Chicks Rule!!! (10/10/07)

Dear Zelda,

I love getting your newsletters every week. I'm a sophomore in high school. School life is going well. It's my brother who is driving me up the wall. I used to be his sweet sister but now I feel like I have all this anger in me. My brother and I fight 24/7 and we can't stop. It's like we are a cat and a dog. I can't figure out how to solve this problem and every time I try, it's my brother who gets in my way. He either calls me a name or does something so that I keep fighting back. I want a good relationship with him, but the way things are looking we are going to be fighting our whole lives. I don't want that to happen so can you help me?

Sluggin' Sister Who Wants to Stop

Dear Sluggin’ Sister,

Chicks rule, but in order to truly rule, it’s time for you to be a good big sister, and that means getting the fighting under control. Take heart: you’ve made a huge first step already. You’re aware that there’s a problem, and you know that you want the situation to change. I’d say that’s a pretty good start! Almost everyone fights with their siblings once in a while, and I can’t tell you how steamed I still get when I catch Zoe or ZeeZee trying to nibble my kibble. Sibling relationships are fraught with rivalry, jealousy, and just plain annoying behavior. And sometimes an annoying sibling needs to be told they’re being, well, annoying! The bad news is that the older we get, the more serious these fights become, and the bigger the consequences. Since strangling your brother isn’t an option, allow me to suggest some more constructive approaches.

According to Anthony Wolf, author of Mom, Jason’s Breathing on Me! The Solution to Sibling Bickering, the primary cause of sibling warfare is to get a parent to take sides. If this is happening in your case, the first thing you should do is ask your parents to stay out of your arguments. Then you and your brother need to pick a good time to sit down and set some ground rules. Your challenge will be to develop creative ways to handle difficult situations, and to get your brother to agree to these rules. One rule that seems to work no matter where you are is being respectful to each other. This definitely excludes things like hitting or insulting by name calling. Another rule that works well is respecting each other’s belongings. This means asking before you borrow and looking after your brother’s things better than you do your own, and vice versa. If, after a while, the rules need changing, that’s OK too. Just make sure you both agree to the changes. Learning how to talk calmly can help you deal with these situations, and will start to build a healthy foundation of communication that will last you a lifetime.

Of course that’s easier said than done, especially with a brother who’s young, annoying, and looking for trouble! You said that you and your brother are like “a cat and a dog,” and that you can’t stop fighting, so you may not be able to just sit down and agree on everything peacefully. But let me tell you, even though cats and dogs don’t always get along, they learn to give each other some space! Your brother is trying to get a rise out of you in these situations, and it sounds like it’s working. Try not to engage him every time; if you don’t let him upset you with name-calling or taunting, I promise he’ll rapidly lose interest. This doesn’t mean you should let him misbehave or walk all over you... feel free to stand up for yourself, but when you hear him say something childish and nasty, take a step back, breathe a deep breath, and think about whether it wouldn’t be better to just ignore him and let him know that you’re too cool to let his stupid taunts bother you. Besides, you’ve got all this other great stuff going on in your life! It may take a while to work, but stick to the plan and pretty soon he’ll start to feel pretty silly when he wastes all this effort to get a rise out of you, and it turns out you’ve got bigger and better things on your mind.

Remember, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, and these bonds are forever! Your connection with your brother may be one of the longest relationships in your life. Scary, when you think about it! Learning how to deal with conflict positively when you’re young can set the foundation for a strong relationship in the future, and can help you both learn to get along with other people too. So try harder to practice peace and patience. If you and your brother do manage to take good care of your relationship, you will always have each other. Licks, love, and lots of luck!


Dear Zelda,

There are three female dogs in my household: myself (a seven-month-old Fox Terrier mix), and my two bulldog sisters (eight months and thirteen months). My sisters fight all the time and the behaviorist recommended spaying the two bulldogs. We did, but they still fight!

Usually I am not involved, but last week my youngest sister just came up to me and started fighting. Our mom has tried giving my sisters a ‘hiding’ and she sprayed bitter apple into their mouths when they were fighting, but neither worked as a deterrent. I’m afraid the fights will escalate as they get older and we could get seriously injured.

I love both my sisters very much but there has been talk that one of them might have to leave if they don’t stop fighting. Please help us as I don’t want to lose either of them.

Stymied in South Africa

Dear Stymied,

I hear you sister, and I’ve been there! Three bitches under one roof isn’t always a happy household. Believe me, Zoe, ZeeZee and I have had our “disastrous doggone disagreements.” There are a lot of instincts that trigger those fights, and in order to change them your owners need to take serious control of the situation.

