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A tail of rivalry. Best friends, enemies and friends again.

Just over a year ago I was contacted by the loveliest of couples who have the loveliest of dogs, I’d worked with them with their younger one some time before on prey drive issues, but sadly now  these two beautiful boys dogs started throwing down their handbags on the arrival of the new human baby. The change in environment, the change in routine had taken its toll, but looking closely this was just the catalyst, things had been subtly building for a while.


I will be honest, I absolutely hate rivalry cases.  There are no guarantees, so much depends on the humans ability to manage the situation and to communicate closely with me.  I feel under immense pressure because I know where it can lead…..and so much is dependent on the ability to be a helicopter pawrent. Micromanaging every single step, paying attention to subtle body language, being patient, not rushing…..all things humans aren’t so good at. And, often this is too much for many owners, and sometimes the only safe choice is to rehome one.  It’s a huge emotional burden for all involved.


Rivalry – the honest truth!

Rehoming, often the first response people have in rivalry cases if someone asks online. And it is a reasonable response. Its very rare that I suggest rehoming, ( I will always advocate for the dog, and the humans) but I’ll be honest, when discussing rivalry with people, I lay it all out clearly when its deeply rooted, and I try to make it clear rehoming isn’t the only option but it’s a common choice made by people depending on the severity of the issue. Careful management really is important and that is often the hardest part for us to do. This is the part I have to emphasise to people. To really address the issue, it will take time, a long time in many cases.  Despite this, and despite how much I inwardly cringe at these cases, I get a lot of them and mostly, if people are able to do it, we achieve our goals and the dogs are reunited.  I have worked with people who just cannot cope with the emotional battering rivalry causes. It doesn't help your anxiety or mental health and often in these cases people will decide to rehome - and thats ok. It doesn't make you a bad owner, it makes you honest about what you realistically can do and cope with.


Any dogs that live together (or even don’t) can suffer with rivalry.  With the crisis in rescue at the minute, even if rehoming was an option, you still need to live with the situation until a home is found, which adds increasing stress if you are struggling already. Management really is the key and first step (as with most behavioural issues).


Many people are aware of the risks of sibling rivalry but like us, sometimes we fall out even if we aren’t related.  Unlike us, dogs can’t just go for a walk to chill out, they are stuck together, and so, the tension keeps building until it explodes.  I’ve had cases where just the smell of the other dog can send them into a frenzy.  Think about lockdown when you were stuck in the house together and then did your 1 hour walk together…..divorce rates shot up!


Its emotional, for the humans, who blame themselves, and in honesty for me.  I always want to do my best for people, and this is one of the situations where sometimes, my best, just doesn’t suit a situation.  Its hard on the soul.  I care deeply about every single one of my clients.  The relationships I have with my clients go far beyond what I expect they should, but we are talking about a member of their family, I feel their pain deeply and I admire them for doing their best. I am completely committed if the caregivers are.


The boys

Anyway, Arlo and Hux.  Their owners are very social media savvy and they actually documented a lot of their journey on Instagram….I didn’t know until 6 months in.  But here’s where it started, Tay and Azy have been remineded they need to update it, as it only really shows the half empty part of the journey. a r l o 🍯 & h u x l e y 🍩 (@arlominidachshund) • Instagram photos and videos


I’ve included screenshots from insta, which include comments from the pawrents, it shows where emotions and thoughts were at as they posted.  Feelings, you too may feel. Please remember the images are the property of the owners and are not to be reproduced.

 

Where to start, it’s a spiders web of crazy!

We had to look beyond the rivalry.  We had to look at each dog.  We had to go down the lines of divide and conquer as it the rivalry was so intense. In this case, just the sight of each other set them off.  We needed to build on the confidence of one especially, but allow them both a clean break from each other.  Thankfully in this situation separation was an option.  Then, after 2 weeks, we had to reintegrate, separate but together.  And the amount of adjustments we made to the plan were ridiculous as we worked within the dogs needs and abilities, constantly keeping them calm in each other presence.  You start with a skeleton plan, and then keep adding details depending on what you learn. This takes time, observations and lots of communication between all of us.


