Are you a new to having a household with multiple dogs? Here’s a crash course in building positive relationships between your canine family members.
I have this ambitious beginning to a blog series on dog-dog introductions so check back there to see where it’s at in its development. All of the posts in the series will be linked there eventually. Until then, here are some important steps to take for a more harmonious household.
Take it slow!
Odds are that at one point in your life you have been paired at random to live with another person without a choice in the matter. Sibling? College dorm? Summer camp? That is what has just happened to your existing dog. Sometimes these matches are made in heaven, best friends for life!
Other times, not so much. At the beginning of my freshman year in college my random roommate and I hit it off, but as novelty wore down and our true personalities were revealed, we just didn’t click. This can happen with our dogs! The first few days or weeks things are going great, then maybe your original dog has this moment of, “OH! This boisterous, biting, thing is STAYING. NOPE.”
Then there’s those relationships where we just get started off on the wrong foot and it’s a lot of work to build something worthwhile, sometimes we just can’t get there. We might learn to tolerate one another but that’s about as far as things go.
We can build GOOD relationships between our dogs. To do that I take things really slow. Your dogs don’t even need to meet one another on the first day if you set your home up correctly beforehand. They can get used to the sounds and smells of one another first. My home is setup in zones that the new dog and my existing dogs aren’t together all or even most of the time. Their interactions are carefully planned to ensure that they get supervised, positive experiences for all of the dogs involved. Could things be fine if you just throw your dogs together? Yes. Do you want to find out it’s not, the hard way? No.
Set Your Home Up for Success
Look at your home and determine how you could create separate spaces for your dogs that meet their needs. Consider how many zones you might like to create. We have as many as we could come up with for flexibility and ease of rotation. I have an 1100 square foot house with a basement and using barriers we have 4 primary zones indoors. The yard is less than a third of an acre but that too has been divided in half. Take a look at some of what we did for ideas.
A long term confinement area for your puppy is key! This is where your puppy can hang out while you cannot supervise or need to practice separation. I like to set these up in a well trafficked area that can easily be converted into a quiet and calm space without inconvenience. It also helps if it’s near a door to the outside for potty training. For us that’s our kitchen but I have also used the living room in a pinch. Mine include a crate and 1-2 exercise pens with puppy appropriate flooring underneath. Here are some examples:
Now for dividing our house into zones we used wall mounted pet gates with walk through doors. This allowed us to give all of the dogs more space than a single room when kept separate. We bought our gates at Petco but you can get them wherever is convenient for you. We used blankets as visual barriers over the gates at first but removed them as the dogs got used to one another. If you look around online there are all sorts of gate options for different spaces. Our gates look like this:
For the yard we got a little creative so everyone could be outside at the same time with the option to be separate if needed. I used more expensive metal exercise pen panels, temporary metal fence posts and 200lb strength zip ties off of amazon. To protect the exercise pen panels from the weather I painted the gates and fence posts with black rustoleum paint.
Meet Your Dogs’ Needs
Nothing primes a dog-dog interaction for failure like a pile of unmet needs.Ask yourself if your dogs NEED anything BEFORE an interaction. Have they eaten? Had water? Been exercised? Been engaged mentally? Gotten enough sleep? etc Also, keep in mind what your other dog was used to doing before a puppy came into the picture. In the chaos of puppy raising their needs can go by the wayside. Try and keep as much normalcy as possible. If you don’t have a puppy yet, start getting your adult dog used to a different kind of schedule with more alone time. It can be tempting to want to use the dogs to meet the needs of one another, but hold off until their relationship is well established. Taking a dog and a new puppy who haven’t had a walk in 3 days and throwing them into a room together to burn off steam could end badly with over exuberant behavior.
I smell you, I Hear You
Ideally you start with 2 barriers between dogs, one reason to have more zones. This way they can’t get right up to the same barrier, even if it’s covered. We take things that belong to the each dog and give them to the other to interact with and smell. We pair sounds and smells of the other dog with good things. Hear the other dog? Play or get a cookie. Smell the other dog’s bed? Oh look now there are treats in it to find. The dogs can hear and smell one another but not in an intense way because they are spaced apart. When the dogs are content, the time span really depends on your situation, you can make it so there’s only a single covered barrier between dogs so that the smell and sounds they experience from one another increase. Go back a step if you need to do so. If you have a frustrated greeter and the noise is freaking out either dog try skipping to the next step.
