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…If Cheerwal is on the sofa and if Nishi tries to climb on it, Cheerwal gets angry and a skirmish may ensue…

We have started having Cheerwal exhibit an interesting problem at home. If she is on the sofa and if Nishi tries to climb on it, Cheerwal gets very angry and if I am not fast enough to intervene, a skirmish may ensue. Sometimes the skirmish can turn to a full blown fight. Strangely enough she does not have a problem if Nishi is already on the bed first. The same behaviour is seen if she is in the car first, on the bed first, the futon first…you get the idea.

…Clients interpret this behaviour as the dog being possessive of the bed, or the dog being dominant and feeling his position being challenged….

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This is not an unusual problem. I have had a few clients come to me with a similar problem. I often hear clients interpret this behaviour as the dog being possessive of the bed, or the dog being dominant and feeling his position being challenged. I’m going to offer you a somewhat different perspective and see what you make of that.

I have mentioned on multiple occasions that Cheerwal is a skittish dog. It could be her breed trait, it could be her past, it could be a combination of both. In any case, she is a dog that will often freak out and freeze up very easily. This then turns on her flight or fight response rapidly and if we do not help her out of that situation, she will lunge. i have seen her “getting stuck” on multiple occasions.

One might ask why she freaks out seeing Nishi, given Nishi has never once threatened or hurt Cheerwal. I don’t think Cheerwal has the time to reason it out like that. They are her instincts. Instincts, by definition bypass reason. Her reaction is swift and almost always, once she has had time to recover, she does seem to realize that the situation did not warrant that reaction and will try to restore peace in their dynamic. But she just cannot help freezing up in certain situations and being on the bed seems to be one of them.

…I cannot entirely figure out why Nishi getting on the bed is such a huge trigger. I do have some clues to go on…

I cannot entirely figure out why being on the bed and Nishi getting on it is such a huge trigger. I do have some clues to go on. It seems like it only triggers her if Cheerwal is facing Nishi directly when Nishi is climbing up. If she is not directly facing Nishi, it does not seem to trigger her. If there is a visual barrier, it does not trigger her, even when she is aware that Nishi is climbing up. It seems to be a visual trigger of some kind. I can imagine that for a dog like Cheerwal, the sight of a big dog like Nishi jumping up on the bed can look menacing, especially if she is lying down. Lying down is a very vulnerable position in animals and I can imagine her being a bit more cautions and on edge when she is lying down.

This explanation is somewhat different from considering this to be a result of dominance or possessiveness. It may be hard to argue which explanation is the right one. But, what explanation we chose to go with dictates our solution to the problem.

Let’s compare solutions now. Given my interpretation of what’s going on with Cheerwal, my solution is to provide her with reassurance. The second I realize Nishi is going to climb up on a sofa or bed that Cheerwal is on, I run in to help out. I may either try to rotate Cheerwal so that she is not facing Nishi, or put myself in between Cheerwal and Nishi, or hold up a visual barrier like a pillow or cushion in front of Cheerwal’s face. It works wonders. It works so well that nowadays, all she needs is just my palm held in front of her face and she’ll relax. This has meant that I need to be hyper vigilant about rooms that have furniture that they can climb on and I am hyper aware if both the dogs are going into the room or if Nishi is going in after Cheerwal. I also give lots of equally desirable alternatives so that the girls do not see the need to sit on the same furniture most of the time. It all seems like a lot of work, but the girls do not fight and that is worth it.

Now I’ll invite you to consider the alternative explanations. If we chose to go with the interpretation that this is a result of possessiveness or dominance, these are considered undesirable traits and are often met with consequences like getting the dogs off the furniture, punishments, timeouts or other such punitive action. For a nervous dog like Cheerwal all of these can be hugely damaging. This is what we need to beware of when dealing with animals. We must remember that they do not have the option of objecting to our interpretations. They are stuck with bearing the consequences meted out to them, based on our judgement of their actions. This is where understanding of animal behaviour and communication helps us get better at interpreting the behaviour that we see.

While we are at it, a quick note on growls – this sofa / bed conflict seems to have somewhat escalated in the last few months. What our observations tell us that it’s coinciding with Nishi growing older. Some explain this as a shift in power dynamics.  But I see it seems simply as an outcome of Nishi unable to be as nimble and unable to see too well. Earlier she used to look out for Cheerwal, go to the opposite end of the bed and climb up elegantly, turning away from Cheerwal, so as to not trigger her. But now, she can’t see where Cheerwal is or what direction she is facing. She can only climb up from one corner where we have put a step for her to use. And once she climbs up, she seems to have little control over her body and tends to lumber around a lot, figuring out where to settle down. Simply put, she cannot help getting in Cheerwals face and that is triggering Cheerwal.

Cheerwal too seems to have realized that. So Cheerwal growls more now. If I were to see that as an affront, I’d admonish Cheerwal. But in reality, what it seems to be is an audio warning to the mostly blind Nishi, an audio guide if you may, saying, “Not here. My face is right here and I freak out if you come into my face”. There is a functional explanation to most behaviour, if we know how to look and if we take the time to look.

The next time you find yourself saying something like, “Oh she is a brat”, “Oh he is stubborn”, “He’s a dominant dog”, “That is alpha behaviour”…take a step back. These are all labels. Look under the labels. Your key is remembering that animals mostly engage in functional behaviour. Look for that function and you are likely to be much closer to understanding the behaviour. Labels tend to blind us and unfortunately, often given us justifiable reason for initiating conflict with an animal. We have a responsibility to understand animals, instead of resorting to judging their actions, if we are to be caretakers for another species, don’t we?

P.S. If you are wondering who Cheerwal is, she is my erstwhile Tiggy. She indicated to us that she much preferred being called Cheerwal and so we have decided to let her have it her way.

In case you’ve been meaning to do your Canine Essential 101 course details are available here.

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