Fighting between dogs of the same sex is common and will occur naturally unless we are explicitly taught not to do so. (Peace at home happens more readily when dogs are of different genders; I mention this for dog owners who might be thinking of adding a new pup to their pack.) If your owners take the time to truly monitor the behavior of the three of you, there’s a good chance the fighting can be resolved. Of course the best medicine is preventative: dogs that have been well socialized with other dogs and properly trained from an early age are less likely to fight. You and your sisters are still young, and there’s no reason you can’t all live happily ever after with some careful supervision.

To provide more detail in answering your question, I’m going to go directly to the experts. Animal behaviorist Larry Lachman wrote a wonderful book, Dogs On The Couch: Behavior Therapy for Training and Caring for your Dog. I’d like to include here some useful excerpts on how to control and contain fighting between dogs in the same household.

* Grant privileges to the dominant dog. Greet, feed, pet, walk outside with dominant dog first.

* Be consistent in all roles. Maintain a clear-cut hierarchy and help the dogs feel secure in their position in the family pack.

* Only give dogs attention when they are together. Give attention to dominant dog first.

* Do daily reconditioning exercises: one family member with one dog on one side of yard on leash (and anti-pull device if needed), and the other dog with another family member on the opposite side of the yard. Each dog does ten sits, ten downs and a five-minute stay. Use positive reinforcement.

* Bring dogs closer during the sessions until after two to four weeks (still on leash) they are side by side doing their downs, sits. Any growling, lunging, aggressive squaring off or breaking stays results in a SRR reprimand.

* After success with this, add a 15-minute cooling down session following the yard exercises. Do this inside the home on the couch, with one person holding one dog at each end of the couch. Gradually bring them closer until (still on leash) they are working through their commands side by side without any provocation.

* At six to eight weeks, do yard and in-home exercises off leash. Remain armed with startle devices.

* Add a daily 15- to 30-minute heeling walk, with the dominant dog 6 to 10 feet ahead. Discipline the submissive dog if he tries to pull ahead -- cut him off, circle around and end up in sit-stay.

* Rub a towel or old shirt on dominant dog to get his scent on it, then put it where submissive dog sleeps and eats, and vice versa. This helps establish a positive association for each dog with the other dog's scent.

* Separate the dogs when you leave home. When you can't give both dogs attention, neither gets any.

* Have dogs sleep with human pack leaders each night. Dominant dog goes into room first, on leash, then tethered or crated by side of the bed (never tether a dog and leave it alone). Then do the same with the other dog.

* In the morning, lead the dominant dog out first.

* Separate the eating areas.

* Avoid greeting, playing or petting the dogs for any length of time in tight spaces such as hallways or car entrances. These are likely hot spots where dogs begin fighting.

* If any fights break out, yell "OFF!" and/or blast with a whistle, air horn, or ultrasonic device. (There is also a harmless citronella spray repellent called Direct Stop that is available in most pet stores or online, or you could carefully aim and pop open one of those small push-button umbrellas. *** Zelda tips.) If the dogs fail to respond, grab the more aggressive dog’s rear legs or tail and lift up, suspending the dog and removing his center of gravity while rapidly moving back. Do not reach for the head area or grab collars: you’ll more than likely get bitten.

* Never have either dog on the same physical plane or level as you. That will reduce your dominant position in the pack. The dogs will respect you less and will ignore you if you command them to stop provoking each other or to stop fighting.

* Never respond to either dog's demand for attention. This is also a subtle way to reduce your authority position, thereby dangerously raising the dog's perception that his position is one of greater authority.

Temporary medication, (check with your veterinarian), may also be required to take the edge off and give the behavior therapy time to kick in. There seems to be more success if both dogs are given the medication. Choices include Elavil (amitriptyline) and BuSpar. However, medication alone will not work. A comprehensive behavior therapy intervention, including reconditioning, non-force obedience and human family therapy intervention may be necessary. Three out of five cases treated with the methods described above work out. It will take 8 to 12 weeks of consistently implementing the program to achieve lasting results.

As with human sibling rivalry, owners must modify and change their own behaviors toward the fighting dogs. Punishment typically only serves to bring out aggression and creates new problems. Lachman recommends the use of behavior modification in combination with family systems therapy. This kind of therapy involves establishing healthy boundaries between members of the family, including the dogs, and maintaining a clear hierarchy, while at the same time fostering a sense of loyalty and belonging.

Whew! You asked for it, but as I said, there isn’t a quick fix for fighting between us bitches. However a little patience and persistent practice will improve your chances for finding peace on the home front. Good luck!


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