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Steps for Success in your Multi-Dog Household




Dogs may be dogs but they are sentient beings and their brains are similar to ours in lots of ways. This means they experience emotions such as fear, anxiety and frustration and very similar brain chemistry. Like us, they also all have different personalities and traits which are influenced by genetics, early life experiences, significant events, training, health and so on.


Giving careful consideration to these ingredients and whether your dog would cope with sharing their home with another dog as well as which personality traits they are most likely to get on with is important for setting you and them up for success. Just as we don’t get on with everyone we meet neither do they. Also think about the type of dog who will complement your dog rather than match them, too many similarities can result in conflict and competition just as too many differences can make them incompatible.


Prepare your home in advance, plan where each dog is going to sleep and eat. We wouldn’t want to move in with someone and share bedrooms, food and other things we value without getting to know them first and neither do they! Likewise, your older dog should not be expected to parent a new puppy, the puppy is our choice not theirs. But the more choice we give them in when to interact and for how long, the more likely they are to have a good relationship.


You need to spend time with them individually as well as together, for play, training, exercise and developing your relationship with them. Trying to develop training without relationship is like building a house on sand so it is important to factor this individual time into your daily schedule.


Home Set Up


Baby gates will go a long way in helping you to set the dogs up for a harmonious relationship and successful training. Waiting for a problem to happen and then responding to it is a bit like shutting the door after the horse has bolted. The dog will have been reinforced (dogs do things that work for them) and if something has been reinforced it is likely to be repeated, creating a cycle. Hence the frequently asked question “I have tried saying no, but he keeps on doing it!”. The key is to prevent rehearsal, while you work on training an alternative behaviour. Baby gates can prevent rehearsal for a lot of “how can I stop my dog from…” problems.


Baby gates also give your dogs an opportunity to get to know each other slowly while being given their own space so they can choose when they want to interact without pressure.


First Introductions


We get to know each other through conversation, dogs have this conversation through scent and through body language and to do that they need time and space. Before you bring the new dog home, ask for an item unique to them that has their scent on that you can introduce to your existing dog so there is recognition when they first meet.


Plan their first meeting for somewhere that allow them time and space to have a conversation without pressure. Outside, ideally on neutral territory with a barrier such as a fence line or a gate will allow them to approach at their own speed as well as retreat when they want. This gets them off to a much more positive start then the high pressure environment of a doorway or living room or a situation where one dog launches straight in with physical contact (the human equivalent of being hugged by a stranger on the train!)


For older dogs, going for a walk before returning home together (assuming the initial introduction has gone well) can also be a good way for them to get acquainted with each other. It is best to do the first walk with two humans, one per dog. Walking parallel a good few metres apart keeps the pressure off them both as it encourages them to sniff rather then stare at each other and allows you to close the gap gradually.


Body Language


Dogs will generally try and avoid conflict and confrontation. If they do it is usually because either they think they can’t avoid it (for example they are on lead or in an enclosed area) or because they have learnt that they are not being listened to.


There are many ways dogs will tell us and each other that they are not comfortable or they need more space before they get to the point of growling (shouting). Watch them carefully for head turns, tongue flicks, yawning, retreating, going still. These are all ways of communicating discomfort with a situation. It’s important to listen to these and advocate for them because while it is relatively easy to teach a dog that they have to growl to make themselves heard, it is much harder to reverse this.


Meals and Treats


Food is an important part of your dog’s day. Meals and enrichment activities should be done separately so each dog can enjoy this time without pressure or competition. If we went for dinner with someone who routinely took food off our plates we would very quickly get annoyed so there is no reason that we should expect dogs to tolerate this either.


Dogs as a species are also opportunistic scavengers. It is equally unfair to expect them to stay away from food that appears to them, fair game. If we want dogs to perform behaviours that are not natural behaviour for their species, like leaving food, we must take the time to teach them an alternative behaviour that makes it worthwhile.


Prevention is far easier than cure when it comes to resource guarding and resource guarding can escalate fast. There is no point in scolding because scolding is unlikely to compete with the relief they feel at diverting a threat and they are also unlikely to understand what you are cross about or what to do about it.


Toys


Allow the dogs to access toys in their own separate areas but don’t leave toys in shared spaces until relationship and trust are well established. If they enjoy playing with toys it is far better for you to play with them individually then to play with each other in the early days.


Play produces ‘feel good’ hormones in the body and is a great way of bonding. Your key to be able to get and hold their attention while they are together is to build a bond that competes with the bond they have, so there is a lot of value in making sure the majority of play is with you.


Be aware that parading toys is not necessarily an invitation to play but can be a challenge, a demonstration of possession. Pay attention to the direction the nose is pointed. If the dog’s nose is pointed towards the other dog, there is a play bow, the eyes and body are soft, it may be an invitation to play. If the dog who is holding the toy has his nose pointed away from the other dog but looking out of the corner of his eye, it is more likely that he/she is saying “this is mine”. To be on the safe side, it’s best to redirect to an alternative activity.


Training


Timing of our communication makes a significant difference to how quickly and accurately our dogs are able to learn. This makes it hard to train two dogs at the same time, especially when teaching them new skills.


Taking the time to train separately will accelerate learning and prevent frustration, setting both dogs up for success.


Training which teaches the dog to make good decisions rather then simply responding to instructions will help with impulse control and prevent ‘pushy’ behaviour around exits, resources and for attention. An example is offering eye contact or sit to ask to go through a door.


Teaching them their names individually means you can direct them individually as well as collectively. Work with them separately first to both build a good response to their name and a bit of impulse control before trying this out with them together.


Slow Down!


Good relationships and trust take time to build and are fragile in the early days. You are investing in a relationship for what could be another 10 to 15 years, depending on the ages of the dogs. Rushing is a good way to put pressure on any relationship so take your time with introductions, with expecting them to share space, with training. The slower you go, the better your chances of a healthy and harmonious relationship for the years to come.

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