Managing Multiple Dog Homes
A friend once told me jokingly, “Niki, I think you may be an animal hoarder!” As the mother of one human, three dogs, two cats and a horse, I can tell you in all honesty that although I am pulled in so many directions every day in order to meet the needs of so many beings, I really wouldn’t have it any other way.
Over the past few years, I have acquired more of my own animals, fostered homeless animals and even boarded client dogs in my home. All the while I have learned how to introduce dogs to each other, to cats, to babies and to guests. I learned about safe feeding of multiple dogs and which behaviours are a must in multiple dog homes. I have learned so much about the difficulty and joys of living with multiple pets and I would like to share some practical ideas to help those of you with multiple dogs enjoy your canine family even more. Teaching your dogs to be well mannered, respectful and patient will be the focus of this article. It is not my intent to present a cure-all for every canine behaviour problem but instead provide some real-life strategies for dog owners with multiple dogs to teach you how to teach your dogs to be more fun to live with.
First things first, I must redirect you from the usual advice of attempting to determine which dog is the alpha and devoting time and effort to feed this dog first, pet them first, let them outside first and so on. Instead, I teach all dogs to be polite, respectful and well mannered. Whether you are looking to calm the storm of chaos of feeding time, enjoy a nice walk in the park or even manage escalating tension between your dogs, many of your questions will be answered by the information provided in this article. Please note that if your dogs are at risk of seriously hurting each other or anyone else in your family due to aggressive behaviour I encourage you to consult with a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA®), or qualified behaviourist to aid in the training process, and provide individual guidance.
Importance of Basic Obedience Training…
It doesn’t matter if you have one dog or seven dogs a strong foundation of basic training has to be an absolute priority. Mastering a few basic obedience behaviours is more important than knowing hundreds of behaviours that have not been taught to fluency. To master a specific behaviour your dog would have to perform this behaviour in any situation, respond to your request immediately and not offer any other behaviour when you give that particular cue. For example, you say sit and your dog sits right away (you don’t have to repeat yourself) even if there is a cat running across the street right in front of you.
My five favourite behaviours to teach a dog are sit, down, come, polite walking and leave it. Every dog that comes through my foster or boarding program must learn these basic behaviours and for any dog that is staying with me long term, they must master them. No matter which behaviour I am teaching I set a clear and concise goal in my head and I take the appropriate steps towards that goalkeeping track of my progress along the way. If you don’t know what you are working towards, whether it is the ultimate goal or the step along the path, how can you ever expect your dog to understand what you expect from them? The answer is, they can’t and won’t and since dogs, like humans, can become frustrated the result of the frustration may show itself in rude, demanding and otherwise ill-mannered behaviours.
Teaching a dog a new behaviour requires focus from both you and your furry student. Start in a quiet room without distractions to set the foundation for the ultimate goal in place. Reinforcement training gives your dog a clear idea of what you expect by telling him, “Yes that’s it! That’s what I want you to do!” Clicker training, in my opinion, is the most effective technique to teach learned behaviours. Unfortunately, the topic is much too extensive to cover in this article. There are many resources available to those who would like to learn more about clicker training and I have posted a quick overview of clicker training.
One on One Attention & Training
When you have more than one dog it is imperative that you devote time to work with each of your dogs individually. The one on one attention will be very reinforcing to your dog and it will also come in handy when you need him to pay attention to you. If you are unable to build a special relationship between you and each individual canine member of your family, they will inevitably bond with each other and that will make your job as the leader very difficult. The result will be that rather than paying attention to you they will watch and feed off of each other and well let’s face it, the chaos that is created when your dogs feed off of each other probably why you’re reading this article in the first place. Furthermore, when you are teaching one of your dogs a new behaviour if there are other dogs around it will be much too distracting for your dog to learn. And I know from experience that some of my most favourite and cherished memories were created while working one on one with one of my crazy canines.
Spending time with each individual one of your dogs helps to build a bond with each dog but also allows each individual dog to have confidence away from the rest of the family. All of your dogs should be able to comfortably settle in a room or kennel away from the household activities. That way while you are working with one dog, your other dog or dogs can hang out and amuse themselves with a Kong® or other puzzle toy and not feel any anxiety related to the separation.
A fun way to condition your dog to accept confinement of any kind (kennel, spare room, tether etc), is to play games such as “Treat Toss.” In this game, you simply throw a treat into the area and your dog enters to get them one at a time. Repeat this at least five times and your dog will begin to learn that this particular area or room is a place where fun things happen. Practice this at least once a day for a couple of days without closing the door of the room or kennel or clipping on the tether. As soon as your dog is entering the room or going to the tether area with ease, you can start to swing the door closed or clip on the tether for the couple of seconds that it takes her to eat the treats you’ve tossed.
