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

Reset with sleep and slow games

Today is a low-key home day with lots of sleep to “reset” the dogs after a busy weekend. Our weekends are often filled with beach visits, trips to the garden centre and generally lots of activity for the dogs – in short, a ton of stressors because even a highly exciting trip to the beach winds up the adrenaline system for these two crazies.

Usually I let them potter a lot in the garden but today they are both obsessed with eating the (organic) plant fertiliser we put down yesterday, so I’m keeping them in more than usual which means toys and games.

They’ve already done a treasure hunt indoors (treats hidden everywhere), and in the morning we played with the Trixie game (below) which took both dogs all of 30sec to solve.

This is one reason why I rarely buy these more complex games – too often they are one-trick ponies that don’t entertain for very long, and also they require my attention. I love playing with my dogs, but sometimes I need to focus on other things and then independent games are just what I need.

So, today I have a selection of toys they can work on by themselves – different shapes mean different puzzles, and more thinking!

This pile meant 20min of entertainment with one filling – in the time it’s taken me to write this, they are already done so I need to go and collect the toys for a refill…

The things we do for our dogs

Last night, we made a sandbox. Both dogs, especially Nell, have a deep love of digging – pun intended, because the first thing she did when we moved here in November was to dig huge craters in the garden. So, in the interests of keeping our new garden (once it is ready) safe from the little diggers, we decided that a shady, tiled corner of the garden had just enough space for a small sandbox – and it would also fit perfectly in my plan to create a sensory garden for the dogs because it’s their garden just as much as ours.

20190418_202555Grace enthusiastically joined in on the building process and immediately understood the point – we still have some persuading to do with Nell, but we’re sure she’ll soon discover the joys of the box too!



1 dog +1 puppy = more than 2 dogs!


img_20190418_093247_288I knew raising a puppy would be hard.

I knew we would need to work hard to nurture the relationship between the two dogs.

And I knew all of this would be doubly hard because of the breeds we’ve chosen.

Yet, I hadn’t quite realised just how much work the combination of all those things would be. I’m really grateful that I have the time while on my sabbatical to focus on the dogs, and that I have the luxury of being unhurried in everyday life. If I had needed to go back to work full time after, say, two weeks off to welcome the puppy in our house, I would be a nervous wreck because it is already a part time job to look after these two dogs because we need to consider both dogs’ needs and their interaction.

The baseline is that our existing dog, Nell, is very active and needs a lot of mental stimulation, as well as being a keen resource guarder. Add a bouncy puppy to the mix, and I have a lot of preventive policing to do by removing toys from the floor and watching their body language when they move around from the corner of my eye.

From that same corner I try to keep track of what Grace is up to because practically every minute she has a different thing in her mouth – cables, cardboard boxes, kitchen roll that was on the low coffee table, wood chip or ivy leaves from the garden… and of course her own poop. She also likes to jump of the back of the sofa (sometimes straight into the pavement in the garden!) which is not good for her bones, so it’s my job to try to protect her from her fearless young brain.

If I don’t pay attention, Nell will try to sneak into Grace’s playpen to steal one of the toys – that is, when she isn’t requesting the garden door to be opened for her for the 11th time that day. We could, of course, just not open the door for her but dogs don’t have the internet, books or TV – i.e. anything to entertain them. So if my philosophy is to give her a rich, fulfilling life, I can make that small effort to give her access when she wants it – just a sniff is as important a reason to want to go outside than a toilet need. Thank goodness for spring and warmer weather so I can just leave the door open!

Now, if all that wasn’t enough, my biggest job of all is to make sure the dogs sleep. Of course, I take them out for their exercise and balance Nell’s needs with Grace’s age limitations but by far the hardest thing for two FOMO spaniels is to get them to settle, relax and sleep. As long as I’m moving around the house and doing things, I will usually have two faces following me around – even if they are lying down, their eyes will be open to make sure I don’t have any fun without their knowledge…

Puppies obviously need a lot of sleep to grow their body and mind, but sleep deprivation is challenging for even adult dogs. Psychological research on humans has shown that when we are sleep deprived, we are more irritable, prone to mood swings and perceiving things to be a threat when they are not – all of which are detrimental to nurturing a positive relationship between Nell and Grace.

img_20190418_140657_885Getting them to sleep enough is a more important job right now than making sure they have a lot of exercise. As busy doggies they keep their minds busy just in the garden by themselves and with our daily nosework games, but they need some help in finding their “off switch”. So what do I do? I sit down either on the sofa or at my desk, and wait for them to settle and start snoring. I don’t move even to go to the toilet to make sure they definitely fall into deep REM sleep because that is when their body repairs and regrows itself, and their minds process emotions and events of the day. Dogs also reach REM sleep less than humans (10% vs 25%) which is why they need to sleep so much more than we do. 

So, here I am – blogging about dogs sleeping while they sleep. And I’m definitely going to let these sleeping puppers lie as long as possible before heading out for a walk 🙂



Puppy meets the Lady of the House

My biggest fear about getting a puppy, or second dog in general, was that they would not get along with Nell who is mostly the sweetest dog you’ll meet – except when it comes to whatever she considers her possessions.

