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A reader posed a question about best practices for introducing a new dog to their family. Especially with regards to their existing dog. Congrats on the new family member! Here is some general advice I give folks and honestly, what I practices I follow when introducing a new dog in my own household.
Now in my own situation, my dogs are used to very high traffic of dogs coming and going. But I’ve found when I add a dog to my life that will be a permanent addition, my crew has always assumed the dog was a visitor until about day 14. Then I’d practically hear them say, “Wait, what? This one is STAYING?! For real?! You’re kidding me?!” And then depending on the dog they’d either “Here we go again,” or “Why do you hate me so? Life was so great before and now this?!” or in the case of Tom practically cry, “What did I do to deserve this?! Why, oh, why is this happening?” There is also the dog that will go, “NO WAY IN HELL!” Those dogs are definitely more challenging and higher risk factors. I’ve worked with clients numerous times in such cases.
Regardless, my point is, don’t assume it’s all great for real in the first couple of weeks. Those are your honeymoon period. If you’re lucky. So many times when I was working with behavior cases full time I’d get the call, “Every thing was going great! I don’t understand?” Basically it boils down to, “Transitions are hard,” “change is hard” so dogs will tend to not let their guard down as much or take their time sorting out the situation, then as time progresses and they get more comfortable things will often shift.
So here are a couple of my general ‘rules’ when I have new dogs in the house:
- The honey moon period is real. Always err on the side of caution. Most dogs take about 6 months to fully acclimate to their new home and environment. On average in my experience within the first month you’ll start to see the new dog start to settle in and the existing dog(s) realize this is their new normal. But it may be a few more months before you see any escalations of strife if they’re going to happen. If any of the dogs are under age 18-24months also be prepared that you may see some (sometimes major) shifts in their relationships with each other as the younger dog reaches 18-24 months, regardless of how long the dogs have been in your home.
- Slow and steady wins the race. You want this relationship to last their lifetime, not start off hot and heavy then burst into a massive bunch of flames and ashes. Give the dogs the space, opportunity, structure and time to form a lasting, safe, socially appropriate relationship.
- Please, oh please, don’t treat to create or enforce any of those “well this dog is older/here first, so he’s the alpha” nonsense or do things based on some misguided sense of fairness or guilt. Oh good lordy the problems such arbitrary human directed ‘hierarchy’ things cause. It is perfectly ok to have different rules for different dogs, even if they are with you at the same time. Here’s my basic hierarchy rule. Every thing is mine. I just happen to let the dogs borrow it. the house is mine. the food is mine. the crate is mine. the leashes are mine. the yard is mine. the toys are mine. I am the world’s worst (or best depending how you think about it) resource guarder. Everything is mine. The dog’s ability to access all that is mine is dependent on their behavior. Not anything to do with which is oldest, or who was there first, or such. In my house for example, furniture access is a privilege not a right. Dogs have to prove to me they can be safe, responsive, follow the rules, not guard things, and a list of other behaviors before I’ll give them access to the couch. So yea that often means the pre-existing dogs are allowed on the couch and the new dog isn’t. (though in some cases it doesn’t, I’ve had dogs in my life who never were allowed on the couch, even when others at the time were). It has nothing to do with the pre-existing dogs being their first or older, other than in context of they’ve proven to me in their time with me they can be safe and not abuse the privilege.
- Safety is my basic barometer. Just ask my nieces and nephews, “What’s Aunt Kate’s rule?” They will sigh, “Safety first.” Has this dog proven to me they can be safe in this situation? if yes, then ok we can begin the process of relaxing various management strategies. if no, then other criteria for managed safety comes into play. if you are unsure, then use environmental management to ensure safety will happen. This applies to all of the dogs in the situation, both pre-existing and new, and is an on-going criteria.
