Adopting a Dog Into a Multi-Dog Household

As some of you know, on January 9 I did a webinar for ASPCApro on adopting a dog into a multi-dog home. It was geared toward shelter and rescue professionals and volunteers, covering everything from how to do the first introduction to managing the household as time goes on, and what to do if it’s simply not working. (Don’t worry if you missed it. You can still watch the recording of this one, and many others, for free on the ASPCApro website.) I also wrote a follow-up guest blog to summarize the most important points of the webinar. Here it is, re-posted for The Other End of the Leash followers:

From First Date to After the Honeymoon: Adopting a Dog Into a Multi-Dog Household

FIRST DATES: Some aspects of dog-dog introductions are universally agreed upon, such as giving the dogs as much freedom as is safe, and using a large, neutral area if at all possible. Outdoors is always better than indoors, unless the only outdoor option is a small, confined space. Just remember that the less pressure on the dogs the better, and that “pressure” can be applied by confining dogs to small spaces, looming owners or dogs unable to move freely. Most importantly, no matter what the setting, do all you can to keep the initial introductory sniffing brief. Let the dogs interact briefly, and then call them away. Move around the space yourself, encouraging the dogs to explore the environment together, perhaps providing themselves information about one another through scent marking. Avoid long, up-close-and-personal sniffing sessions that often lead to tension and bad beginnings. On-leash or off-leash depends on a variety of factors, but do what you can to avoid tight leashes that add tension.

MANDATORY INTRODUCTIONS? Some shelters and rescue groups mandate that potential adopters bring in the resident dogs for a “meet and greet” at the shelter itself. There are a host of costs and benefits to this practice. These include a chance for the host organization to evaluate the skills of the potential adopters and the condition of their current dog, as well as a chance for the first introduction to go badly because the dogs were forced upon one another. I would argue that resident dogs should only be brought for meetings if “best practices” can be followed, and the dogs’ first minutes together are structured in such a way as to encourage a good, long-term relationship. In addition, we need to guard against assuming that first meetings are always predictive of how the dogs will get along in the home. First greetings are often not predictive of how the dogs will get along in the home, and suggesting otherwise only compromises the credibility of the shelter or rescue group.

THE HONEYMOON: Most importantly, expectations should be realistic about how long it takes dogs to settle into a new environment. All new dogs are in a state of confusion about where they’ve been and where they are going. New owners need to help dogs get their paws on the ground as soon as they can, but without overwhelming a dog who is unsure of himself. Good management is often the key here: Give dogs lots of time by themselves at first, letting both the new and resident dogs have rest periods and special time by themselves with their new owners.

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Many problems between dogs can be prevented or managed by teaching dogs that they get what they want by being patient and polite. Rather than following the ancient (and sometimes destructive) advice about supporting the dog who they think should be alpha, owners should teach dogs that they get treats, toys and attention by being polite, not by being pushy.

MOST COMMON MISTAKES? One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen from owners of multi-dog households is unrealistic expectations. New dogs can’t settle into a new household in a week or so—it can take up to a year for a new dog to settle into a new routine. Expectations can also set owners up for a lot of soul searching and “buyer’s remorse.” Wondering “Oh no, what have I done!” is a common reaction to the slightest misbehavior of a new dog, even among experienced professionals. The more we can help all new owners by being there for them when they need someone to talk to, the more dogs will stay in homes and not be returned to shelters.

ALL THEY NEED IS LOVE? Regrettably, sometimes things just don’t work out. Perhaps the two dogs simply despise each other, and no amount of training or conditioning is going to change it. Sometimes one dog brings out the worst in another, and the combination is too much for even the most dedicated owner to handle. In that case, we need to let owners know that they have a backup plan available to them. Service providers must accept dogs back without causing adopters to feel guilty. “Satisfaction guaranteed” lets responsible adopters know that they can count on the shelter or rescue group to be there for them if they need help. People are more likely to adopt if they know that they are not going through this without support from professionals.

