Are you a new to having a household with multiple dogs? Here’s a crash course in both dog-dog introductions and building positive relationships between your canine family members. If you like this blog and want an A to Z step by step guide to your entire introduction try my course, MDH 101: Dog-Dog Introductions and Relationship Building.
Take it slow!
Dog- Dog Introductions take time! 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. NO THANK YOU.”
Dog-Dog Introductions and Relationships Gone Wrong:
Then there are those relationships where we just get started off on the wrong foot. It becomes a lot of work to build something worthwhile. Sometimes you just can’t get there. You might learn to tolerate one another but that’s about as far as things go. Many of us dream of dogs who genuinely enjoy one another. Playing, cuddling, and generally seeking each other’s presence. The part where people get stuck is how to get from tolerance, or even negativity to that ideal loving multi dog household. Especially when things have already gone wrong.
You can influence the course of your dogs’ relationships from now on!
The great news is that 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? Sure, but do you want to find out it’s not fine, the hard way? You don’t, trust me on this one. I have client folders full of people who did just that and the road back is a long one.
Set Your Home Up for a Successful Dog-Dog Introduction
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, the best location is our kitchen. I have also used the living room in a pinch or as a secondary area. My long term confinement areas include a crate and 1-2 exercise pens with puppy appropriate flooring underneath. Know your puppy, some dogs will devour those foam tiles in the picture below if given the chance.
You might also enjoy my free lecture from our course MDH 101: Dog-Dog Introductions and relationship building on preparing your home
Here are some example long term confinement areas from my own puppies:
Setup Number One:
This setup replaced our dining table in the kitchen. It is made of up 2 exercise pens zip tied together. The slippery tile floor is covered with foam floor tiles. I layer EZ whelp absorbent pads on top in case of accidents, that’s the brown fabric in the picture. The crate is in the corner so it cannot be used to climb out of the pen. I typically fully cover the crate with a blanket, leaving only the door uncovered. The crate door remains open and a comfy dog bed is placed in the crate to make it the BEST spot to sleep. You can cover the sides of the pen with blankets if you need a visual block if needed. This pen got an upgrade later with enrichment experience attached to the walls.
Setup Number Two:
This long term confinement area was in my living room in full view of the couches where we sit to hang out or just watch TV. The floor has foam tiles once again, but this puppy pulled them up so we replaced it with an old rug as he got older. There is a crate and an exercise pen which is decorated adventurous exercise pen style. This setup has a crate zip tied to the exercise pen on the left and right sides. Using the opening in the gate to make space for the crate. The main problem with this setup is that the crate is shorter than the exercise pen, making escapes possible.
Creating House Zones:
Now for dividing our house into zones we used extra tall wall mounted pet gates with walk through doors. This allowed us to give all of the dogs more space than a single room when they needed to be separate from each other. We bought our gates at Petco but you can buy 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, basically a tall black step through gate wide enough to fit a doorway:
Dog-Dog Introduction Related Management Puppy Raising Benefits:
This is a puppy who is comfortable with separation and barriers. Separation practice happens regularly when you have your house set up in zones from the start. This is an added bonus of taking things slowly.
Fisher got substantial practice on core puppy items such as:
- Separation and practice being alone.
- Learning to self entertain.
- Building a bond with us, before the other dogs.
- Being near another dog without interacting.
- and so much more!
I have raised 4 puppies, and the method that became this blog post and a dog training course was by far the most pleasant puppy raising experience I have ever had. The items that were good for dog-dog introductions were not only good for my puppy but also my sanity and staving off those, “puppy blues”.
Open Floor Plans:
Now, before you start saying to yourself, “My house is open concept, I couldn’t possibly use gates in the way you are asking me to use them.”. Take a look at my client’s clever setup in her open concept house with 4 dogs. Where there’s a will there’s a way!
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. The fence poles are staked into the ground right against my driveway. To accommodate the stairs which you can’t see, we made an arc of gates onto the driveway and attached the end to the deck.
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. You also need to be mindful of the things your 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. Particularly one with more alone time. It can be tempting to want to use the dogs to meet each other’s needs, but it’s important to 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 overarousal that can tip into bad behavior.
I smell you, I Hear You: Dog-Dog Introduction Step One
Ideally, you will begin with two barriers between dogs for safety reasons. This is why it is good to have more zones in your home. It prevents dogs from coming face to face at a single barrier before they are ready. You will take things that belong to the each dog and give them to the other dog. Allowing the dogs to interact with and smell the item. You will 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 to find in the bed.
The dogs will be able to hear and smell one another but not in an intense way because they are spaced apart. Next is a step that really depends on your individual dogs. When the dogs are content, you can reduce management to a single covered barrier. Now the smells and sounds the dogs experience increases. You can go back a step if the dogs behavior says it is needed. 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: Dog-Dog Introduction Step Two
Meeting at a Double Barrier:
Uncover your barriers and let the dogs see one another. Start by uncovering barriers when there’s a bubble between two barriers of at least 2 feet. Why the bubble? Safety. You might have dogs who exhibit aggressive behavior when a barrier is between them. Find that out before you have an experience you regret. If you have a barrier problem, you’re going to want to consult with a professional dog trainer. Having a problem with the barrier is not a reason to throw the dogs together in a room and hope for the best. Leashes are barriers too, so even parallel walks might be difficult. My adult dog could definitely fail into the category of barrier frustration, but with some savvy work there was no problem.
