Trainer Tony Cruse advises for anyone thinking of extending their canine family.
Have you ever considered increasing the number of dogs in your home? Maybe you think your existing pet could do with a pal, or perhaps you’re considering adding more than one?
Whatever your reasoning, you only need to flick to our Dog Answers section to realise that, despite their unconditional love, dogs can be challenging, and dealing with a group of dogs in your home can be even more demanding.
Everyone wants a happy home, but it only takes one incident to damage a canine relationship, and that expectation is ruined.
Owners often expect that a new dog, or dogs, will enter their houses, fit in with their routines, and simply co-exist with the established, comfortable dogs they already have.
Although this can happen occasionally, almost by accident, it pays to be prepared and to focus on some key points.
When more than one dog is padding around your home, doggy dynamics come into play, and those dynamics often make solving domestic issues quite complicated.
In every situation, each dog may behave differently. The dogs’ individual behaviours, towards each other and towards you, may vary considerably, and these variables make the outcome unpredictable.
When I am on a behavioural consultation in a multi-dog home, the dynamics mean it takes much more time to establish an appropriate strategy than it would if I was addressing a single dog’s issues.
Strategies, organisation, and management
To help each dog, it is wise to consider potential flashpoints (mealtimes, preparing for a walk, playing). Prevention is better than creating and then dealing with a problem. And to prevent the dogs from aggravating one another, you can use management. Dogs are generally happy when they have space and can choose to move away and create space. If that choice is removed and it’s particularly crowded, you’ll often see them adopting aggressive-looking posturing (stiff body language, bared teeth) and communication (a growl).
It’s basic doggy language for ‘back off’. If this happens repeatedly, the relationships between the dogs can go downhill rapidly.
To prevent this from happening, ensure each dog has his own space in the house to retreat to should he choose. Separate bedding areas and separate food bowls are often necessary. Feeding separately can allow each dog to enjoy his meal without worrying about losing out on the amount of food given. I often find that if dogs are fed in different areas of the house, they remain content together on a daily basis and they appear to enjoy their food more. It takes away the competition; one food bowl and two dogs can be a flashpoint!
Using door gates and barriers can be a simple solution. Place one food bowl down, shut the door gate, and address the other dog’s meal. If you do this routinely, it soon becomes a successful feeding strategy. Other management tools include indoor leads, which can prevent a young dog from constantly fussing an older companion; crates, which allow secure sleeping quarters; and playpens, which can keep a puppy in a safe place while you attend to the other dogs or answer the front door. In a multi-dog home, management is vital.
Training may be more challenging
Bringing home a new dog
Whether you are introducing a new puppy or a rescue dog to your established dog or pack, never rush the situation, but give each dog plenty of time and space. Never hurry your new dog straight in the front door, and surprise your other pets. Putting a lead on all dogs, with one person per dog, and greeting in the street is an excellent place to start. Then, move the introduction to the garden. Keep all dogs on-lead initially to prevent jumping up and over-exuberance. Allow the dogs to back away. Intermittently feed each dog a treat to make the experience a positive one.
After a while, remove the lead from one dog, usually the calmest. This way, you can control the excited dog and the calm dog will generally make the correct choices.
Having a strange dog literally enter your home can be quite upsetting for the established dog or dogs, and many will effectively guard the threshold. I usually allow the new dog in first for a sniff around the home before bringing in the established dog or dogs. This immediately prevents any threshold guarding.
Make use of leads indoors. The lead is a useful management tool in the early stages and prevents one dog from upsetting another.
Which one is Top Dog?
Many years ago, it was thought that you had to identify one of your dogs as the ‘top dog’. Labels such as ‘boss’, ‘alpha’, or ‘dominant dog’ were used. Owners were told to feed this dog before the others, fuss him first, and allow him or her into the garden first. However, in my experience and according to research, it is far more complicated than this. Forcing an outdated concept onto dogs can cause domestic upset by placing the dogs in unnecessary, stressful situations. Dogs behave very differently in many different situations, so don’t waste your time deciding which dog might be ‘top dog’ or building a perceived ‘pack leader’. Instead, train simple manners, create pleasant encounters, and manage the dogs around their resources.
Competing and arguing
Hopefully, most situations will not develop into dog fights. However, fighting can occur when two or more dogs are competing for a resource. Generally, the last thing a dog wants to do is get into a physical argument, and they will usually posture hundreds of times before one occurs. If you can spot these often quick, warning signs, you can interrupt the situation before the damage is done.
Firstly, always be aware of resources. These are where the flashpoints (arguments) are likely to occur. The simplest thing is to safely remove the toy, or chew, before things escalate. Then reconsider management for next time.
Secondly, observe the dog’s body language. Stress and anxiety will occur before any aggressive posturing. Fighting often occurs after direct eye contact, a growl, a display of teeth, or an air snap. Never let conflicting dogs ‘just get on with it’! Ideally, stop it before the physical stuff starts, by reading the signs and interrupting and distracting. In an emergency, interrupt with a loud noise, but think twice before grabbing a dog in a fight as you are likely to get bitten.
Resources are things (objects and areas) that a dog may consider high value. They can be different for each dog. Be aware that arguments can occur around resources — take two hungry dogs and one chew, for a simple example!
Recall and Attention exercise
Recall is a vital exercise to teach any dog, and could easily be a lifesaver in an emergency situation.
When you have a group of dogs, you need to be able to call each dog individually. But often, in the park, you may also need to call all the dogs as a group.
The answer is to ensure each dog knows his or her name individually, while also maintaining a group recall.
Single dog recall
● Have some tasty treats discreetly on you.
● Calmly approach the first dog and get as close as you can.
● Say the dog’s name in a jolly way, and immediately find his mouth with the treat; pop it in!
● Repeat with each dog.
● After repeating this over a number of days and in various locations (kitchen, garden), this time, use the dog’s name and allow the individual dog to orientate towards you for the treat. Repeat with all dogs.
● Over time, increase the distance so each dog has to travel further to you to get the treat.
● If a dog has a favourite toy, you can substitute the treat for a game with the toy.
● If any other dog approaches, ignore and ensure only the dog whose name you called gets the reward.
There are times when you will have to call all the dogs back to you. Rather than calling all their names, which could take a while, you can have a collective recall command. Choose a word like ‘Dogs’ or ‘Group’. It needs to be said in an upbeat way, almost like you are singing it!
● Start in the garden or a quiet area of the house. Sing out the collective recall command — ‘Dogssss’ for example.
● Have something on you that can excite the dogs and get them to come to you. Rustle the snack bag or show them a food bowl or toy.
● The order is vital — it must be the command followed by the prompt, so say ‘Dogssss’ and then immediately rustle the treat bag or show the food bowl or toy.
● When the dogs get to you, reward them with a treat in any order, taking care not to drop the treat. You can even have the treats in a bowl ready to distribute.
● Repeat this many times over the next week.
● Slowly and randomly stop using the prompt, which is the bag rustle or the visual lure (toy or food bowl), so you are just using the verbal command.
● You should soon find that the collective recall will be sufficient. You still need to reward each dog though.
● Practise this in the garden and carefully in the park. Add distractions/attractions slowly.
Benefits of having more than one dog
● More company for each dog.
● More company for each person.
● Walks can be more of a family experience.
● Interesting to observe the dogs’ interactions.
● You can create competition to improve recall (the first dog to return gets the reward).
● A confident dog can positively affect another, helping to solve a problem.
Negatives to having more than one dog
● Higher vet bills/insurance.
● More poo to pick up.
● The expense of dog food.
● More time training.
● A nervous dog can negatively affect another, creating a problem.