Living in a Multi-Dog Household: Cant we all just get along??
We humans recognize that dogs are pack animals, meaning they are a highly social species who choose to live in groups. They are motivated to seek out contact with others and to avoid social isolation. However when adding a new dog to an existing pack or creating a brand new pack when households merge, for example, successful integration and peaceful coexistence is not always a given. It takes some work (sometimes a lot of work!) to live successfully in a multi-dog home.
The most successful multi-dog households are the ones where leadership is clearly defined. Being clear about everyones role in the household makes it easiest for the dogs to understand where they fit in. The owner should be the one who is in charge, who makes the decisions and who provides guidance and direction to the other members of the group. Being the leader doesnt mean being a bully, being forceful or being intimidating. A good leader is fair and consistent and means what they say. The phrase benevolent dictatorship gives a good mental picture to this idea. Commands should be non-negotiable. Good behavior is rewarded, bad behavior is corrected.
Controlling resources is an easy way to establish yourself as the clear leader. Access to things like food, toys and play, furniture, the yard and other freedoms should all come through you. Requiring polite behavior and good obedience before dolling out these resources to your dogs reinforces your position.
As a good leader you also have the role of Advocate for each of your dogs. Dont allow pushy, bratty or annoying behavior from a dog and interrupt any inappropriate behavior early on. If a dog is showing uncertainty or discomfort with another dogs interactions and their attempts at subtle communication are not being respected, you should step in and back up the dog being bullied as soon as you notice this. By advocating for the uncomfortable dog, you show them that they are being heard and you will stand up for them if needed. This prevents dogs from feeling like they need to escalate their communication. An escalation in canine communication usually means going from subtle body language signals like avoiding eye contact, lip licking and moving away from the other dog to growling and then biting. By being a good advocate for your dogs, they shouldnt feel the need to escalate to more aggressive behavior.
Meeting the individual needs of each dog in your household will keep them happy and out of trouble. A dog who is living a fulfilled life is far less likely to get into trouble. Most dog owners do a good job of meeting the basic needs of their dogs: food, water, shelter, and medical care. But what Im talking about is fulfillment in every aspect of their canine lives. Physical exercise needs are something we, with our busy family lives, sometimes slack on, myself included. Dogs that arent getting their daily exercise needs met (key word daily) is one of the most common causes for problem behaviors in the home like barking, digging, and chewing.
In addition to physical exercise is their need for mental exercise. Activities that require a dog use their brain, pay attention and focus or that ask them to problem solve are critical to their fulfillment. Think of it like the smart kid in class who isnt being challenged and ends up turning into the trouble maker. Certain breeds of dogs have much higher needs in this area i.e. working breeds like the Border Collie, German Shepherd, and Jack Russell Terrier. Training, canine sports, interactive toys and play are all great ways to meet your dogs mental exercise needs.
The need that most often gets forgotten or ignored is a dogs instinctual needs. Humans have been breeding dogs for hundreds of years for specialized jobs, skills and behaviors. Today, however, the majority of dogs are kept as family pets and are no longer being used for their original purpose. This can end up being a cause for conflict. Behaviors like digging, chasing, herding, hunting, retrieving and even barking can be instinctual to certain breeds. We must provide an alternative appropriate outlet for our dogs to practice these behaviors. Thankfully there is such a wide array of sports and activities available to dog owners including Agility, Weight Pull, Obedience, Field and Hunting Trials, Dock Diving, Disk Dogs, Rally, Tracking, Lure Coursing, Flyball, and even Carting and Bikejoring.
Management vs. Training
Use management techniques to prevent bad behavior and opportunities for bad choices from your dogs. Barriers, baby gates, dog crates and leashes are all useful management tools. By feeding meals in each dogs crate, for example, you can avoid any conflict during mealtimes. This can be especially helpful if you have a food inhaler and also a food grazer. I practice this in my home when I dont have time to stand around and supervise as our grazer takes her sweet time finishing her food. Give high value toys or chew bones with each dog on a separate bed or in crates and always with an adult present to supervise. There should be no unsupervised interactions, especially early on when the dogs are trying to work out the group dynamics.
Pack walks or walking the dogs on leash together is an excellent way to build social drive and an us mentality instead of me vs. them mentality. It gets everyone moving in the same direction towards a common goal. Remember that its also important to give the dogs some down time away from each other so they can relax and decompress.
Focus your training on creating calm behavior around each other, sharing space and existing quietly in the same room or area. Training that builds good impulse control like long sits and downs and the place command should be practiced often.
And finally, at some point you may need to be realistic about what can be changed and what will need to be managed. Be prepared that some dogs may require relying heavily on management for their entire lives; the crate and rotate technique is one way to handle this.