Dog Relationships Change and How We Respond Matters

February 15, 2022
Two Dogs Cuddle on a Couch

Here at Wise Mind Canine I talk a LOT about proper introductions and thoughtful relationship building in multi dog households. However, no matter how well we accomplish this task, dog relationships aren’t static. They shift and change with time. Responding to those changes is critical to finding harmony once again.

Positive dog relationships are critical to a happy multi dog household. My 2 German Shepherds have been experiencing changes in their relationship since my youngest (Fish) reached social maturity. Phoenix went from happily sharing the couch with Fish and me to growling and grumbling if he approached. This is not entirely unexpected for her, a dog who can have big feelings about resources in general. In fact, if you think about it she’s got two resources she’s defending in that scenario, me and her desired sleeping spot. For much of Fish’s life until he was 2.5, Phoenix happily snuggled with him and shared the futon next to my couch.

Two Dogs Cuddle on a Couch

So what happened there? How did we get from cuddling on the couch to competing for the couch? I have my theories and a path forward.

Most commonly, dog relationships change around certain events:

  1. Reaching Sexual Maturity.
  2. Shifts through life stages: Puppyhood, adolescence, adulthood, senior.
  3. Changes in family makeup whether that’s additions of the human or four legged kind.
  4. After long periods of separation.
  5. Dog illness/pain.
  6. Environmental Changes
  7. Changes in ways that dogs needs are met.
  8. More..

Half the battle is acknowledging that these life changes can alter the way your dogs interact, the other half is knowing how to respond effectively.

Sometimes changes are normal and don’t negatively impact our dogs. For instance, it makes sense if 2 dogs who have gotten older have decided not to play so much and prefer shared naps. We don’t need to address this change. But when a change is causing friction between dogs, it always deserves our attention. 

Let’s look at my two dogs’ relationship and see what changes are likely contributing to the tension:

A puppy plays with an adult dog in a yard

Fisher came home as a puppy, when Phoenix was 6 years old.

Now she’s a senior and he’s a sexually mature dog at nearly 3 years old. That’s a very different place in terms of what they may now find to be acceptable or unacceptable in their relationship. Fisher doesn’t get the puppy pass anymore. He can’t just invade her space in the same way, with the same amount of tolerance. She gives very clear social signals that tell him not to approach and he does anyway. It’s rude, and she’s telling him so in a way that’s appropriate and reasonable.

Additionally, Phoenix, as a senior dog,  may be experiencing aches and pains that make getting jostled more than just an irritation. Fisher has 20lbs on her and isn’t the most graceful dog in regards to where and how he places his body. Her new intolerance to sharing that space may stem from pain.

In the past year I have become a far more valuable resource simply because there’s less of me to go around as I’ve dealt with a year of health difficulties. Getting quality one on one time with me is a much bigger deal. Especially after I spent 2 weeks in COVID isolation. In a similar vein, the dogs have seen a shift in the way their needs are met, seeing less enrichment activities with my direct involvement further increasing my value when I am spending active time with a dog.

Now that we know the “why” of their dog relationship change it’s time to think about solutions that address them: 

This tension, over time, has the potential to negatively impact the way my dogs feel about each other. Leading to potential long term problems or an escalation from warning “don’t do that” to actual conflict. Thus, addressing it is in everyone’s best interest.

These are some possible solutions for this example: 

  1. Rearranging the furniture. If the futon isn’t next to me on the couch Phoenix can use her desired sleeping spot without my position nearby prompting Fish to join us.
  2. Helping Fisher respond more appropriately to Phoenix’s warnings that she would like him to move away. Sending him to his place cot helps here because it models a polite response to her social signals.
  3. Decreasing my perceived value by providing more frequent one on one time and enrichment activities where I am a participant, thus making myself less novel and exciting.
  4. Seeing if Phoenix could benefit from a different joint supplement or if she might need some pain management .
  5. Increase bonding activities surrounding the couch and futon. For instance, I know these 2 LOVE being on this couch together and watching out the window for hours. Providing more positive associations with shared couch time can transfer to other contexts.
  6. Consider doing some actual behavior modification regarding how Phoenix feels about being approached by Fish on the couch.

If the situation were more severe, as in the dogs were having actual fights, or were giving harsh corrections then I might look at a stronger management strategy, wherein we roll back through my MDH 101 Introduction Stages to a point where the dogs can be successful again. That might look like deciding that both dogs need to be on leash, at a distance from one another in the living room and participating in very structured activities in order to reduce conflict over the couch situation while I tried some of the above solutions as well.

With these particular dogs I can count on three things that make that rollback to a higher level of management situation unnecessary:

First, Phoenix gives long and protracted warnings. There is plenty of time to intervene on her behalf if she’s upset. She has this patience and willingness to continue to communicate rather than escalate because she both knows I will come to help and genuinely likes Fisher.

Secondly, Fish disengages quite easily making him easy to remove from her space. He has strong skills like a positive interrupter, hand target, recall, and place that work even in the most distracting of situations.

Finally, their relationship has a strong history of positive interactions leaving me less worried about the occasional negative interaction. It’s going to take a lot to even shift their relationship to a point of neutrality, let alone one where they actively do not like each other. Early in their relationship I would not have had that confidence and would have considered micromanaging things a bit more but all of the work in the first 18 months of their relationship is basically a giant insurance policy.

The plan to address the dog relationship change in my household: 

I’m currently implementing solutions 1-3 at the same time to see what impact they have for Phoenix and Fish. In order to assess their progress I’m tracking the number of incidents where Phoenix feels the need to growl and grumble with Fish in regards to the futon and the intensity of the moment. If my plan is working I should see the intensity and frequency of these moments decreasing over time.

Reassessing the plan after 1-3 weeks is key to success. At that point I’ll alter the plan if needed and possibly include some of the more time intensive solutions.

A framework to handle your own dog relationship changes:

I wanted to leave you with a process for addressing changes in dog relationships in your own home.

  1. Consider whether this dog relationship change even needs to be addressed. Some changes aren’t bad and they don’t need changing.
  2. Identify possible reasons your dogs’ relationships have shifted.
  3. Come up with solutions that directly address the reasons for the change.
  4. Consider whether there is a safety issue or if the relationship is fragile enough to require additional management and supervision for a time.
  5. Put your plan into action and track your results.
  6. Assess whether your plan is producing the desired results. If it’s not, perhaps there is another cause you have yet to find or your solution is not addressing the problem the way you thought it would.
  7. Modify your plan if needed.

Curious about managing dog relationships and multi dog household problems with confidence? Check out my course, MDH 101: Dog-Dog Introductions and Relationship Building.

Want to try thinking through your own dog relationship issue and possible solutions? Try it in the comments.



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