This post is a guide on how to successfully introduce a new dog to your household. It can be used when introducing a new foster or rescue dog with unknown background into your home. You can use it for reactive dogs as well, but you need to make sure to have extra safety measures in place, like muzzles, stick to the protocol really strictly, and to move forward at a much slower pace.
During the process of integrating the dogs, always keep the big picture in mind - It takes much longer trying to fix a problem once it is there, than it does to prevent it from happening in the first place. I don’t want you to be walking around in constant fear of a fight happening, but I want you to be aware of things that could trigger a fight, so that you can prevent it from happening, and understand the situation if it does happen.
1. The first step is co-existence.
The most important thing is – Don’t push the dogs. The dogs DO NOT have to like each other right now. Give the dogs time to get to know each other, and to just get used to each other’s presence. They DO NOT have to interact at this point, and they might not be ready for it. Do not leave the dogs to their own devices, don’t let them mingle or play. Simply give them time to get used to being around each other.
2. Don’t let them “sort it out”.
The second most important thing, primarily because it is such a common misconception, do not make the dogs “sort it out” between themselves. Some people will recommend you to let the dogs have a squabble to work out any tension. If the dogs get into a fight, they will only have learnt that you cannot protect them, nor control the other dog, which will force them to take things into their own hands next time – which does not predict a good outcome. Once the dogs have had a fight, they will already have that association with each other, which makes it so much more difficult to help them develop a peaceful relationship.
3. Remove all resources.
Resources can be sources of conflict. The dogs might be alright having free access to resources – but at this point we do not know. In order to set the dogs up for success, you need to remove everything that could give the dogs a reason to fight. Things like toys, bones, and food must be lifted and kept away. Using this approach will also make it easier for you to incorporate food and toys in training. Remove all situations that could cause one of the dogs to guard. Do not allow the dogs up on furniture, or into people’s personal space. Right now, cuddles are off limits. The dogs should only be getting physical affection for completing commands during training.
4. Make them feel safe.
Another thing that could cause conflict is the other dog’s behaviour or emotional disposition. For example, if you have a nervous and insecure dog, the other dog’s behaviour could cause the nervous dog to feel threatened or unsafe, and feel the need to defend itself – resulting in a fight. If you have a more confident dog, but who hasn’t got the best social skills, it could feel the need to control the other dog’s behaviour – again, resulting in a fight. It is your job to advocate for both dogs and make they feel protected and safe.
5. Good behaviour.
Two common things that causes a dog to feel the need to be defensive or controlling is the other dog acting over excited or out of control. It is therefore really important that you don’t allow the dogs to be excited, hyper or pushy in the presence of each other while they are starting to form a bond. You need to keep the dogs really calm and polite at all times.
If you know your dog gets excited in certain situations, or if your dog does not listen to you, you need to work with both dogs individually until they reach a level of obedience where you are always able to control them. For example, have one dog crated while you are training the other one, and then swap them over to do the opposite. Having one dog watching you work with the other dog can help it build trust in you and accelerate learning.
5. Have a plan.
One of the keys to preventing behaviour rather than waiting until it is too late is to have a plan. Set up a structured routine for your day that makes it easy to put the training into place. I always recommend taking the dogs for a long walk first thing in the morning. This will help drain their energy, and prevent any built up frustration. Outside time is for activities and exercise, and indoor time should be all about calmness. If you allow the dogs to move around in the house the lack of space can cause the dogs to feel crowded which creates tension. When they are indoors, teach them to stay in their beds, or in an open crate. Don’t let the dogs roam freely. Your home should be like a relaxing spa resort where the dogs feel comfortable and safe. To help control the dogs inside your home, have them drag leashes at all times.
6. Same rules for everyone.
Consistently reinforcing rules creates predictability, improves communication, and helps build trust and respect in the dogs. Create rules that will help you be successful with your training. The most basic structure that we reinforce with all our dogs is making them sit calmly and give eye contact before food, while putting leash and collar on/off, and before any threshold. Check out our other training posts for more ideas!
7. The Walk.
The walk is a really important activity for the dogs to bond, and gives you plenty of opportunities to provide protection, making everyone feel safe, and direction, by applying a set of rules. In the beginning you want no off leash crazy running around time. Both dogs should be on short leashes, and should be walking by your side without pulling, sniffing, or marking. You release the dogs for sniff and pee breaks. If there is any tension between the dogs, stick to parallel walking. So, one dog on each side, and both dogs’ heads turned forward in order to keep it as non-confrontational as possible. Never let the dogs meet face to face. No eye balling each other or other people or animals is allowed.
8. Safety first.
Never ever leave the dogs unsupervised. If you are taking a shower, popping to the shops, or you just feel tired and not in a mindset to work with the dogs – crate them! Even once you are able to give them more freedom in the house and they are getting used to each other, never leave them out alone. When you are not present, there are too many things that could go wrong, and external influences that could trigger excitement and a fight, like someone ringing the doorbell, a dog barking outside… Don’t risk it!
9. Go Slow
Give the dogs time. A lot of time. And then slowly, slowly give them more freedom, a tiny little bit at a time. Watch your dogs closely to see that they are still comfortable, and that they don’t seem to be sliding towards any bad decision making. How much time they will need will depend on the individual dogs. I cannot say it enough - It takes much longer trying to fix a problem once it is there, than it does to prevent it from happening in the first place.