Bad choices part 1: sibling rivalry and abnormal status creation in dogs

2014-01-09 00:00

JUST after Christmas, a man phoned me about two female Border Collies that were fighting. The first question was about their age, to which he replied, “Six months”.

Based on results, I told him the pups had left the mother before eight weeks of age. “No”, he said, in fact he only took the two sisters at 12 weeks and immediately confusion reigned. I then suggested that he bring them in for an evaluation. This was accomplished using two vehicles. At the beginning of our meeting I made sure a barrier was present between the two pups. It was obvious and sad to see the early developmental deprivation. I looked the man in the eye and said to him I could not accept the 12-week litter-departure age.

“No,” he said. “They were actually acquired from a person at 12 weeks, who bought and sold puppies.”

Needless to say, the confusion was cleared up as I realised he was the victim of a “puppy mill”. In such situations, puppies are virtually always separated from the mother too early. It also turned out that the present age was five months and not six, as stated previously.

After asking more questions with regard to his personal circumstances, I then proceeded to tell the owner that in the process of acquiring the pups, he could not have made more mistakes if he had tried. Firstly, he lived on about a quarter of an acre that was covered mostly by dwellings. Border Collies need space, or must at least go for long walks and runs every day. Secondly, the mother/offspring relationship should only be terminated at eight weeks, and I suspected four or five. Thirdly, there was hardly any difference in the pups’ temperament, which was exacerbated by the same gender status. Fourthly, he had made no provision for intra or inter-species socialisation and environmental enrichment. Lastly, there was a temperament incompatibility, especially with other members of the family. Because the family lived on the North Coast, another consideration was that hot and humid climates can be stressful for long-haired breeds.

He was adamant, however, that the two Collies were fighting so I suggested he leave them a few days for further observation.

About 15 minutes later, the two Collies were allowed access to each other and a few older members of my pack. Typically, due to inadequate mental development, the puppies’ initial body language was a mixture of fight, flight and freeze. After meeting the rest of the pack I separated them for evening meal time, which took place without any incident. The food bowls were about a metre apart. They were then introduced to a kennel and left alone for the night. After interacting with the pack for two days the behaviour became normal and they started to trust me.

Four days later, my assistant walked into their living area during meal time and the weaker temperament pup leapt at her sister. I reacted quickly and stopped the altercation. It was clear that normal sibling rivalry had evolved into abnormal status creation. This behaviour never occurred in my presence because the two puppies recognised me as their pack leader. They would use other typical actions in challenging me, but never escalated to extreme interaction. I will touch on puppy mills and my prognosis in part two of this article.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via www.dogtorsteve.co.za. Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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