When I say observations, I didn’t quite expect a thousand cctv cameras to be put up, but they really helped.  It gave us eyes everywhere, but also meant none of us had rose-tinted glasses, we could see what may have led to a situation, and assess what went well and what didn’t without any emotions tainting the story. We could laugh and say, well, that was your fault. We had to have a sense of humour, and accept, we are human, and we make mistakes.....ooops. But learning from them leads to success.

And, as their owners had shared their story – their own therapy and to support others in the same situation, they had loads of support, and those questioning them, telling them to rehome them, that they’d never get them back together, that they’d kill each other.  Comments like this really knocked their confidence.   

But, thankfully, I had been completely honest from the start, and because we had worked together, they knew me well enough to ask and know they’d get an honest answer, the answer was….I don’t know.  We can try until you can’t try any more, then at least you know you did your best.  But, if you decide that is now, that’s ok too.  It wasn’t my place to instruct them on what to do, I knew these lovely people were determined and desperate to at the least try.  That there is my job.  If I’d felt strongly there wasn’t a chance I’d have said so.  But until we started trying I couldn’t say.  The environment was safely managed, they are superb parents so I knew safety wasn’t an issue. And I knew within a month they were going to put everything into it, which they did.


What next? 

One of the dogs had a tendency to guard his mum, so this was another issue we had to work on, on top of everything else as it had certainly contributed to the rivalry.  In fact poor mum, got sent out on walks without the dogs…..but she had a gorg baby for company.  This approach was carefully managed as potentially absence could have increased how valuable she was. But, it worked well. We slowly reintroduced mum and baby back to walks and interactions at home, but this was carefully done. Going solo started with a bumpy start!


They did lots of 1-2-1 training with each dog, they did muzzle training, knowing those beautiful pictures they held would look different for a while.  But they embraced that. We set up “bubbles” in the home.  Lots of static training. 

Calmed hot spots down, identified areas where one would guard and what contributed to that.  We looked closely (very very closely) at their body language.  CCTV in the home made life easier, but there must nearly 1000 videos sent over the year, and god knows how many messages and voice notes.  Then we progressed to reintroducing on walks at a distance

 And eventually this lovely pair came up to sunny Norfolk for a beach walk so we could get them walking side by side.  They were obviously a little worried about this bit so I started it off.


 Their turn:

 

 


Whilst muzzled, just in case, we got them happily running on the beach very quickly.  And home they went to practice this on walks near home, whilst still managing indoors – the hot zone. 

Then came the day we started reducing the restriction indoors, leads and muzzles were on. Careful counter conditioning with each dog.  Short easy exposures.  Thankfully not to many mistakes, but we modified things almost daily.


The muzzles came off on walks, yes, that made us all feel a bit sick.  The muzzles helped prevent any injuries caused by human error, they gave us confidence to allow low risk interactions.  The first time my stomach was flipping…..Tay and Azy were very good at involving me in these situations as they happened!

 


Castration?

We weighed up neutering, the difficulty was the IVDD risks of neutering, and neutering a nervous dog (which can increase anxiety).  We bided our time, brought their confidence levels up in that time,  and then did the chemical castration with the older one first, then when that did appear to help we surgically neutered, and then followed suit with the other in a similar way once his confidence was much improved.  Neutering isn’t the first response, it’s a long term or permanent change which you must weigh up carefully after working with a behaviourist first.  Sometimes it can go the other way, and timing is important.  Superlorin causes a surge of hormones which can increase aggression for several weeks, your vets should make you aware of this, and behaviourists should too so they can prepare you for careful management during this time.   Having a highly supportive vet made the world of difference.  There were also some issues over pain at the start, some anti anxiety medication for a short spell just to help facilitate learning as emotions were running high.  The vet was brilliant and very supportive. 

Family dynamics.

Makes all the difference. Its important that the people involved with the dogs are on the same page, working together. We frequently had opposite ends of perspectives, but this was really useful as each person saw different things. It balanced out the approach as they listened to each other and could find the appropriate middle ground. Everyone's opinions and perspectives are important and have significant weight.


Having both owners working closely with me meant they shared their thoughts, often at opposite ends of the scale, which meant I could identify what each was seeing and find a way through.  Its been the most intense, high risk team work I’ve dealt with in a while, and the one with the least conflict….with the humans anyway. These two fabulous humans have one of the most refreshing relationships I've come across for a while....and unique, not sure I could take the singing though!


