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Managing Multidog Households

Having one dog is great, but how many people soon start thinking about the prospect of adding another dog, or maybe two doesn’t seem quite enough either. It can appear simple but there is a lot to think about when living with multiple dogs, not just the added time they require, but also the risk of increased behaviour issues and the challenges of managing multiple dogs in different situations.

Adding a second dog to your household, or a third or forth (… or more!) requires careful consideration and planning. Read this blog for tips on finding the right time and managing interactions with new dogs.

When it comes to managing a multidog household, there are several things to consider and prepare for…

Doggy Influencers

Dogs feed off each other. You can’t ‘fix’ one without working with the other. Some dogs will be more easily influenced than others, so you may be lucky and have individuals who aren’t affected by each other’s behaviour or you may have one who quickly responds to the other.

Barking is a behaviour which is so often influenced by dogs who live together, this might happen on walks, but it’s particularly common inside the house.

For example, barking at the door or at visitors:

The dogs may have different triggers, one could be fearful while the other is excited, one may be completely neutral on their own but react when the other dog starts to bark. It might even be caused by the individual who appears to do very little, a lift of the head or subtle movements could trigger a reaction from the other dog simply because they’ve learnt to associate these small signals with more significant events. It’s likely that both dogs will react in some way, but one is just more obvious with it.

Whether they both react strongly or one appears to be the ringleader, you can’t rely on only training one of them. You can’t ‘fix’ problem behaviours unless you work with both dogs individually or manage the situation more closely to minimise the influence they have on each other.

Be aware of how much they are influencing each other in day-to-day life. Arousal levels, excitement, frustration and stress can all be fed between individuals. If one dog is particularly aroused and excited during a walk, perhaps chasing wildlife or reacting to stimuli, the other dog may pick up on this and in turn their arousal levels will also increase.

It can be easy to blame one dog for being the ‘problem’, their signs may be more obvious so we forget to consider what role other dogs in the household might be playing.

Don’t just look at the one who is most vocal or difficult in their behaviour, also look closely at the other individuals and see if they are giving off signals which feed into the challenging behaviours.

Prepare to work with each dog individually and break down the behaviours into small steps before working with the dogs together. When you can’t be working on it, make sure you manage them closely to avoid training being set back. If your dogs are barking at sounds or sights out the window, spend time working on it with each dog to desensitise them all to the potential triggers. When you’re not working on it, keep the dogs separated so they can’t provoke each other, or prevent them accessing areas which trigger a reaction.

It's not just barking which can be influenced by other dogs in the household, behaviours like jumping up can also be triggered by each other’s responses. Moments of excitement in the house can escalate quickly if multiple dogs are getting excited so this is also something to work on with each individual to reinforce calmer behaviours before bringing the dogs together to work through calmness with them all.

Best of Friends?

Dogs aren’t always consistent and predictable, things can change with age and experience, so just because they get along great for months or years doesn’t mean that won’t change at some point. It’s important not to get too complacent and always be willing to make changes if needed. Issues can escalate fast so be prepared to increase management in the home or return to more separate walks and training at times.

If there are subtle signs of tension between the dogs, don’t wait for it to become a fight, take action early and put management in place to avoid it escalating, for example, avoid the triggering situations, don’t leave resources lying around, or separate the dogs when you can’t be supervising them.

People often avoid doing this because it feels like a huge step backwards if you’ve had dogs who have previously had no issues. Other people avoid it because they feel like the dogs will have to learn to get along. When actually this is just asking for trouble! Occasionally dogs may be able to ‘sort it out’ between themselves but it’s a risky approach and one which can have disastrous consequences for some households.

In some cases, it only takes one fall-out to trigger long-term issues which aren’t always fixable. Fights are likely to become more intense and more frequent unless you step in to put more management in place and remove the triggers. Resources are a prime trigger point for fall-outs, but equally, moments of high excitement and arousal can lead to fights, likewise frustration and fear can be a cause too. This is where it’s so important to be aware of your dogs’ body language and avoid having situations where stress levels are pushed beyond threshold.

Who is to Blame?

We are often guilty of missing signals between our dogs and we only start to notice the signs when those behaviours are directed at a human family member or when they start to really impact us. In a multidog household, there is a possibility that issues happening between the individuals can begin to seep into issues towards the humans in the house too.

