Vol 8 No 2

Dedicated to the memory of

Bronwyn McFadden

Spring 2006

Front Page

Features in this Issue:

Meet Harry & Kyra

Foster Home Surprises

Upcoming Events

Thank You

Remembering Bronwyn

Welcoming A New Dog

Shopping Made Easy


Dog Flu

Remembering With Fondness

Letters to GRRI-NJ

GRRI NEWS Archives

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Welcoming A New Dog

Cody, Barb, Tucker, Pal, Traveller, and Max Ready

Deciding to open your home to a new dog is exciting: there’s a whole new personality to get to know, and inevitably there’s some mutual adjustment to your household’s routine as the new dog gets settled. Maybe you are a GRRI foster home providing a temporary haven to a dog awaiting placement, or perhaps you’re an adopter providing a Golden with a forever home: in either case, some advance thought and planning goes a long way to make the adjustment easier.

This is especially true if you already have a dog (or two or three or four!) at home.  Both the resident dog and the new dog face some inevitable socialization challenges. Those of us who are married or who share our lives with a significant other know all too well the adjustments we made to accommodate some of our partner’s quirks when we first started sharing a home. Now imagine if a complete stranger rang your doorbell and announced that he or she was going to be living with you from now on! – perhaps this isn’t too far removed from the scenario our dogs face.

To better understand what happens when we bring a new dog home and get ideas on effective introduction strategies, GRRI spoke with Vinny Catalano, Assistant Director of Training and Behavior at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison.

GRRI: Vinny, thanks very much for speaking with us. What should we be thinking about when we get ready to bring a new dog home?

Vinny: It’s important to treat each dog as a blank slate; that is, just because your resident dog acted one way with another dog at home doesn’t mean that he will be the same way with a new dog. Especially in the early days, you need to be very observant of how each dog is reacting to the new circumstances, and you need to take things very slowly to see how both the new dog and resident dog reacts.

GRRI:  How should the process start?

Vinny: It is really important that the dogs have their first meeting on neutral territory: that might be in a park, or even just a few blocks from home. We tend to underestimate how much our dogs regard our home and the area around it as their territory, and we don’t want the first meeting to be about protecting territory.

Watch the dogs carefully when they first meet on neutral ground; the temptation is to focus on the new dog’s reactions, but be sure to also note what your resident dog is doing. You already have a very good understanding of your resident dog’s baseline behavior, so it’ll be easier to identify unusual behavior with your existing dog.

When the dogs first meet, let them greet each other briefly while on leash, and then take them both for a walk. Walking takes some of the social pressure off the dogs while allowing them to get used to being with each other; they don’t have to interact with each other as they would if we just stood still or were in a room with the dogs, but they can still start to get used to being around each other.

GRRI: What if one dog isn’t so interested in walking and wants to play?

Vinny: If one dog is trying to play, focus on the other dog to read what he’s feeling. If he’s acting just as goofy and playful as the other dog, great. We try to pay particular attention to what are called “displacement signals”, which might include things like looking away, backing away, sniffing or scratching the ground, or even yawning. These are typically signals that the dog is trying to disengage from the other dog’s attention, and we should understand these signals as the dog’s way of telling us that he needs more time to adjust to the other dog. In this case, go slow and don’t rush further interaction.

GRRI: Assuming we’re not observing any cautionary signals, what’s next?

Vinny: If everything is going well on the walk and neither dog is expressing behavior that suggests that more time is needed to get comfortable with each other, then you can think about heading home. Again, go slow when you get there: walk around the boundaries of the house, and if there is a yard, explore that with the dogs, being careful to observe any change in behavior on the part of either the new dog or resident dog. You’ll want to keep leashes on at first to keep control over the situation, but if the yard is fenced and you’re not observing any unusual behavior, you can let the dogs drag their leashes at some point.

GRRI: OK, so we’ve met on neutral territory and then worked up to walking around our yard; is it time to go inside?

Vinny: Sure, if your observations indicate that neither dog is uncomfortable with the other. Let them drag their leashes so you can exert control if the situation calls for it, and watch each dog carefully for changes in behavior or signals that they are uncomfortable. Depending on what kind of reactions you see, you may allow the dogs to be together, or you may want to pen off the new dog for a while. Don’t rush things.

GRRI: It seems as if there are more opportunities for “misunderstandings” inside.

Vinny: What we sometimes forget is that different dogs find different things to be important to them, and problems crop up when two dogs consider the same thing as being important. For example, maybe it is important to one dog that he always be allowed to go outside first; or perhaps being fed first makes a difference to one dog; or maybe it’s access to a particular water bowl; or maybe even having access to you is what is most important to a particular dog!