And even more unfortunately, Nell’s definition of “her” possessions is the widest possible you could imagine – it has previously included sofa cushions, hoodie sleeves hanging off a chair, and even the other dog’s humans if they happen to have been friendly to Nell. A perceived, potential loss of any possession can turn Nell into Cujo in a split second – despite our hard work over the years as this is something she didn’t learn as a puppy. Nell is also very attached to me and we anticipated this would also cause problems.


“Who is she, why is she here and WHEN is she going AWAY?!”

I decided to disregard the advice in one of the puppy books I read (Pippa Mattinson’s excellent The Happy Puppy Handbook) about taking the existing dog with you to pick up the puppy because we were travelling all the way to Warsaw to get Grace. The reason was that car is a safe space for Nell, and in the past we have noticed that travelling has made our bond even stronger – possibly because in a new environment, she feels more of a need to rely on us – and I hoped that spending that time in the car together it would go some way to help Nell adjust to the puppy’s presence. We had planned to make the long drive home in one go to avoid spending the first night with the puppy in a hotel, but the autobahn literally threw a spanner in that plan with a flat tyre 3h from home in the middle of the night, and so the dogs spent their first night together in neutral settings.



“What do you mean I can’t go in there and get those toys? They’re in my house so they’re MINE.”

At home we created a safe space for the puppy to play in – contrary to the advice in most puppy books, in our house it was the puppy who needed a break from the older dog wanting to steal all her toys! Little by little, Nell has learned to respect that the playpen is Grace’s space although if the opportunity arises, she will probably sneak in to scavenge for any treats that might be left over.



Morning cuddles in bed for EVERYONE

We have tried to make sure that Nell gets all the attention and love she wants, when she wants it so that she doesn’t feel like she is missing out. She has taken some time to get used to the puppy but 12 days in it feels like we are making great progress. In the first 2-3 days we had some worrying situations where Nell’s corrections weren’t yet calibrated to dealing with a puppy, but even though some of the boundaries and rules are still being negotiated, she seems less threatened by Grace’s presence and has learned to communicate her views more appropriately.


img_20190401_131249_152   img_20190403_171115_458   img_20190401_144117_936 img_20190405_081039_587

We have observed a gradual rapprochement of sleeping positions on the sofa – from just being on the same side, to feeling comfortable sleeping belly up, and finally bums touching this morning! Nell had curled up next to me for her post-breakfast nap, and did not move when Grace snuggled up next to her.


We have also witnessed some remarkable progress in Nell’s self-restraint when it comes to valuable possessions. Just yesterday she was able to just watch Grace eat a chew barely a metre from her – but I will admit this wasn’t entirely spontaneous as I had a few stern words with Nell to advise her that the right place to be was in her own bed.

I have no doubt that we still have a long way to go, but I have much more hope now that they will one day be good friends – just like these two adorable cocker brothers.



Fresh start


I’ve wanted to start this blog for over a year, but life got in the way. Two weeks ago we welcomed a new family member, Grace, and I thought now is a good time to start documenting our experiences of keeping two dogs busy.

Two weeks in, I have realised how much work I have done with Nell over the past 4 years, and how much I have learned about dog minds through her. And yet, with a puppy I am starting from scratch because I need to teach her everything about the world. A lot of my expectations of what is easy for an adult dog are being challenged and I need to take a step back to figure out how exactly do I nurture Grace to be the dog I want to share the next 15 years of my life with.

I met Nell when she was 2.5 years and, quite frankly, a bit of a nightmare. My husband had done a good job with the puppy training basics and she was a confident and stable dog, but she had bad manners in public and didn’t know how to control herself, which resulted in a lot of tension. That tension, in turn, made everything worse because Nell could sense it and the trust between her and my husband was fragile.

When I started to share my daily life with Nell in a small London flat, she got on all of our nerves so I decided to wonder what is WRONG with this dog. After researching working cocker spaniels, I understood that a lot of things that annoyed us about Nell were things that she was genetically wired to do: she was intense outside because of her hunting drive, destructive because she was bored, and followed us around in the house because she has been bred to be the hunter’s close companion and tune into their emotions, gestures and facial expressions.

Most importantly, I understood that she needed a JOB.
As one website put it, the clue is in the name: if you don’t give a working cocker a job, they will become self-employed and it won’t be work that you want them to do.

That’s how I started my journey of learning about canine mental enrichment, and learning about how to give this active dog of ours the life that made her happy. Over the past 4 years I have bought over 50 activity toys and learned a lot about the different ways to entertain a busy doggy mind.

Every dog is different, so finding the right thing is likely to mean trial and error and in this blog I want to share some of our experiences so that others can benefit from them. What works or us may not work for you, or the other way around so please feel free to comment.


Elina, Nell & Grace


Grace, 16 weeks


Nell, 7 years