After a few more days of this you can start to increase the duration they stay in their confinement area by giving a Kong® stuffed with something delicious. Hand over the wonderful Kong® and once your dog is completely invested in the tasty treat you can then walk away for about 30 seconds to a minute. Return to your dog before she is done eating all of her treats because you want to show her that she only gets this amazing toy when you leave. This will create a desire to be confined again so she can have that amazing treat once again. Gradually increase the time that she is left in her alone in her confined area. Spend more time working on the initial shorter intervals because once you have mastered 30 seconds, one minute and then five minutes, the jump to 30 minutes to one hour to two hours will be much easier.
Life Isn’t Always Fair, But That’s Just Life…
I completely understand the desire to want to be kind, fair and loving to all members of the family. But, this doesn’t mean that you have to treat all of your dogs the same at every single moment of the day. One of the most important lessons to teach your dog is that life isn’t always fair. The suggestion above helps to teach your dog how to cope with confinement and find comfort even with a separation from the family. If you treated every dog the same at every moment of the day it would interfere with your work to treat each dog as an individual with their own needs for attention, food, exercise and training. It is okay if one of your dogs needs a bit more or a bit less from you and do keep in mind that giving any of your dogs what they want all the time isn’t necessarily going to make them happy in the long term. Life isn’t always fair but that’s okay, that’s just life.
There may be a time where you give one of your dogs a treat perhaps to administer a certain medication but, this doesn’t mean that each of your dogs needs to get a treat at the same time. And furthermore, just because you give attention to one dog does not mean that you have to go around the room to give each dog a pet. One of the most common occurrences in multiple dog homes is one or more dogs unable to handle another dog receiving attention or treats. In some cases, this has even caused aggression or extreme rudeness in either dog. A great way to handle these situations is first to teach any dog not receiving attention, that the only way they will get attention from you is by performing a beautiful down stay. By reinforcing the other dogs’ down stays you will teach them that good things happen when they hold this position while another dog gets attention.
You Don’t Get Something for Nothing…
Before a group exercise can be started, each dog must have a reliable down-stay on their own first. Once the individual down-stay has been mastered bring another dog into the mix. Make sure you are armed with tasty food rewards and then have one of the dogs down-stay beside or behind you. Once he has positioned himself into the down give attention to the other dog for a count of three (no more than that!). Then turn back to the dog holding his down-stay, give him a treat and then release him from the stay. Repeat this exercise 10 times per dog (actually count out 10 treats) and keep track of the successes and losses. If either dog gets up from the stay this is considered a miss. When a miss occurs no one earns a treat so place that treats to the side so at the end of this session you can count how many misses there are and can record this as a reference for criterion increasing.
At the end of the session, if there are two or fewer treats leftover that means your success rate is 80% and you can, with that particular dog, move on to a new step by adding difficulty. To add difficulty you could increase the duration the dog holds the stay position or instead of releasing from the position after the initial treat you could return your attention to the other dog for another three counts and then reward and release from the stay position. However, if there are three or four misses your success rate is 60 or 70% and that means you will need to at least one more session exactly the same way as before. Lastly, if at the end of your 10 trials there are 5 or more treats leftover you will need to make the task easier by either reducing the duration required to earn the reward in the exercise or practicing the stay in less distracting environments. Continue to follow the steps above to build on the difficulty of the exercise. After about a week of practicing this two times each day, you can start to increase the amount of time between rewards that each dog holds the stay position. The idea is that each dog in the family learns that it is fun to watch you pay attention to the other dogs in the family because good things happen to them when you do so.
For most dogs and well let’s be perfectly honest, for most humans as well, feeding time is the highlight of the day. We plan, shop, prepare, cook and then enjoy a delicious dinner as a family and it is a time for us to come together to talk about our day. For many multi-dog homes, feeding time can be a chaotic event that takes precision planning, separating and managing. If you are dealing with a dog that exhibits any kind of aggressive behaviour around feeding time towards you or another dog, I must urge you to hire the help of a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA®) or qualified behaviourist. Possessive aggression around the food bowl is a very dangerous situation that should not be taken lightly. In the meantime, you can feed the dogs separately and manage the situation. However, if you just need help to calm the excitement over dinner I can provide you with some simple tips.
Again I must go back to reiterate the importance of working with each of your dogs individually to master particular exercises such as this feeding time routine. Only then is it wise to try to do this with multiple dogs together. To teach an automatic sit for dinner, don’t say a thing to your dog, instead hold the bowl up above her head until her bum hits the floor and only then give her the food for mass consumption. The dog’s job in this case is to figure out what she needs to do to cause the food bowl to hit the floor. There’s no need to help at all, instead, give her the chance to solve this puzzle, she is a very smart girl after all, isn’t she? It’s amazing how well a dog will pay attention to you when you are holding her dinner bowl up in the air.
