Blog post about using jealousy to your advantage in rehabilitating a dog. March 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. Where relevant, references and picture credits are at the end of the post
About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague
I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.
I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).
If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.
A jealous shepherd
Tank was referred to me through the veterinary practice for which I give behaviour consults. He was a young Swiss shepherd with debilitating fears which were turning into aggression. With such a large dog, you don’t let fear take a hold so the owner did the responsible thing and got help.
The owner was, unfortunately, already skilled and knowledgeable. She had already aptly applied a lot of the best practices I would have advised. This would not be a quick fix, and we needed an angle.
Tank lives with his big brother Bouncer. They are full brothers: they share the same early environment, the same mother, the same father, and the same owners. Yet Tank and Bouncer could not be any different. Where Tank was – typical Swiss Shep – flighty and retiring, Bouncer was more ‘I-love-you-so-much-I-could-explode’ towards total strangers.
We held a couple of exposure therapy sessions with fake guests, and, whilst Tank was responding well, things weren’t moving as quickly as I wanted.
What Tank and Bouncer did have in common was their jealousy of each other. They both wanted to be first in line for the next treat or compliment or game. And boom, that was it. We had our angle. From that point on, we started deliberately having the guests pay tons of attention to Bouncer and barely any to Tank. They would greet Tank and speak to him gently when he came closer, but that was about it. Bouncer, however, was showered with praise, cuddles and games. Bouncer couldn’t believe his luck. He was besides himself with joy every Thurday afternoon.
The beauty of it is that, within a couple of short sessions, Tank was pushing his nose against the guest for the next game of ‘toss-the-treat’. The instructions to the guest were clear: do not pay any attention to Tank unless he himself is requesting it in a relaxed way. We also made sure that whatever reward the guest gave Tank was tossed far away from them, so that it would always be Tank’s choice to return to the guest.
In this video, we show Bouncer (the brave one) playing with a brain game whilst Tank (the shy one) looks on.
We are now at the point where the owners can continue the exposure therapy themselves, as our sessions have allowed Tank to experience, again and again, the feeling of being close to a guest of his own volition. We have manipulated Tank’s feelings towards guests so that he sees them more as fun commodity than imminent danger.
This demonstrates the art side of behaviour therapy. It’s not all about clinical science and dry theory. There is a huge think-on-your-feet element, and that’s what keeps me excited about the job.
Disclaimer: No two cases are the same so please do not use jealousy in your behaviour therapy unless you know that you can safely do so.
(video and names shared with explicit permission from the dogs’ owner)