What should you do if one of your dogs hogs your attention?
Last time, I explained why the “alpha dog” model doesn’t work well for dog-dog relationships, and I suggested some general strategies for a household based on harmony and politeness instead of on one dog bossing another around. This week, I’ll take one common form of conflict – the situation where one dog hogs all the attention and pushes your other dog away when she wants scritches too.
How to Deal with Jealous Dogs
This is one of those needs-a-disclaimer articles. The tips I offer should help in a situation where your dogs generally get along well, but Dog A is literally pushing Dog B out of the way to keep your exclusive attention. Or Pushy Dog might be giving Shrinking Violet a hard look to get the same result. If your dogs are fighting, or if one dog skulks around giving the other one a wide berth to avoid fights, or if they’re just generally tense and snappish around each other, you should get in-person professional help.
The #1 Rule for Dealing with a Dog Problem
Here’s a basic principle for working on doggy behaviours you don’t like. First, figure out what you’d like your dog to do instead. Second, figure out how to elicit the behaviour you like better. Third, reward the heck out of your dog for doing what you like. To apply that approach to mild cases of jealous pushiness, let’s assume you’d like Pushy Dog to sit or lie down quietly nearby while you pet Shrinking Violet. Another good behaviour for Pushy Dog might be to hang out with you and Shrinking Violet and take his turn enjoying your attention.
Start by Having Your Jealous Dog Stay While You Pet the Other
I’ll assume that Pushy Dog knows how to sit-stay or down-stay or both. If he doesn’t, please go teach him that and then come back. Now choose a time when Violet and Pushy are both relaxed and resting at a distance from each other. Ask Pushy Dog to stay, give him a treat, and go give Violet a brief mooshing. Then immediately come back to Pushy, give him a treat and some mooshing of his own, and release him from the stay. Do it again. Do it again. Do it at random times over the course of a few days and then up the ante a little–spend a little more time with Violet before you go back to Pushy.
By the time you’ve done a dozen or so reps, Pushy should be starting to look more relaxed about this whole business of you loving up that other dog. He not only got treats out of it, after all – he also got some mooshing of his own. Now you can start decreasing the distance between Pushy and Violet. When you do this, make Pushy’s stay shorter for the first few reps, then up the time again as Pushy gets used to being closer to Violet while you give her your attention. That is important for Violet’s sake too, because she’s learning that she can get face time with you even when Pushy’s nearby.
Get the Two Dogs Used to Being Closer Together
Teach your pushy dog to feel more relaxed about you paying attention to your other dog. Slowly decrease the space between the dogs. When I say “slowly,” I mean over some vague number of reps spread out over… well, over however long it takes! It’s not me, but the comfort level between the dogs, that can tell you how you’re progressing. As long as you’re seeing soft body language and relaxed faces, everything’s probably fine. If Violet seems anxious or Pushy seems to stiffen up during your practice sessions, go back to an easier level of training and work your way back up. If you’re really stymied, the dogs may have a more adversarial relationship than it seemed at first. That would be a cue to get professional help.
Pay More Attention to Your Jealous Dog in the Other Dog’s Presence
Suppose everything’s going well. One day, Violet comes and puts her head on your knee so you can moosh up her ears, and Pushy comes trotting over. As long as he doesn’t give Violet a hard look or shove her away, try switching your attention and petting back and forth between them. Whenever you’re focused on Violet, tell Pushy what a good dog he is. You can also slip him a treat if the dogs don’t argue over treats. If Violet leaves, either on her own or because Pushy did something to “encourage” her to go, immediately stop paying Pushy any attention and walk away. You won’t need to do this later, when Pushy has had lots and lots of practice sharing you. At this stage, though, it’s important for him to learn that he gets more attention from you when Violet’s nearby.
Earlier, I explained that the basic principle for changing behaviours you don’t like is to get your dog to do a behaviour that suits you better and then reward the heck out of it. That’s training from the human point of view. From your dog’s point of view, the big lesson is that he can get what he wants politely, by doing what you want. And that applies not only to his relationship with your other dog or dogs, but throughout his life – whether he’s going for a walk on a leash or hoping to score some of the roast chicken off your dinner plate.