I See You, You See Me
Uncover your barriers and let the dogs see one another. If you have a problem with barriers and your dogs that’s a whole other issue and this would not be a positive experience. Use your best judgement or find a professional to for a different plan. I enjoy the well secured wall gates because now all of the dogs have a choice to see or not see one another. They can walk up to the gate or retreat to somewhere else in their zone that is out of view. Gates are not bite proof, so supervise these interactions at first until you’re sure that they’re alright with one another. Here are some positive signs at this stage: Sniffing each other politely, play bows and other play behaviors from both dogs, bringing toys to the other dog to place near the gate, choosing to lie down next to one another with the barrier in between, increasing frequency of choosing to interact at the barrier.
Preparing to Come Together
Make a plan. How are the dogs going to come together? Your answer should involve structure. I like to teach my dogs to sit, first with the barrier between them and take turns eating treats by name. Eventually we remove the barrier and that pattern game is what we play when they come together so they’re not immediately jumping into play or something boisterous. Where are they going to have this interaction? What is the activity that you find acceptable for them do in this space? How are you going to facilitate that? If you don’t want your dogs to wrestle in the living room, start now, not later. What will trigger an early end to being together? What are your rules and boundaries, decide now. Learn about dog body language and use that information to gauge if either dog is becoming stressed and needs the interaction to end. What management are you going to have in place during this interaction? Will the puppy be on a leash or tether? (HINT: probably a good idea to have a dropped leash your puppy’s recalls and other behaviors are not going to be strong enough here.) How are you going to end the interaction? When are you going to end the interaction? How are you going to settle the puppy after the excitement of being with your other dog? Lots of things to think about. Don’t know how to answer these questions? Ask a professional for help.
Consider Age and Size Differences
Dogs have different ideas of what is fun and what is socially acceptable as they age. Your older dogs and definitely senior dogs might not want to suffer fools gladly. A silly, rambunctious, puppy who wants to play, run, and bite is not going to be an older dog’s cup of tea all the time.
We respect our older dog’s needs for rest and peace by providing those zones of our home where they can relax on their own without having to cope with attacks of the baby shark disguised as a puppy. We engage our puppies in play or other activities with us in the presence our older dogs so that our dogs aren’t being placed into the position of unpaid babysitter. You do not want an unpaid babysitter with a mouth full of knives, trust me.
We bring young puppies into an interaction with an older dog in that sweet spot of calm without being overtired. We support our older dogs as they give clear body language that says, “leave me alone” by removing the puppy and engaging it in another activity.The way we remove puppies from older dogs is important. We do not want to have to yell at or punish them, creating a negative association between dogs. It’s the same for an older dog who needs to be removed. I like to train a positively conditioned collar grab and walking with a grabbed collar to another location. I then give the removed dog something to do.
Our older dogs could have pain, instability or other factors that make it unsafe for play to happen. If this is the case for you you’re going to need to interrupt that behavior and try to be really thoughtful about planning interactions where that won’t happen.
Think about the size difference of your dogs, not just now, but in adulthood. Some dogs are not going to be safe playmates. You don’t want a German Shepherd puppy learning to do boisterous biting, body slamming play with a Maltese only to have your puppy grow up and accidentally cause injury. If you have a large size difference either now or in the future you need to set ground rules for the types of interactions that will be fine in the future right now.
Your Puppy is a RUDE Little Shark!!
If you want your dogs to have a good relationship DO NOT let your puppy harass your older dog. You know how you feel when your puppy is biting you? How hard it can be to keep a cool head and do the right thing? Your dog feels it too. Sometimes we get really frantic, overwhelmed, inappropriate communication from an otherwise socially skilled adult dog because they are simply overwhelmed.
Keep those interactions short and sweet when your puppy is younger so you don’t risk overtired sharky behavior. This is why I support long term use of gates and other items to create zones in your house. This behavior is normal and it will pass, but it’s going to take some time. When we support our adult dog’s communication signals to our puppy with a positive, low conflict removal, we build trust. This shows our adult dog’s that we are going to come be their backup. That in my experience can help a sociable adult dog start displaying calmer, clearer communication again.