None of us can accurately predict how any group of dogs is going to get along, but we can do a lot to increase the odds of a successful transition from a “one-dog house” to “multi-dog household.” Shelter staff and rescue organizations can and do play a huge role in helping to integrate dogs together into a happy family—thank you for those efforts! Picture me wagging from the shoulders back…


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Actually, I’m on the way back to the farm, should be there by the time you get this. I got a crazy idea a few weeks ago and found cheap flights on Hotwire to the desert mountains in California. I love Wisconsin and my little farm, and I don’t mind most of winter all that much (it’s the summers that kill me, I’m such a Border Collie) but I found myself yearning to walk outside amongst something green. I’ll post photos from the weekend next week, but here are some shots I took right before we left of Willie and a pile of firewood in a new snow fall.

Here is Willie and one of his absolute favorite toys, a rubber “stick.” We play lots of “Find It” games in both summer and winter. Winter helps me out because it’s easier to hide. My translation of Wilie’s face by the way? “Would you put down that stupid black thing that you NEVER THROW and play with me some more?”

Willie & red stick


And here I’m trying to be arty. Our Contemplative Photography assignment is about space, and how the space defines an object within it. This is a pile of firewood covered in snow. I’m afraid I’d give the photo a C, I got the exposure wrong and you can barely tell that it is wood, for one thing. To me it looks somewhat weird and unearthly–as if some strange forest creature out of Lord of the Rings should emerge. I’ll let you know if that happens…

wood in snow




  1. Mungobrick says

    I’m sorry, I’m snorting here.. but I saw something quite different when I first glanced at that second picture – round dark brown things in snow – I thought “what a strange thing to choose to photograph!” But on a closer look, I see it is indeed wood…


  2. Janet says

    Patricia, don’t get too excited about finding any green in California. We are in the middle of an awful drought!

  3. Charlotte says

    Thank you for this article. We had ‘buyer’s remorse’ occasionally, when our last ‘failed foster’ joined our pack, making it 1 tripaw male, 1 ‘normal’ (4-legged) female, and the latest handicapped female. I’d heard 2-female packs can be problematic, but with my decades of dog/shelter/training experience, I figured there was nothing I couldn’t ‘fix’. Boy, was I wrong! Our latest pup is a fear-reactive pit mix, and when she was scared (baby gate fell), she ‘went for’ our husky girl and wouldn’t let go. Luckily, she exhibited bite inhibition, so wounds were ‘only’ superficial, but bloody, scary, and caused permanent scarring in her humans minds. We were already working diligently with an excellent dog trainer/animal behaviorist (and we continue to focus on positive reinforcement today)..but it seems we’re fated to be a segregated household w/our pit mix permanently behind a dog gate – only to ‘socialize’ while wearing a Baskerville muzzle – while the other two live harmoniously. We could have ‘returned’ her, but knew she’d be put down after biting me and a dog, and knowing if she couldn’t be safe in our well-educated household w/no children, she’d have a very tough time finding a more suitable home. Luckily she’s the sweetest thing toward people, and genuinely wants to be accepted and join the pack. :-(

  4. Connie Kaplan says

    What about a puppy into a 1 dog (4 year old) household. The 4 year old we have had since she was 8 weeks old and gets along well with most dogs. I thought a conservative approach was best…a minimum of 2 weeks of no interaction except through xpen or crate. The dog we have is the first dog I have ever trained and had not had a dog in 25 years, only one other dog. I’m a little nervous. I do AKC obedience with the first dog and getting a performance standard poodle. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks

  5. Justine says

    I hope you enjoyed your trip. The state of California has cancelled winter this year. For my part, I really enjoyed your article. We are looking for a dog to add to our family and be a playmate for our current dog, so I really appreciated the advice.

  6. Frances says

    I’m afraid that I had the same reaction to the wood photo – although I did wonder what kind of local livestock or wildlife produced such perfectly regular globules!

  7. Donna says

    Thank you for the article, it is very to the point. Having been burned with a rescue, I wish I had had more help from the organization. It will remain nameless as it is still working, and in general does good. We sort of fell between the cracks and now have a multi dog household with two groups of dogs that cannot be combined. We do love each and every one, and now simply manage them to the best of our ability. For the most part it works, and we do fine. When we do have an oops, we fix and go on. That is how life seems to work and on we go.

