Adopting a dog into a multi-dog household.
Some aspects of dog-dog introductions are universally agreed upon, such as giving the dogs as much freedom as is safe, and using a large, neutral area if at all possible. Outdoors is always better than indoors, unless the only outdoor option is a small, confined space. Just remember that the less pressure on the dogs the better, and that “pressure” can be applied by confining dogs to small spaces, looming owners or dogs unable to move freely. Most importantly, no matter what the setting, do all you can to keep the initial introductory sniffing brief. Let the dogs interact briefly, and then call them away. Move around the space yourself, encouraging the dogs to explore the environment together, perhaps providing themselves information about one another through scent marking. Avoid long, up-close-and-personal sniffing sessions that often lead to tension and bad beginnings. On-leash or off-leash depends on a variety of factors, but do what you can to avoid tight leashes that add tension.
Some shelters and rescue groups mandate that potential adopters bring in the resident dogs for a “meet and greet” at the shelter itself. There are a host of costs and benefits to this practice. These include a chance for the host organization to evaluate the skills of the potential adopters and the condition of their current dog, as well as a chance for the first introduction to go badly because the dogs were forced upon one another. I would argue that resident dogs should only be brought for meetings if “best practices” can be followed, and the dogs’ first minutes together are structured in such a way as to encourage a good, long-term relationship. In addition, we need to guard against assuming that first meetings are always predictive of how the dogs will get along in the home. First greetings are oftennot predictive of how the dogs will get along in the home, and suggesting otherwise only compromises the credibility of the shelter or rescue group.
Most importantly, expectations should be realistic about how long it takes dogs to settle into a new environment. All new dogs are in a state of confusion about where they’ve been and where they are going. New owners need to help dogs get their paws on the ground as soon as they can, but without overwhelming a dog who is unsure of himself. Good management is often the key here: Give dogs lots of time by themselves at first, letting both the new and resident dogs have rest periods and special time by themselves with their new owners.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Many problems between dogs can be prevented or managed by teaching dogs that they get what they want by being patient and polite. Rather than following the ancient (and sometimes destructive) advice about supporting the dog who they think should be alpha, owners should teach dogs that they get treats, toys and attention by being polite, not by being pushy.
MOST COMMON MISTAKES?
One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen from owners of multi-dog households is unrealistic expectations. New dogs can’t settle into a new household in a week or so—it can take up to a year for a new dog to settle into a new routine. Expectations can also set owners up for a lot of soul searching and “buyer’s remorse.” Wondering “Oh no, what have I done!” is a common reaction to the slightest misbehavior of a new dog, even among experienced professionals. The more we can help all new owners by being there for them when they need someone to talk to, the more dogs will stay in homes and not be returned to shelters.
ALL THEY NEED IS LOVE?
Regrettably, sometimes things just don’t work out. Perhaps the two dogs simply despise each other, and no amount of training or conditioning is going to change it. Sometimes one dog brings out the worst in another, and the combination is too much for even the most dedicated owner to handle. In that case, we need to let owners know that they have a backup plan available to them. Service providers must accept dogs back without causing adopters to feel guilty. “Satisfaction guaranteed” lets responsible adopters know that they can count on the shelter or rescue group to be there for them if they need help. People are more likely to adopt if they know that they are not going through this without support from professionals.
None of us can accurately predict how any group of dogs is going to get along, but we can do a lot to increase the odds of a successful transition from a “one-dog house” to “multi-dog household.” Shelter staff and rescue organizations can and do play a huge role in helping to integrate dogs together into a happy family—thank you for those efforts! Picture me wagging from the shoulders back…
Rockstar canine behaviorist and trainer Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB. Courtesy ASPCA