Resource guarding is a typical example. If one dog is warning the other to back off around food or spaces in the house, we may not notice it or just pass it off as ‘dogs being dogs’, but it can lead to issues with both dogs and potentially spread towards people too. One dog may feel fearful of losing access to a resource because the other dog keeps taking it or pushing into their space, if this fear is reinforced because it repeatedly happens, then the behaviour will escalate.

The dog might become more anxious about losing resources or being disturbed when sleeping so they generalise the behaviour towards people in the house as well as the other dog.

Another factor to consider is if the individual is being told off by a person for displaying a signal towards another dog, like growling, this signal is showing they aren’t comfortable and they want some space, so if a person then tells them off and likely scares them in the process, the fear will be reinforced further.

For the other dog who provokes the guarding, they may also become more fearful due to being told off by the other dog or if humans aren’t handling the situation carefully, they may feel more confused and worried and this can impact their relationship with people in the house as well as the other dog.

It’s so important to handle these situations carefully and never punish a dog for displaying communication signals which indicate they’re worried or uncomfortable. If those signals are being directed towards another dog in the house, you need to listen and change things in the household to ensure all dogs feel comfortable and safe. If you deal with it by punishing the dogs, you will only teach them that they can’t trust you and that you can also be really scary! This is where dog-dog issues can quickly become dog-human issues, so rather than punishing the dogs, help them both out by managing situations better and allowing them to have their own space when needed.

Fear of Missing Out

Living together and spending time together can lead to frustration if one dog can’t do the same as the other. For example, when one dog is playing in the garden and the other may struggle to cope with being shut inside.

Or when walking together one can’t cope with being on a lead behind the other. This is so common between dogs who live together and it can become very restrictive for the household if the dogs can’t cope with being left out.

It's important to start early on with teaching each dog to tolerate being left out or being patient around other dogs in the household.

This can be done slowly and gradually to avoid frustration or stress building up:

  • Let one dog into the garden a few seconds before the other, rewarding the one inside for waiting calmly before being allowed out. The time can be built up or combined with other exercises like one dog practicing boundary training while the other is playing outside

  • Practice having one person walk slightly ahead with one dog while the other dog walks behind with another person. Initially you may need to start with just a few seconds at a time and heavily reinforce the dog who is walking behind. Keep building up the duration and reward less frequently

  • Even if the dogs don’t need to be taken out individually, it’s still good practice to do separate walks and training so they learn to cope with time away from each other. It can be incredibly stressful if they’ve rarely spent time apart and then for unexpected reasons this suddenly happens. We can’t plan when one dog may need to spend time at the vets or need to be separated for other reasons, so prepare them by making it a regular routine to leave one at home without the other

When you’re building up their ability to cope in these situations, never push to the point of stress or frustration because this will only reinforce the problems further. Instead aim to keep within a level where both dogs are relaxed and gradually build the difficultly, but always be prepared to return to easier steps if either dog is finding it stressful. If you have dogs who already struggle to cope with the frustration or stress of missing out, you will need to avoid putting them into these situations while you’re working on it and building up carefully.

Key Management Tips

  • Have safe spaces for each dog where they can escape to and be away from everyone else. Encourage the dogs to use these spaces when they need some time alone

  • Dedicate time and attention to each individual and teach them to enjoy your company, as well as the other dogs’

  • Don’t assume all dogs will get along all the time. Prepare for times when they need to be separated and plan ahead for events or situations which might cause tension or over-excitement

  • Don’t feel guilty about separating the dogs at times. It’s often in their best interests to spend time apart

  • Trusting multiple dogs together takes time, and there may be setbacks, some dogs will need months of supervised time together before they can be trusted. Some may never be suitable to be left unsupervised together, but that’s okay!

Having multiple dogs provides so many benefits to both humans and dogs in the house, but it’s important to remember that it isn’t necessarily easier or less work, it depends hugely on the combination of individuals and in some cases it will be double the work and double the stress!

Think carefully about how your dogs may influence each other and be aware of situations which may trigger conflicts or high levels of emotion.

It’s not always negative events which are challenging with multiple dogs, it can also be the exciting, fun moments which quickly spiral into chaos when multiple dogs are involved.

Remember that dogs do change with age and experience, always keep an eye on their body language and pick up on signs of tension between the dogs. The earlier you can spot the warning signs, the easier it is to step in and stop problems escalating.

Written by Naomi White

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