  8. says

    We are at 5 family dogs now, and with 10 years of fostering under our belt, the dogs have taught us that taking it slow is the key to success, coupled with careful consideration of a possible new dog’s personality. We ALWAYS bring in possible dogs the same way that we bring in a foster – no exceptions and no expectations of “happily ever after”. After meeting our dogs one by one outdoors using drag lines, the new dog is invited in and set up in a crate/x-pen combo in an area where they can observe the Crew and house rules safely (they can be quite overwhelming as a group). Out of crate and outdoor time is carefully supervised, at first with whatever dog they seem to get along with better, then adding others – but for now, still using drag lines to reduce possible tiffs.
    Any new dog in our household is basically treated like a puppy when it comes to letting them have run of the house – we don’t let them have too much too soon, and only with supervision. It doesn’t matter how long it takes – it could be weeks or months before we trust a new member to be uncrated when we aren’t home – its all worth it in the end. Rushing a relationship is when people run into trouble. Would you expect a marriage to be without issue if you married some random person ten minutes after you met them? Why do some folks feel dogs are “different” in this way? Just like people, their personalities are going to be different, and they aren’t gonna fall head over heels in love with every dog they meet. As owners (and trainers/behavior specialists), we have a responsibility to help them out by choosing possible family members wisely, and by remembering that it may NOT work out – but that’s perfectly OK too. To paraphrase an old mushing adage, “you can’t push a rope” – in this situation, you can’t force dogs to love each other, especially right away.

  9. Morgan says

    This is for the comment from Charlotte. We had a situation similar to yours. We adopted a rescue female BC and while she loved people, she did not get along with our other female. We did not know this as the behavior didn’t manifest until 9 months into the adoption. We worked with trainers, behaviorists and rescue and finally had to keep the two separated for the next 10 years. As we reflected back on the experience, we wished we had worked with rescue to find her the appropriate home, where she could be the only dog and doted upon. While she had a wonderful long life with us, it certainly was at the expense of our other animals and that just wasn’t fair to her or them. Our guilt in ‘rescue remorse’ and steadfast commitment to her stood in the way of what was ultimately right for the dog.

  10. P. says

    The point about some dogs will not get along needs to be strongly heeded – it does not always work out. We took in a third dog, did the careful slow introductions, familiarization, etc. and after three months we still had one dog beating the stuffing out of the new one if we slipped even one second on the managed separation. And given they were all big dogs, getting them apart when the fight is underway was very difficult. Our trainer taught us how to separate them effectively, but we eventually had to go back to the rescue organization for the new one, and insist that they find him another place – it was too cruel, to be so mauled for one misstep of dog management by us, and the stress of such management was too much for us humans. So we miss Max – he was a sweet dog – but he deserved better.

  11. Trisha says

    First, re the wood photo. I howled when I read the first two comments about, uh, what are those brown things, exactly anyway? Never occurred to me, until I saw it through other eyes, and then got it immediately. Sorry! A good lesson about scale; the wood pile is actually quite large, but how would one know that without something to compare it to?

    And I’m sorry to read the comments of those of you who have had troubles with adopting or rescuing the “wrong” dog for your household. Whether you keep it and manage it, or eventually find it another home, it’s still tough. Kudos to all of you who are doing your best. That’s all any of us can do, right?

  12. HFR says

    Just wanted to say, I so admire those of you who rearrange your lives to keep the dogs that you have committed to when you know that if you gave up that dog it would not have a life elsewhere. Sometimes it’s right to give up the dog, but sometimes it’s not a choice if you know the outcome for the dog will be euthanasia or life in a kennel. To me it’s a truly selfless gesture and I’m not sure at all I would be strong enough to do the same.