- Leashes, baby gates, barriers, and crates are your friend. Use them. This goes back to #1: Always err on the side of caution. Ex: For example at the early stages, ensure either dog can’t leap onto the other dog. As pain responses don’t make for good starts to friendships. Or don’t assume that meal times for the dogs are going to be all rainbows and unicorns. Feed the dogs with a least a baby gate between them. use some common sense, and have a healthy respect. They are dogs. They all have 42 teeth and jaws strong enough to crush bone. They are new to each other. Again always err on the side of caution. And #4.
- Structured physical and mental exercise is your friend. Make sure the primary needs of all of the dogs are being met. Ideally their primary means of exercise isn’t playing with each other. See #7.
- Decide if you want the new dog to have a solid relationship with you. Because if you don’t make that decision and then a plan for it to happen, reality is dogs will most often bond to each other faster, more easily, and therefore also learn from each other faster and more easily than with humans. Unless their environment and world is orchestrated so that the relationship with the humans is made a priority. So in my life, new dogs get tethered to me in the house. Where I go, they go (unless they are in their crate, on tie down, or behind a gate). They get individual training, play and exercise time with me where the focus is building a bond and relationship with me. I interrupt any hyper-fixation on the other dogs. I set up the environment to encourage the new dog to include me in the decisions they make and to include me to gain access to things they want (including the other dogs). And honestly, my existing dogs learn to also reinforce those things in the new dog as they get reinforcement from me when they do. (example: existing dogs learn if they hang back when I call new dog and wait until new dog is coming to me before also coming they will get rewarded. But if they charge ahead so new dog is now following existing dogs to me, reinforcement rates change. As I want new dog to learn to come to me when called, not simply cue off the other dogs and follow them). The dogs all get time together, but my priority is to have dogs that each have a relationship with me in addition to with each other. Dogs that are super bonded and co-dependent on each other, not usually a healthy situation. Especially if you are bringing a new younger dog in to a home with an existing adult, often the puppy will fixate or hyper-bond to the adult dog and the adult dog doesn’t reciprocate to the same degree. This can cause major problems. And also runs high risks of separation anxiety and stress if the dogs are separated.
- Decide before the new dog comes home the house manners, outdoor manners, various rules, behaviors and such you are going to want with your dogs in the long run. Devise a plan to reach these end goals before the new dog even arrives. Then implement your plan from moment one. I personally think one of the biggest errors people can make is to have a week or 2 period where they let the new dog do all manner of things that they aren’t going to be ok with in the long run, then suddenly change all of the rules on the dog. While I absolutely do agree with my ‘slow and steady wins the race’ and that you need to develop this relationship over time in the ebbs and flows of it, I don’t agree with creating a world for the first 1-2 weeks that is completely different from the reality you live on a day to day basis. If you work a full time job out of the house, then by all means sure if you can take a few days off when you first get your dog. But spend those few days helping acclimate your dog to the concept that you are going to be leaving them home alone for 8 hours a day. Start off small, with short periods of leaving, and build those lengths of time up. Get them comfortable with the area you will be leaving them. Get them on a toileting, feeding, watering schedule similar to the one they will experience when your off at work. And so on. Use the first few days to progressively build your new dog up to the reality of daily life that is your family. Use those first few days to feel out your new dog and their comfort level with things, but don’t overwhelm them and flood them.
- If your new dog was in a shelter kennel or other high stress environment for more than 10 days or in loads of transitions on a transport, shelter shock is a real thing. It’s when dogs go into a self protective mode of psychological shut down. If your dog is a rescue dog and is super calm, and quiet upon arrival and you think “Wow this dog is really easy…”, don’t assume it’s their true personality. The dog is likely experiencing some level of trauma response or shock of the transition of it all. And you may see significant personality changes as the dog acclimates. Again slow and steady wins the race.
- Remember your pre-existing dog(s) are having their whole life changed kind of out of the blue (from their perspective). And being expected to get along with a complete stranger who is now not only in their house but sharing their stuff, their yard, and their human. And because the new dog is well new, he/she will often get more of your energy, time, focus and attention. That’s a tough pill to swallow for many pre-existing dogs. Make sure you plan for some daily one on one time with each of your dogs. Pre-existing and new. Imagine you were in a situation of a blended family with step kids now all being asked to live together, make a new life together, share their parents together, etc. That’s hard for people to do! And think of how many times it goes poorly. Remember, it’s hard for dogs too.