Behavioural approach

Through all of this we used positive approaches, lots of reinforcement, lots of positive encounters, and opportunities for success.  We didn’t suppress any behaviours, but we did prevent the ones that were detrimental from occurring.  Yes, there were hiccups, which we quickly addressed, sometimes things moved a bit too quickly for the boys and it was a reminder how important going slowly was.  But the dogs were forgiving thankfully.  There weren’t any real set backs thankfully, because these wonderful people paid attention and communicated all the way through.

 

Progress

Anyhow, jumping forward and missing a lot of detail, over the year, the humans have taken their time, they’ve not rushed things, they’ve just taken it gently.  No force, no pressure, learning as they go along, and holding themselves completely accountable. And over the last few months we have seen the dynamics shift positively.  Its still not perfect, there’s still some things to work on, but that’s just time and practice now.

But we (and I say we as whilst I’m a few hundred miles away, the intensity of this case makes me feel like I’ve lived in the home for a year!)  We….. have them playing together again, listening to each other when one doesn’t want to join in, both moving away when they are uncomfortable, sharing visitors, sharing laps, sharing the sofa. Next step is sharing the bedroom!


A year though?

Is a year a realistic perspective of really resolving the core issue of rivalry rather than just suppressing the symptoms for a short term? I don’t know. Everyone’s situation is different, and this one had extra complications with 2 small legs…….and then the shock surprise of “btw Sharon……I’m pregnant again!” “Really!  No pressure then?!” This time, we know what to modify and adjust as needed. Everyone's situation is different, and putting a time on it adds pressure no-one needs. You cannot rush this. I've had dogs back together in a few weeks too, there really is no saying how long. (I wish there was) and this should be a consideration at the start.


We have had those conversations, those wobbles of confidence, laughter and tears, and recently complete disbelief at what is now happening.  Like, it happened overnight! But it didn’t its been a year of hard work and staying positive. The videos helped to give us hindsight, and on bad days allowed us to look back to see just how far we had come. It also meant we could monitor progress. I'd always said as long as we progress we are winning, if we get stuck, that's a problem. Staying positive but being more than aware that this may not get us anywhere.  A year of complete dedication, a year of trust in each other, and in me.


There are still steps to take, but some of these things may need to wait until bump makes its way into the world.  But to see videos of the dogs chilling on the sofa, fast asleep, completely relaxed is amazing. I am looking forward to seeing them again soon, hopefully on another sunny day so we can work on any residual reactivity issues in preparation for the baby coming.


Purpose of this blog?

The purpose of this blog is to be honest. Is there hope with rivalry, yes, there is, but every single case is different. No-one has the right to judge people on their choices.  The important thing is the dogs welfare, and the humans.  There is no room for ego’s, simple honesty, patience and communication.  Not just honesty from me, or between the caregivers, but honesty as to whether you can do what you need to do.  If you can’t that isn’t a judgement on you, I certainly won’t judge you, its an awful situation to be in.


This is a story of hope, of dedication and commitment, it is a story of huge dedication, emorional turmoil and a lot of lost sleep on all sides. It is real!


You cannot make a round peg fit a square hole.  You cannot force a relationship.  That will only put a bandaid on a wound.  But if you work hard at addressing the source of the issue, are patient with the highs and the lows, you can get there.  And if you can’t at the least, you know you did your best and any decisions to rehome are in the best interests of all party’s.  There shouldn’t be any guilt or blame placed on anyone.


For anyone struggling with rivalry, please seek professional behavioural support from a positive reinforcement focused behaviourist.  Make sure they are honest with you from the start. I always try to be.  Sometimes, I get a case so early I’m really optimistic, and sometimes its so deeply rooted my heart sinks.  Address it right from the start and you have far more chance of changing things before they become more deeply rooted.

 

Proud moments

Tay and Azy, I am so immensely proud of how committed you have been. Your story and dedication is one that I hope helps others facing similar issues and I hope gives them hope of a positive outcome.  And I am incredibly proud of your boys……now if you could do a repairing 3 on insta please, I’m sure everyone would love to see the rest of the journey, no-one likes a cliffhanger!  So when we get to repairing 4, we are welcoming a small human into the world, without any drama’s. My hair is grey enough!


Yesterdays update.

Unsupervised play with a toy.





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