We are lucky to be involved with LCPO, the rescue that saved Miss Gia from certain death. We foster through their organization, and they in turn offer us endless training advice, in addition to other crucial resources. LCPO brings a lot of experience to the table, and therefore they require that each dog placed into a new home, whether as a foster or a permanent family member, completes the two-week de-stress upon entering the new home. To put it simply, this is a process in which the new pet is kept separate from any other pets for at least two weeks. Sounds fun, huh? It may not be easy, but this is to help ensure success and happiness for all family-members; both two and four-legged! Utilizing the advice from LCPO, as well as tips we’ve picked up along the way, we wanted to share our experiences in achieving peaceful interactions in a multi-dog household.
1. The first step to happy interactions in a multi-dog household is to understand your dogs’ personality and tolerance levels. Every dog is different! It is vital that we be receptive to our dogs’ reactions around other animals, even when it comes to the most subtle body language! This bell curve, designed and described by BAD RAP, is used to show the varying tolerance levels of the pit bulls that they encounter while rescuing. However, in truth, it can apply to many breeds of dog.
- “dog-social” : These are dogs that truly enjoy and seek-out the company of other dogs, including housemate dogs. These pups are very easy-going, willing to forgive even the rudest of dog manners, and are often happiest when in the company of other dogs. This category would include most puppies, and a smaller percentage of socially mature dogs (14 months+).
- “dog-tolerant”: These dogs are typically non-reactive on leash, and either indifferent or friendly to other dogs. They show relaxed, easy body language in the presence of new dogs. While these pups may not ‘love’ dogs that they don’t know, they would have decent tolerance for rude behavior (a long fuse). It can be gathered that these types of dogs enjoy known dog friends when properly introduced, and in general, succeed with housemate dogs.
- “dog-reactive”: In this case, the dog would likely have some dog friends, but be more selective in their pairings. He or she may dislike certain ‘types’ of dogs (male/female, large/small, hyper/mellow) and be easily offended by rude dog manners. Can be described as grumpy or sassy, dominant. This dog likes to be in charge and dictate the rules during playtime, and must be reminded by their human to use good manners during play. This dog can succeed with housemate dogs, with supervision.
- “dog-aggressive”: These pooches may have a limited number of dog friends, or even none. They may be leash reactive if the opportunity arises (weak handler, no training). This dog may have a short fuse during play, even with dogs that it knows. This dog requires heavy supervision during player, and a good leader when out on leash. Many live successfully with housemate dogs (typically opposite sex) with proper supervision and management.
When looking at our own dogs, it can be difficult to place labels on them, but it is imperative for the sake of peace. For example, I would probably put Tonka in the first category. He enjoys the presence of other dogs, has excellent manners around them, and is willing to overlook almost all negative behavior. However, there was a period of time where he was twice attacked by a male labrador. It took many months and positive experiences before we were able to build his confidence back to a friendly level.
Gaige and Georgia (typical women!) can be a bit more difficult to categorize. Gaige enjoys other dogs, but has terrible manners with them. She likes to be in charge, but is submissive to Georgia. While she treats Tonka like she rules the roost, often stealing his toys or chewing on his limbs, she defers to him when he does stand his ground. I would probably consider her to be dog-tolerant. Georgia, on the other hand, is even more of a challenge to define. She is not aggressive, but has a low-tolerance for lack of manners (ahem, Gaige!) She is happy to be around other dogs, and cries when separated from ours, but doesn’t seek out the company of new animals. She is not leash-reactive, yet will defend herself if she feels particularly threatened. However, when she ‘defends’ herself, it is nothing more than a retreat, loud growl or snap… she never tries to bite or fight.
2. The next step in dog-integration is a slow introduction. In the case of multiple puppies, this may be as slow as a few minutes, but when it comes to mature dogs, it may take months! We are in the latter category. Why so slow? When integrating dogs, prevention is key. What I mean by that, is that once dogs have had a serious altercation, it can be very difficult to repair the relationship. Most pups aren’t big on ‘forgive and forget’. If two dogs have had a rough introduction, you may not be able to achieve successful interactions without lots more effort, and perhaps some professional intervention. For us, we decided that it was better to be safe than sorry, and have decided to take things as slowly as possible.
- The first step to dog introductions is for each dog to have a ‘safe’ place. For most homes, this is a room or secluded kennel. It should be comfortable, and free from many distractions (a sheet or blanket over the top works well). Most importantly, the dog should be allowed to be somewhat protective over this space… it is theirs, after all. Children and other animals should never be allowed play near or inside your dog’s kennel. When not together, the dogs should be placed in their respective kennels. This shows them that while their crate is safe and comfortable, it is not as much ‘fun’ as being social around the other animals.
- The next step to the introductions, occurring once the dog has begun to feel comfortable in the new environment, would be group walks. These walks should begin by walking the dogs parallel, with humans and a significant distance, placed in between. This allows the dogs to get used to the sight and scent of one another, without the pressure to interact. As the dogs become more comfortable, the distance between them will decrease. Any positive behavior, such as calm tail wags, should be praised by the handler. It is important to be aware of subtle cues of stress, such as yawning. These signs can vary between dogs, but a low tail with a steady stare can indicate aggression. In this instance, you should redirect the dog without rewarding their behavior, perhaps by turning them in a circle, or stepping in front of their stare. These walks may need to continue for a few days or a few weeks. They can be considered successful when neither dog is overly-excited at the presence of the other, nor aggressive or fearful.
- Following the group walks, it is important to again evaluate your dogs’ comfort levels around other animals, before proceeding. At this point, we had learned that Georgia liked other dogs. She was not aggressive with them, but was also not completely comfortable. We knew that if she was faced with an uncomfortable situation, she would first try to flee (the term fight or flight is important here!). Gaige had no discomfort with other dogs, but lacked proper manners. Therefore, we decided to keep Gaige leashed while walking, but allow Georgia to be loose. If the dogs were to get stressed, Georgia could retreat, while we retained control of Gaige’s behavior, and could correct her whenever necessary. (Of course, evaluate this step at your own discretion. It is ideal to be in a fenced area for this step, or at least to have a strong recall cue on both dogs.)
- Once you can be sure that all dogs are comfortable in the presence of the others, and that you also have retained control over the animals, it may be time to graduate to off-leash interactions outdoors. During this time, it is important to watch for warning signs, and manage triggers. For example, many dogs will display issues when another dog tries to take their toy, eat something yummy, or approach their favorite person. You can manage these interactions to avoid confrontation (hello, put the toys away!). We know that Georgia becomes uncomfortable when Gaige rushes toward her, and so we try to manage Gaige’s behavior in approaching Georgia. Not only does this show Georgia that we will protect her, allowing her to let her guard down and not stand in defense of herself, but it also is teaching Gaige how to have more polite interactions with other dogs.
We will be back to continue this subject, and discuss integrating dogs indoors! If you this subject is interesting to you, check out the blog written by Debby McMullen. She is a positive-reinforcement dog trainer who specializes in multi-dog interactions, and has given us a lot of insight and tips toward integrating our household.