Those are my basics for introducing a new dog to my home and lifestyle. Now some basics for introducing the dogs to each other. In this I’m assuming your pre-existing dog enjoys other dogs, and has had generally amicable relationships with other dogs in the past. And you have had some assurances from whatever caregivers new dog had prior to you that new dog enjoys other dogs and has had generally amicable relationships with other dogs in the past. If you know your pre-existing dog or new dog isn’t thrilled with other dogs, or has had past interactions with other dogs that did not go well, well that’s a whole nother ball game and well beyond the scope of this post. In such cases, I strongly recommend professional assistance, guidance and advice prior to bringing the new dog home, and throughout the transition period.
- Assume the new dog will be stressed. They’ve just had some level of transition. They will likely (hopefully) be more cautious. They may be less likely to want to be vulnerable. They may be less tolerant of social interactions they would be comfortable with if they weren’t stressed. If you’re super lucky you’ll have the most confident dog who goes, “Ok this is new life? Great, what do we do together now?” If you’re not lucky well then they might be more fearful, nervous, or even aggressive. Depending on the dog you may know a lot about their history and background, or you may be completely blind. In either case, again, err on the side of caution. In this vein, many rescue organizations recommend using no fail limited slip or martingale collars to reduce the risk of the dog getting scared, slipping their leash and collar and bolting, and using a leash with a locking clip (such as the ones Ruff Wear sells. I get nothing for that recommendation, just know they sell a leash with a locking clip) and a back up no fail slip leash. 2 points of contact to reduce risk of the dog getting lost. I further this recommendation.
- Get pre-exisiting dog tired before new dog arrives. Likely the last thing new dog will want or need is pre-existing dog full of energy bouncing around. That will probably be rather overwhelming to new dog and may start things off on the wrong foot. If pre-existing dog has been physically exercised before hand, they are more likely to be some level of calmer at least.
- Watch your body language through out. Even if you feel unsure, nervous, or concerned, as the old adage goes, “Fake it till you make it.” Relax your muscles, smile, laugh, unclench your jaw, when you stand bend your knees and elbows slightly, breathe through your belly. For some people it can help to hum or sing a silly song as you go along with the dogs. Relieve the tension.
- I like walks for introducing dogs. (again I am assuming both dogs are not leash reactive or frustrated greeters towards other dogs. If that is a known factor, again strongly recommend professional input prior to bringing new dog home). Person A starts walking Dog A (pre-existing dog). Then Person B meets them on the walk with Dog B. And you walk the dogs on the opposite sides of the street. Try to avoid tensing on the leash when the dogs look at each other. See where the dogs are comfortable with each other position wise. Can they both relax when they are parallel? Or only when Dog A is in front? Or Dog B in front? Or none of the above? Get data on how the dogs are feeling about each other with the distance of the street between you before then progressing closer. And definitely before you do direct contact introductions. As the dogs relax, slowly decrease the distance between them until you are walking parallel to each other (again Dog A still with 1 person, dog B with another person) with the dogs comfortable and relaxed side by side. I don’t encourage moving closer if either dog is really focused on the other. I encourage moving closer only once the dogs have relaxed and are able to focus on their handler as well. If once you are walking close enough, the dogs want to do a sniff greeting and you feel confident it will go ok, then do that (again trust your gut. if your gut says this might not be a good idea right now, trust your gut. And see #5 for my preferred way of doing the first direct contact interactions). Encourage the dogs to keep it brief (count 1, 2, 3 then have the dogs disengaged and refocus on their respective handlers) and to sniff rear ends before faces/heads/necks if possible. Prompt frequent handler refocus breaks. All the while you are gaining data on how the dogs feel about this all.