Together, But Separate!
We all want a peaceful home where we don’t want to feel like the professional dog bouncer breaking up play constantly. Teaching our dogs not to interact with one another is just if not more important than teaching them to interact. Building that idea is a process, so try not to get too frustrated. This will get easier as your puppy ages. Try practicing quiet activities like dogs chewing on their own bones or frozen kongs spaced far enough apart that there not competition over resources. Reward them for lying quietly next to one another near your barriers. Shared training sessions on easy, puppy accessible behaviors are lovely too. I try and leave jars of treats stashed throughout my house so I can quickly reward calm, non interactive choices. See if your puppy can do nap time in the same room as your older dog. Things like that go a long way toward avoiding a house of party animals.
Identify Mutually Enjoyable Activities
Building a good relationship requires shared experiences enjoying the company of one another. What can your dogs do together? In this house shared walks, living room chew sessions, and snuffling for kibble in the backyard are big favorites. My 7 year old shepherd likes a good game of sprinting around the yard tugging toys and chasing Fish but my 9 year old would prefer to sunbathe. That’s why we enjoy our split yard. They can all be “together” doing what they like to do.
Be Aware of Sticking Points
Dogs can have big feelings about resources. If you have been an only dog household for a long time you might not know how your dog feelings about sharing things. Even if you already had multiple dogs living together, they might treat a new dog differently than their current companions. Your puppy is new to you too, so it’s something to be cautious and proactive about. As your pup ages their behavior regarding resources can change too.
Things like food, kongs, chews, toys, sleeping spots, doors, other dogs, access to people, even YOU can all be points of contention.
Proceed with caution and provide supervision when these things are present. Give dogs space from one another when they have resources. I prefer to tether my puppy to me when a kong or chew is available to all dogs so no stealing occurs. My house has a firm no stealing rule. Anything stolen from another dog is returned to that dog. We use conflict free removal methods like a trained drop command and a positive interrupter in order to not cause issues in the process of retrieving the stolen item. My adult dogs know that stolen items will be returned and so they do not take it upon themselves to have an argument over it with my young dogs.
Refereeing, Not Just For Sports
Develop a set of rules for your household and make sure every person in charge of managing the dogs follows them and helps the dogs follow them.
We do use a form of timeout in this house which is technically a punishment but we do our best to make it at least a neutral to positive experience in the end. There is one warning before a dog is removed from the situation. It can be any word or phrase, ours is “All Done”. If the behavior repeats after “All Done”, “Too Bad”, a trained cue is given.
The positively conditioned collar grab and walking to a new location in that position is a cued behavior which we named, “Too Bad”. We put a lot of effort into saying this in a happy tone of voice, so if something really ridiculous happens it tends to only slip into neutral tone territory. This is because the aim of “Too Bad” isn’t to scold or punish or make the dog feel bad. A behavior needs to end because it is inappropriate and there is a trained way of doing that.
The dog who was removed gets settled into an appropriate activity in a new location because the goal of the whole process is to guide them away from the unacceptable behavior into an acceptable behavior.
Management Within an Interaction
There are ways to control the energy level or direction of an interaction in progress before things escalate to a point where you feel the need to separate and remove dogs.
I use large, cued, treat scatters on the ground to slow down something that has gotten too rambunctious. This is easy to do when you stash treat jars throughout the house. Cheerios or dog kibble work great for this, I just say, “scatter” and throw out large quantities of food on the floor. Obviously you cannot do this with dogs with resource issues.
We practice shifting from interaction back into the sit and get treats by name game that we play when they come together. The pattern and structure is soothing for the dogs.
A positive interrupter can be used to redirect the dogs long enough to forget about doing that naughty thing they were about to do. It easy to teach. Click the link to see my tutorial on that behavior.
I often find myself interrupting play with things like the name game, hand touches or recalls in order to take things down a notch.
The theme here is that you need to supervise. You can’t know play or some other interaction is headed in the wrong direction unless you’re there actively paying attention. Eventually as my dogs all get used to one another I don’t need to modulate things so much but in this puppy/adolescence period it’s an incredibly valuable skill.