We find that people try to step in and make things “fair” between dogs, but in reality, “fair” just doesn’t matter. If a dog doesn’t consider something to be important, he won’t have a particular problem in allowing another dog to have that resource.

GRRI: So a dominant dog finds everything especially important?

Vinny: Dominance is a much more fluid concept than we usually recognize. It really boils down to the individual dogs, what each finds to be important, and how other dogs react to that. What that suggests is that the dog’s behavior can change when a new dog is added to the mix.  It also reminds us that it is up to us to observe each dog carefully to understand what they find to be important, since they can’t just tell us explicitly.

GRRI: So far it sounds as if we’re letting the dogs decide how things will be with only our supervision.

Vinny: Not so fast! You still get to set and enforce the house rules. For example, if your new dog nudges your resident dog away from a water bowl while she’s drinking, you can intercede and make it known that interrupting another dog’s turn at a water dish is unacceptable behavior. If one dog is stealing the other dog’s bone or treat, you can have both dogs lie down within sight of each other and give them both a bone, with the understanding that continued theft will result in the offender being put away for a timeout to reinforce the understanding that stealing bones is unacceptable behavior.

GRRI: What about toys?

Vinny: It really depends on how important toys are to the resident dog (which you probably already know) and the new dog (which you’ll have to learn by observing). You may already know that your dog is a complete nut about tennis balls and sticks, so you are probably allowing a problem to develop by giving the new dog access to those “resources” in advance of understanding their importance to the new dog. Go slow, and observe the behavior in both dogs. In general, play situations can careen out of control quickly, so you’ll want to work towards that slowly and carefully.

GRRI: We know that some dogs act like best friends right away, and with others it takes some time. How long should we expect for the initial adjustments to take hold?

Vinny: Some dogs click right away, almost as if they were buddies in another lifetime. We see that with dogs that are adopted, and even sometimes with dogs we put together in the shelter. Other dogs go through kind of a “honeymoon” period, where they figure out what is important to each other. This can occur in a matter of days, or over a few months.  And then there is the reality that some dogs will never get along. This sort of situation is stressful, not only to you, but also to the dogs. Out of fairness for all concerned, strong consideration should be given to rehoming the new dog in this case. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog can never be in a multi-dog household; we’d need to observe the dog to understand whether this is the common practice for that dog, or whether there was just something about the resident dog in your home that triggered the new dog’s reactions.

You should also understand that reactions may change over time. For example, puppies get away with a lot, but at some point their “puppy license” expires and some of the obnoxious behavior may not be as well tolerated by other dogs. Observe your dog’s reactions and enforce the basic “house rules” to make the transition easier.

GRRI: Is a resident dog ever too old to adjust to a new dog?

Vinny: Not necessarily! We’ve seen several situations where the addition of a new dog to a household has transformed an older dog into a more vital, younger version of himself. Of course, you need to be sensitive to the factors that may make an older dog less tolerant generally, including things like arthritis or other pains.

It isn’t limited to old dogs, but in general, you should be vigilant about observing changes in behavior in your dogs. Some of it might be easily explainable, like in the example of adding a new dog to the household. But fast changes in behavior without specific known causes should prompt concern over your dog’s medical status, at which point you’ll want to have your vet check your dog.

GRRI: So it sounds as if a successful transition relies a lot on interpreting signals.

Vinny: Right. You need to be very observant of all the clues your dogs give you about their behavior, so that you can understand when they feel uncomfortable and also identify what things they consider to be important. You probably know your dog’s personality and behavior really well already, but you need to watch carefully for changes in that behavior as well as observing the new dog’s signals closely.

GRRI: Thanks very much, Vinny.

Vinny Catalano is Assistant Training Director of St. Hubert's Dog Training and Behavior Department.
St. Hubert's is one of the largest dog training schools in the country, holding in excess of 75 classes per week dealing with pet dog training, dog sports and behavior consultations.  Vinny co-developed St. Hubert's nationally
recognized Feisty Fidos program and has lectured at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers national conference. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer and a Certified Dog Behavioral Consultant.
St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center  was founded in 1939 by Geraldine R. Dodge.  St. Hubert's serves animals and people with a wide variety of programs that nurture the human-animal bond and foster an environment in which people respect all living creatures. Many of their innovative programs for animals and people serve as models for other organizations across the country. They operate training and shelter facilities in Madison, NJ and a shelter in North Branch, NJ.  More information, including information on training and classes, is available at http://www.sthuberts.org