- On leash direct contact greetings though aren’t my favorite, as the risk of leashes getting tangled and dogs feeling trapped and humans inadvertently escalating situations through leash tension are high. My preferred is through a chain link fence or other physical barrier (not a crate though, too confined a space). Dog A is on leash on one side the fence. Dog B is on leash and walked in a nice curved approach towards the fence. While Dog B is moving towards the fence, handler of Dog A is encouraging Dog A to move around and not stand fixated staring at Dog B through the fence. If it is known that neither dog is a food guarder, then scattering some treats on the ground on both sides of the fence can really help lower arousal levels and tensions, as the dogs sniff around eating treats gradually shifting to sniff each other. As Dog B reaches the fence, handler of Dog A allows Dog A to approach the fence. Dogs sniff through the fence, then are encouraged to disengage from each other and reengage with their respective handlers. As the dogs are given chance to sniff, meet and greet with the fence between them the handler’s can assess body language. Are the dogs wiggling and loose posture? Or are either or both showing signs of tension? Is one seeming more confrontational or forward in body approach than the other? Is either seeming nervous, shy, uncertain, afraid?
- As the dogs are showing signs of comfort with each other, move the walk into the yard with both dogs in the yard. Rather than just opening the gate and having the outside the yard dog enter it, pick up Dog A’s leash (dog inside the yard) and start walking Dog A around in the yard on leash. Then have Dog B enter also leash and have a walk through the yard, and with the dogs still on leash with their respective handlers, walk the dogs around the yard, letting them sniff the ground, acclimating to the space. Try to interrupt if one dog tries to mark (pee) over the other dog’s pee. Again encourage frequent focusing on the handlers by the dogs. Then as you feel the dogs are relaxed and you feel comfortable, drop the leashes (if your gut is telling you something doesn’t feel safe, trust your gut and keep holding the leashes). Keep yourself moving. The 2nd worst thing people do at this stage (1st is assuming “oh they’ll be fine!” and not do any of the gradual prep described above) is to stop moving and just stand around. Keep a relaxed amble going. This will encourage the dogs to keep moving too, which in most cases helps to diffuse potential tension.
- Keep up your frequent asking the dogs to refocus on the people. If the dogs decide they love each other and are happy happy joy joy awesome! But still give them frequent breaks to refocus on people as this will help keep arousal levels at a safe level hopefully and clue you in if tensions or discomfort levels are starting to rise from either dog.
- As the dogs tell you they are happy and comfortable, then head on inside together. Again watching all the while for body language clues that either might be getting uncomfortable, overwhelmed, defensive, nervous, etc. For my house, I teach the dogs early on that outside is for playing/running/active, inside is for quiet settle time. So I try to time the moving inside to as I’m seeing both dogs get happily tired, increasing my odds that they’ll be ready to nap and settle once we all go inside. And as I said above leashes and other environmental management tools are your friend. In the house and out.
- If during your outside transition stages you are seeing warning signs that either dog is less than thrilled with the situations, then I highly recommend using environmental management even more so once inside, and involving a qualified professional for additional assistance. Use physical barriers to keep the dogs from making full direct contact with each other. I usually recommend the ‘2 fences rule’ as well if you are seeing warning signs. The 2 fences rule is 2 forms of environmental management in effect at all times. This could be leash on plus gate barrier up. Or in a crate plus gate barrier up. Or door closed plus gate barrier up. Or leash plush muzzle. Etc. This way if 1 form of management fails, you have a back up already in place and can prevent the dogs from ending in a situation that is unsafe, dangerous and likely to make the chance that in the end they will get along even more difficult.
This post is meant to provide information on what I do when adding a new dog to my life and frequently recommend to clients with dogs without any prior dog on dog behavioral concerns. But, dog training and relationships aren’t one size fits all. As always, dogs, their people, and their lifestyles are very individual. So if you are considering adding a new dog to your home, these tips might get you started, or at least help you think about the processing of integrating dogs into your home in different ways, but please reach out for more individualized coaching. Learn more about the services I offer visit Maplewood Dog including remote private sessions or check out the referral listings through IAABC.org for a behavior consultant local to you. All the best! 🙂