Sibling Rivalry for Dad’s Affection


I watched this coyote family playing together with abandon when a dog walker appeared in the distance in the park where these coyotes live. It was time for  the coyote family to head into hiding. The two youngsters followed Dad, single file, to this location where they all sat down close together for a short time before ducking into some bushes.

At first what I thought was going on was that the two nine-month-old youngsters were indulging Dad: “Hey, we like you, Dad!” — one pup mouthed and licked Dad’s ear while the other one did the same to Dad’s snout! They were not soliciting food from their father — food solicitation occurs upon Dad’s return when he has been away hunting, not after a play session.

But as I watched, it suddenly occurred to me that there was probably something a little more subtle and selfish going on. The behavior brought to mind behavior I had detected before between siblings in another coyote family. It seems that the youngsters were actually vying for preferential parental attention and favoritism. Dad is to the left — and each coyote youngster was vying to sit next to him, exclusive of the other.

The youngster in back is actually squeezing her way between her sibling to the right, and Dad to the left, inserting herself into the coveted space next to Dad. But the other youngster does not budge. Of course, this youngster could have just sat on the other side, but her plan involved splitting Dad and the other sibling apart.

Doesn’t this happen in human families between very young children? It did in mine. Whomever gets to sit next to Mom or Dad has the prime position, and feels, whether true or not, that parental preference has been bestowed on him/her. If this rivalry, which is only subtle now, intensifies and plays itself out over the next few months, one of these youngsters will be forced out of the family pack by the other. As this happens, as far as I have seen, the one being forced out will generally carry its ears airplaned out to the sides and lowered.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Charles Wood
    Jan 30, 2014 @ 21:28:09

    “You showed your teeth like apes, and fawned like hounds, And bowed like bondmen, kissing Caesar’s feet…” from Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare

    Marc Antony, in reviling the dog, assumed its species’ notorious fawnings were nothing but a greed motivated false affection, a mere ruse for favor, ranking, and food. Yet Marc Antony could not form his judgment of a dog’s heart from the contrary information on dog brains that is now available to us from science. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, in his new book “How Dogs Love Us”, uses MRI scanning of dog brains to cast Antony’s aspersions aside. From a review: “Berns’s research offers surprising results on how dogs empathize with human emotions, how they love us, and why dogs and humans share one of the most remarkable friendships in the animal kingdom.”

    From Janet’s observations, and from my own, the coyote pair bond is amazing and is the core of coyote social life. The pair bond brings food and children. Without a pair bond a coyote has a harder time holding territory, territory synonymous with the food that territory contains. Without a pair bond a coyote almost certainly can’t reproduce, both parents’ efforts required to successfully raise pups. I think the same holds for wolves, from which our dogs descend. There is at times an uncanny similarity between human and coyote/wolf pair bonds and family life.

    When I follow those thoughts through with respect to our pet dogs, I do so by noting that without a strong bond with a human, a dog has a harder time holding territory and obtaining food. Without a strong relationship with a human, a dog can’t enjoy a happy family life. With a strong bond with a human, territory and food issues are settled and, like a coyote, our own dogs will defend their territory, the source of food. I have to ask myself, how does a dog really view it’s human? As a Pack Leader? Or as a Soul Mate?


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