, and fellow trainers across the United States and internationally.