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Do Dogs Display “Sibling Rivalry”?

| Published on July 3, 2015

If you own more than one dog, you may have noticed some behaviors that make you think of two siblings fighting over things. For example, maybe you are petting one dog and the other runs up for attention too.

I knew someone who used this as a way to train her dogs. If she called the dogs to her and only one came, she would loudly tell the dog that came that he was a good boy and was “getting a cookie.” This course, made the other one come running. Or, if one was barking and one wasn’t, she would do the same.

Image source: @Scottfeldstein via Flickr
Image source: @Scottfeldstein via Flickr

It made me wonder, however, if this was really sibling rivalry or more that the dogs had learned that “getting a cookie” meant treats were being dispensed. I decided to ask Robin Bennet, CPDT-KA, a dog behavior expert and author of All About Dog Daycare, co-author of Off Leash Dog Play and Knowing Dogs Staff Training. As a dog behaviorist, she is the best source to shed some light on whether your dogs are really displaying sibling rivalry, or if it’s just learned behavior based on your actions/reactions (and why it matters!)

Would you consider the example of my friend explained above true “sibling rivalry” like in humans, or is something else going on here?

RB:  I’m not sure I would consider this true sibling rivalry but I do think dogs are opportunists and they will look for ways to get something if there is a reward in it for them.  So if one dog is getting a treat, it is highly likely that the other one will want it too. I look at jealousy more in the sense that the dog won’t just come running to get the cookie, but might move the other dog out of the way to get a cookie while also preventing the other dog from getting one. I have also seen competition among dogs for attention (without the treat involved) which might seem more like jealousy.

Is it possible that the words she says, “Dog’s Name gets a cookie” have just become another word for “come” and that is why the dog’s act that way, nothing more?

RB: Yes… I think this is very possible. Even if it may have started out as something related to jealousy, it is possible that the signal because a cue to mean “food is coming.”  

As far as training, are there any pros to using this competition or jealousy with “sibling” dogs (dogs living in the same house)?

RB: I think when you do a sequence of “dog’s name gets a cookie” you can help to reward good behavior and distract the dog doing the inappropriate behavior so that he chooses to do something else (and then gets rewarded for it). This really isn’t any different than interrupting bad behavior in order to get the dog to do something else. That is always a good training method and can help reinforce good behavior while managing the inappropriate things.

Are there any cons or possible negative consequences?

RB: I think the main con would be if two dogs really are overly competitive and already fight over food you can increase the likelihood that you will cause a fight.  For those situations, I would not try this particular method.

Image source: @thecoolspringpack via Flickr
Image source: @thecoolspringpack via Flickr


We know from the University of California, San Diego study, that dogs can display jealousy. The examples they give in the study sound very similar to the situations my friend was creating with her two dogs while training. Dogs in the study displayed what we humans consider jealous behaviors when their owner was giving attention to a fake dog. When their owner looked at a pop-up book or a jack-o’-lantern, the dogs were less likely to display jealous behaviors.


So sibling rivalry may just be another example of jealousy coming out. Or, as Bennett touches on above when she mentions competitiveness, it could have to do with resource guarding.

For example, do your dog’s squabble over sitting in your lap?  You may think your dog’s are just being “jealous” while they are both vying for your lap, but there could be an element of resource guarding (you are the resource) that is at play in that situation.

Image source: @TarotheShibaInu via Flickr
Image source: @TarotheShibaInu via Flickr

I have a dog that is a resource guarder as well as reactive. If he runs off after a bird and I haven’t caught his attention before his brain “switches off” he won’t come to me at all…UNLESS I call the other dogs and give them treats. THEN he comes running and shoves them out of the way. In this case, it’s more of a guarding behavior, I suspect, than what we would consider jealous or rivalry.

It also brings up a good point. I try NOT to do that with my dog unless I am worried for his safety (emergency situation) for a couple reasons. One, I don’t want to reward him for guarding behavior. Two, if the other dogs are not around and I have not taught my dog a reliable come without the use of another dog, I would be in BIG trouble.

“I would rather rely on my training of a single dog initially rather than relying on the sibling dog to help me teach in most situations,” says Bennett.

So while it may seem easier and therefore tempting to use your other dog to get the misbehaving dog to mind, just remember the other dog may not always be around and what then?

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