  13. Debbie says

    Hi Thank you for the wonderful article and it gives me hope! We adopted a little 10 year old maltese in October. She was being given away on Craigs List for free. It broke my heart to see this, although it’s quite common, and I should not keep looking! We have five dogs already. A Lab, who is such a baby! She’s 8, A male yorkie, who’s 6, a female yorkie who’s 4, a puppy mill rescue yorkie who’s about 8, and a little troublemaker Malchi (maltese and chihuahua) who’s 2, lol. Well, we’ve had Bella our new little Maltese for the four months, her history was that she was an only dog, that belonged to an elderly lady, who died after having her for ten years. Her son had placed the add on Craigs List and was giving her away, but seemed to be very careful as to who would take her, the did come to our place to make sure she’d be in a nice home. They didn’t want to keep her because his wife and himself worked all day and she’d be all alone. I am home all day, and so my little furbabies are a big part of my life! Well, she didn’t act petrified when she first came, and the other dogs, just sniffed her a lot, and we introduced them pretty much like your article stated, but now it’s been the four months, and she still doesn’t interact with us or them very much. She will eat with them, and there’s no problem, but then she retreats into her crate and stays there pretty much the whole day. She will come out to see whats going on, on and off, but will never come sit with us on the couch, or very rarely lies in the same room, even though we have doggie beds in here. She does go up to sleep in a doggie bed in my bedroom, on occasion, but as soon as we go up to go to bed she comes right downstairs. She’s just started playing with toys, and likes to hoard them in her crate, and then if I come near of the other dogs she’ll jump out at us and growl. One of my female yorkies, the one who’s 4 is very attached to me, so if Bella growls, Bonnie will start a fight with her. I really love Bella, and want to keep her more than anything, but hope that I’m not doing the wrong thing. I don’t know if she’d be better off in a home where she’d be the only dog, or if she’ll come around. She is very lovable to me when I pick her up and I feel so bad that she won’t come and curl up with me on the couch. Do you think that in time that will change? I was hoping it would by now, but reading your article, it seems like it could be ok to take longer. I want to do what’s best for this little one! Like I said, withhout my little fur babies, my life would be so empty!

  14. Kat says

    We adopted our second dog expecting that she was timid and would take her cues from our resident dog. Ha! Were we ever wrong. She’s not timid; she’s unsocialized and all drive. Finna only occasionally takes her cues from Ranger. Fortunately, he has exceptional social skills and in an environment where she feels safe she responds appropriately to him. We do have a bit of snarking from time to time but it doesn’t escalate and when Finna decides she’s concerned that if Ranger gets off the futon he’ll take her chew and they have grumble fests we’ll stand between them as a screen so Ranger can go by. If we don’t he settles down on the futon until she’s done and moves away so it’s not an issue of great concern but we don’t think he should be forced to wait until she’s done before he can leave the room. It’s funny to watch them through, Finna standing over her chew on the floor, Ranger sitting on the futon, and the two of them vocalizing at each other. We call it grumbling because it isn’t real growls it’s too high pitched and sounds more like moaning and groaning. They do pretty well together despite it not being the relationship we envisioned based on who we though Finna was.

  15. em says

    My heart goes out to the people struggling with dog-dog interactions in their homes. I feel so fortunate. Now I’m starting to wonder, how common is it for adult (or even puppy) introductions to be trouble-free? I know many people from the dog park with multi-dog or two-dog households where the dogs were introduced as adults with minimal fuss and without major problems. Is this unusual, perhaps the result of selection bias (the kind of dogs suitable for the dog park) or do such households actually represent the ‘silent majority’?

    I also wonder, are we perhaps putting pressure on dogs with elaborate, drawn-out introductions to the household where they live separated but side by side with gradually increasing interaction? It’s the cold that’s got me thinking about it. Almost everyone I know locally with a short-coated dog has a jacket for their dog to wear in the worst weather, and exactly none of them (including myself) went through the desensitization process I often see recommended to teach their dogs to tolerate the jacket. I simply put the jackets on Otis and Sandy and immediately took them out for an hour in the cold weather. They both got over whatever misgivings they may have had about them in minutes. Not only do they tolerate the coats, but Otis actively seeks his.

