Dealing with sibling jealousy by training emotional regulation

The biggest challenge we faced when getting a puppy was to ensure the dogs build a positive relationship. This was especially important because they are both females, and I was informed by our behaviourist that fights between two girls can be much worse than one with opposite sexes so you can imagine we were pretty keen to avoid any kind of potential Kill Bill scenario in the future.

Our behaviourist suggested exercises to teach the dogs to disengage when the other one was playing with a toy but unfortunately we needed two people to practice and therefore… never really got around to it for multiple reasons (/excuses).

Instead, I ended up improvising based on what I know from human psychology and specifically how emotions work.

To me it seemed like the problem was Nell’s internal emotional reaction to Grace (playing with a toy she perceived hers, i.e. all of them) so what I did was get Grace to play and while she was playing, Nell and I watched. Practically speaking, I sat close to Nell while stroking her back and speaking to her in a calm tone about what a good girl she was just watching Grace play. At the beginning I could feel the tension in Nell’s body when she was reacting to what she was seeing, but with the gentle stroking and calm words she eventually relaxed a little.

The theory behind this approach is that emotions are basically our interpretation of our bodily reactions and sensations (our interception). The same bodily sensations are interpreted differently depending on the context – i.e. butterflies in the stomach are excitement if you’re about to step into a rollercoaster or anxiety if it’s a job interview. The basic principle is that there is a connection between our body and our mind, and by changing one of them you can influence the other. This is how breathing exercises in mindfulness practice works: by slowing down your breathing, other bodily functions calm down and eventually your mind calm down too. (There is plenty of research on this so I won’t go in more detail – I’m sure you get the idea!)

Nell’s main problem is the ability to regulate her emotions, whether it’s excitement, frustration or jealousy/envy and her emotions go from 0 to 100 in seconds so it seemed like this could help her.

We have used this approach for 6 months now and, although I have no control group, something seems to have worked because most of the time now Nell can watch Grace play without getting involved and just walk away, and I would like to think that she has learned to control her emotions a little bit more in these situations. It still pops up though: today we played a dog sudoku game and while watching Grace play (it had already been Nell’s turn), I asked Nell to lie down nearby and every time I saw her lip slightly quiver in anger, I sternly told her it wasn’t ok. Because we have practiced taking turns a lot, this small but strict reminder seems to do the trick and she stayed in her place while Grace played.

As Grace is moving into puberty, we also have to practice taking returns with her because now that she is bigger, she has also started to react to Nell. Unfortunately, this is probably a backlash from Nell’s original resource guarding behaviour but we’ll deal with it the best we can now.

Although she is calmer, Grace also has strong and lightning fast emotional reactions to events so we will need to practice calmness and self control daily. It took me 2 years to teach Nell to have some restraint with food but it was worth it because teaching self control spills over to other domains than the original one, so I’m prepared for the work that is to come.

Food this close to each other was not possible 6 months ago