As soon as she sits, place the food bowl on the floor and if she tries to dive in uninvited, simply scoop the bowl up and wait for her to sit again. At this point in the game, I really only expect a one count of self-control before I give the desperately drooling dog her dinner. Choose a release word or phrase for this that you will use when she can have food. I like to use, “take it.” I repeat this exercise for each meal and gradually increase the length of time I require the dog to wait before I release her to her food. Now that she’s sitting (and probably shaking with excitement but desperately trying to look composed) and the food is on the floor count to one and tell her, “Take it.” Practice this for at least a week with each dog individually and gradually work up to a wait of ten seconds before you give the go-ahead to eat. Once this is achieved you can try this solo exercise in a group setting. Before you get started grab a special treat for the dogs “desert.”
Now follow the same steps listed above but with two dogs. Keep the dogs at least five feet apart and release them to their food when you are ready. Watch closely and when the first dog finishes his food immediately request a sit to keep him from diving into the other bowl. When the other dog is done with her food, immediately request a sit from her and then give the two their treats. By doing this you will stop one dog from rudely diving into the other bowl and possibly causing a chaotic and angry dog fight. Practice this for every meal and soon enough your dogs will be performing automatic sits and downs before and after every meal.
I can’t stress enough the importance of mastering the basics of obedience and good manners training. Prevention is a powerful training tool that can help you manage your home and keep the canine chaos to a minimum. Although there are many temporary solutions to problems that arise in multiple dog homes such as frenzied feeding routines or rude interruptions when you are trying to give attention to another dog, prevention and planned training will offer a long term fix and give you that blissfully content home you dream about.
Got a Case of the Feisties?
Sometimes incidents happen, whether you have trained your dogs or not. The important thing for your dogs to learn is that they will not get what they want out of the situation if they fight. Your first job is to understand each individual dog and know their body language like the back of your hand. If you can read the body language of each dog you can prevent incidents from escalating into full-blown fights. Your second job is to act immediately if there is any display such as a growl or lip curl by requesting an incompatible behaviour that will redirect the dogs away from the threat that just occurred. Act definitively and calmly and ask both dogs to sit or lay down to defuse the situation.
If despite your best efforts you end up with a fight, first things first, separate the dogs. There really is no safe way to break up a dog fight, but please don’t try to grab collars with your hands. This almost always will result in a bite. If you need to use force to separate them try by grabbing the legs or tail of the aggressor and then body blocking as soon as they let go for the other dog. If you have access to water or citronella spray both of those can possibly break up the battling duo. Please stay calm! Yelling, screaming and panicking can actually increase the existing tension and create more agitation.
Once they have been separated place them both in a down-stay position on opposite sides of the room but still in sight of each other. This provides a much need “cool down” period and prevents either of the dogs from perceiving that they won the fight, especially since this could result in a self-rewarding situation and may cause a repeat reaction in future transgressions. If the dogs are unable to hold the down stay you could use baby gates or crates as crutches. They are to hold the position for as long as you require them to in order to settle down. During this period of time, you are completely ignoring them as if they didn’t even exist. If the dogs are unable to settle down in the presence of each other and there is no one else home to attend to the other dog, separate them and then proceed to the dog whose behaviour you viewed to be the most unacceptable and request a down stay. There is no reinforcement for this down-stay since you have every right to be disappointed in their behaviour.
Raising a dog is a lot of work, this is no surprise. Raising two dogs is more than double the work of one and raising three is probably what you expected raising nine to be. It is not an impossible feat; however, it does take an immense amount of work in the beginning to enjoy a future full of blissfully calm afternoons and joyous trips to the park with your herd. Fundamentally important steps must be taken to teach each of your dogs what you expect from them as individuals and then and ONLY then can you teach them your expectations for the group. Basic obedience is a must and learning this craft will take help from a professional to guide you down the path of reinforcement-based systems. Using the same principles of learning theory as the ones applied in obedience to teaching manners and politeness will not only make your life easier but make your dogs more livable and enjoyable.
Although I am happy to offer tips of my trade, I cannot successfully give advice for serious aggression issues over the internet, by written word or over the phone. You must find the help of a professional in your area if you are dealing with serious dog aggression. They can offer support, guidance and tips for your individual situation. I sincerely hope that with the help of the ideas published in this article you will find your path to experience the joys of having multiple dogs. And may you never feel outnumbered and overwhelmed again.
by Niki Perry, CPDT-KA, KPACTP, CEMT, Release the Hounds Board Member
Niki’s website: Canine Connection Training