Meeting at a Single Barrier:
For most of you, the bubble went well, now you need to try bringing the dogs together at a single barrier. It’s important to know your dogs. You must use an appropriate barrier. For instance, teeth fit through my gate if desired but teeth would not go through an exercise pen pushed flat against my barrier.
Eventually if all goes well your dogs graduate to having unsupervised access to one another at a barrier. 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. Again, gates are not bite proof, so supervise these interactions at first until you’re sure that everything is going well. 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 and duration of choosing to interact at the barrier.
Preparing to Come Together
If you make a plan first, things will go far more smoothly. Ask yourself some of the questions below.
Handling Transitions Across a Barrier:
How are you going to bring the dogs together? Your answer should involve structure. Personally, I teach my dogs a game of patterned eating. First with the barrier between them and eventually we remove that barrier completely. The dogs take turns eating treats by name. This pattern game is played whenever my dogs are brought together across a barrier. As a result their transitions are calm, and don’t break out into a boisterous free for all in a tight space.
What Are Your Rules For Your Space?
Another question to ask is where are the dogs going to have this interaction? What activities do you find to be acceptable in this space? How are you going to facilitate the activity you want and avoid the activities that are undesirable? If you don’t want your dogs to wrestle in the living room, start now, not later. Decide on your rules and boundaries for this location and how you’re going to enforce them without negatively impacting your dogs’ relationships.
Body Language, Management, and Ending Interactions
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: It is probably a good idea to have a dropped leash. Your puppy’s recalls and other behaviors are not going to be strong enough here. Think of this as the emergency brake, something has gone wrong if you’re using it too often. In this case, reevaluate your setup and interaction choices in order to create a better scenario.) 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? I have a course on Dog-Dog Introductions and Relationship building that answers these questions and so much more.
Consider Age and Size Differences
Dogs have different ideas of what is fun and socially acceptable as they age. 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. For a successful dog-dog introduction you must factor preferences for rest and relaxation into the equation.
You can respect your older dog’s needs for rest and peace by providing zones of our home where they can relax on their own. This way you avoid attacks of the baby shark disguised as a puppy. It’s particularly important to engage your puppies in play or other activities with you in the presence your older dogs. Don’t force your older dog to babysit your puppy.
You do not want an unpaid babysitter with a mouth full of knives, trust me.
Helping Your Puppy and Older Dog Succeed:
To further help your older dog, bring young puppies into an interaction in that sweet spot of calm but not overtired. We support our older dogs as they give clear body language that says, “leave me alone” by removing the puppy and engaging them 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 use a variety of skills to do this everything from food scatters to a positively conditioned collar grab and walking with a grabbed collar to another location for a new activity. The latter is more invasive than the former. Think about that when you choose what disengagement skills to use with your dogs.
Pain and Old Age:
Finally, your older dogs could have pain, instability or other factors that make it unsafe for play to happen. Pain can lead to aggressive behavior. If this is the case for your dog(s), you need to interrupt play and carefully craft relaxing, non play, interactions.
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.
Knowing that, let’s keep things short and sweet!
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. I don’t know about you but I don’t have time or the desire to referee dogs 24/7 and I’m a dog trainer. Management is the closest thing to a magic wand in dog training friends, use it, use it well.
All of this rude 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 as important, if not more important than teaching them to interact. It’s key to a successful and peaceful dog-dog introduction! 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 is no 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 take a nap in the same room as your older dog, the answer might be no right now and that’s OK. We just keep tilting the balance of their interactions heavily toward calm activities and that will 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 feels about sharing items. Even if you already have multiple dogs living together, they might treat a new dog differently than their current companions. Your puppy is new to you too, so resources are something to be cautious and proactive about. As your pup ages their behavior regarding resources can change as well. Watch for things like freezing over a resource, hard stares on approach, and growling. If you see any of these things, do not hesitate to contact a professional dog trainer for help.
Key Problem Areas:
Things like food, water bowls, Kongs, chews, toys, sleeping spots, doors, other dogs, access to people, even YOU can all be points of contention.
Use Caution, Supervise, and Remove Items Appropriately
Proceed with caution and provide supervision when these items are present. Give your dogs space from one another when they have resources. I prefer to tether my puppy to me when all of my dogs have Kongs or chews to prevent stealing. In my house we have a firm no stealing rule. If a dog steals from another dog, that item is returned to the original dog. We use conflict free removal methods like a trained drop command and a positive interrupter. This prevents the development of behavior problems or relationship 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
You will need to develop a set of rules for your household and ensure 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. However we do our best to make it at least a neutral to positive experience when all is said and done. 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”, we give a trained cue, “Too Bad”.
“Too Bad”, is a behavior involving a positively conditioned collar grab and walking to a new location. We put a lot of effort into saying this in a happy tone of voice. Importantly, this means if something really ridiculous happens, our voices tend to only slip into neutral tone territory. We do this 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 rather than to leave them feeling bad.
Management Within an Interaction
The major place Dog-Dog Introductions go wrong is when the arousal level goes too high during 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.
You can practice shifting from interaction back into the pattern game that I described earlier in order to lower arousal levels. 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 is 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 the energy level 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.