A boyfriend-dog conflict – Case Notes

A boyfriend-dog conflict – Case Notes

Kelley Bollen

Paco, my four-year-old schnauzer, is very jealous of my new boyfriend. Whenever we cuddle on the couch, Paco starts to growl at him and sometimes even tries to pull him away from me by grabbing and tugging on his pant leg. What should we do?

This is a very common scenario: a new person or pet comes into your life, and your dog gets his nose out of joint and tries his hardest to sabotage the relationship. Some dogs simply wedge themselves between you and the intruder, while others, like Paco, respond with acts of aggression. Is Paco really feeling jealousy? The debate about whether dogs are capable of feeling emotions rages on. Some people, afraid of being accused of the scientific offense of being anthropomorphic, say that animals do not experience jealousy, happiness, sadness, depression, or any other so-called human emotion. But most people who live and work with animals are convinced that they do. Jealous or not, Paco is certainly acting inappropriately.

One explanation is that Paco is simply trying to make you pay attention to him. Attention-seeking behaviors come in all forms, including aggression. If Paco has learned that growling causes you to give him attention, even if it’s negative attention (being yelled at), then he will continue to do it. Another explanation lies in the fact that dogs are naturally protective and possessive about things that are important to them. This can include territory, food, toys, and even people. We call this behavior “resource guarding,” and a loving owner is a very precious resource indeed.

Whether Paco’s motivation is to win attention or to guard you, he needs to learn that aggression toward your boyfriend is unacceptable. Dogs learn how to behave from the consequences of their actions. If Paco’s growling brings on the attention he wants or causes your boyfriend to move away from you, then the behavior has worked for him. To get your dog to stop, you’ll have to change the consequences of his behavior.

Every time Paco growls at your boyfriend, you both should get up and leave the room without saying a word, closing the door behind you. Not only will this stop reinforcing Paco’s aggression; it will result in just the opposite of what the dog intended. Taking away something good, something the dog wants, as a consequence of an inappropriate behavior is known as “negative punishment.” This type of punishment is often more effective, and certainly more humane, than “positive punishment,” which entails adding something bad (yelling, hitting, leash correction) to get the behavior to stop. While positive punishment may sometimes work to stop a behavior, it is seldom used correctly and often does more harm than good, especially when dealing with aggression. In this particular case, any physical punishment or even harsh verbal reprimands will only cause more animosity toward your boyfriend.

When Paco grabs your boyfriend’s pant leg, a slightly different version of the same approach is called for. In this situation, Paco should be removed from the room and put into a time-out. Time-outs work well with dogs because, as social animals, they do not like being separated from their group. To properly execute a time-out, pair a phrase such as “time out” or “that’s it” with the aggressive behavior and immediately remove the dog from the scene. You can put him in another room and close the door or put him in his crate. The time-out should not last longer than about five minutes. When you bring him back out, ask him to sit or lie down. If your timing is good, Paco will soon learn that his aggressive behavior leads to isolation.

While trying to eliminate Paco’s aggression toward your boyfriend, it’s a good idea to work on improving their relationship. Ask your boyfriend to feed Paco his dinner, take him for walks, and play with him when he comes over. He should also spend some time training Paco to perform basic commands (sit, down, come, stay) and tricks (shake, spin, roll over, speak, go to your bed), using extraspecial food rewards such as hot dogs, chicken, or cheese. Remember, the way to a dog’s heart is through his stomach. With this type of positive reinforcement, it won’t be long before Paco changes the way he feels about your boyfriend. And if he likes your boyfriend, your dog will be less likely to become upset by your closeness.

Reinforce these lessons by asking Paco to go to his bed and giving him a Kong Toy or hollow bone stuffed with peanut butter, Cheese Wiz, or liverwurst when you and your beau cuddle. Not only will this keep your feisty schnauzer occupied; he’ll soon realize that great things happen for him when the two of you snuggle.

GOT A PET PEEVE?

Kelley Bollen, the MSPCA’s shelter animal behavior consultant, can offer advice that’ll help both you and your pet feel better. Write to CaseNotes, Animals, 350 South Huntington Ave., Boston, MA 02130. Fax us at (617) 522-4885 or e-mail casenotes@animalsmagazine.com.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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