    I know dozens people who did the same-no training, no treats, no short periods of desesitization- and NONE of them have a dog who looks uncomfortable or tries to escape or destroy their cold weather gear. Yet many is the story I’ve heard on internet fora about dogs hating or refusing to wear similar jackets despite owners’ efforts to positively reinforce the behavior. Sometimes I think that the more fuss we make about something trying to ensure that it goes well, the more we increase our chances of it going badly. Of course, the fact that it is really, truly, very cold or very wet when most of the local dog jackets come out probably doesn’t hurt. :-)

    I don’t know how to make this off-topic musing into a really cogent response to the original issue, but I feel like there’s something nagging at the edges of my brain about it- just as dog introductions seem to go best when there is the least amount of owner hovering safely possible, I feel like there may be some point at which the slowness of an introduction to the household is more frustrating or anxiety-inducing than reassuring to the dogs involved. I’m definitely in favor of proactive management and providing safe spaces, but I also see the value of treating the newcomer as a normal part of the group, and wonder how to find the balance.

  16. Mihaela Onciu says

    Hi, Trish! Do you have any thoughts (in this context) about adopting a dog who has been exclusively outside until 1 1/2 years of age and is agitated/anxious when brought into the house? Is the presence of other dogs used to the inside environment likely to help/reassure the new dog?

  17. EmilySHS says

    @em, I think a lot may depend on the demographic and the area… urban dogs that grow up starting with puppy class, loads of time at the dog park, seeing unfamiliar dog on walks around town every day, if they start out pretty good with other dogs and are managed with reasonable sense, they have loads of opportunities to keep their social skills up. Or, it becomes blazingly obvious that they need help–it’s hard to hide a problem if the dog starts barking and lunging at every approaching dog that they see. On the other hand, in my semi rural/ranch area, we see lots of dogs where the owners tell us–and sincerely believe–that their dog is “great” with other dogs, but closer questioning reveals that they mean the 4 other dogs they grew up with on the ranch and the dog in question hasn’t interacted with an unfamiliar dog in literally years. Sometimes the dog is great with other dogs–sometimes not. The difference is, the owners genuinely may not know when it comes to strange dogs.

    And I gotta say, if wisely and accurately predicting every dog-dog interaction is supposed to be easy, I must have missed that part of the movie–gosh, it’s taken me ten years to feel that I have even a glimmer of a clue. I’ve studied as best I can, read, watched the DVDs, done seminars, negotiated I don’t know how many dog-dog meetings, and I still feel like I need another decade to unpack it. So humbling.

  18. LisaW says

    Our dog with anxiety and physical issues, whom I have mentioned many times before, was adopted from a “rescue” that has since been shut down for inhumane conditions/neglect. Little was known about her background, and what we were told turned out to be fanciful at best. We blithely stepped into the rabbit hole when we took on this pup who turned out to be essentially a shy, feral dog who has given us our biggest challenges, sharpest learning curves, and we love her to pieces. When we first got her, we had two resident dogs, one of whom has since passed away. Our two dogs came with us to meet her off the transport, and we walked them together briefly and put her in the crate in the car and drove home. One big initial problem for our other two dogs was her smell. She smelled awful – old poop and cedar shavings – it was a very strong and unpleasant odor. One of our dogs is very odor-sensitive, and she started drooling when we put the smelly pup in the car. It took several baths for the odor to dissipate. It took a few weeks for our scent-sensitive dog and the new pup to start interacting, but they became friends, and now due to several other factors, have a more or less peaceful but complicated relationship.

    I admit I had moments (ok, days) of heartache wondering if I was up to the challenge and serious doubts if I could really give her the home she deserved and needed. We have spent years building a village that will help us take care of her needs and help me learn how to work with her mentally, physically, and emotionally to the best of my ability. It’s been hard at times, and she has changed our lives in unexpected ways. While I still have moments of doubt, I’m very glad we share a life together. We’re all “stuck” with each other, and I mean that in a good way :-)

  19. Trisha says

    To em: Very thoughtful questions, thanks for raising some interesting (and complex) issues. Their complexity makes it harder to answer, but also is what makes them so valuable. Thus, my answers will feel simplistic and not as satisfying as I would like them to be, but will have to suffice for now. (But you’ve given me some ideas for future blogs, thank you for that.) First off, I do think there is value in asking if sometimes we are making things too complicated–trying to desensitize a dog to a jacket for example in a step-by-step way, rather than just putting it on and letting the dog learn to adjust. Some people might be appalled to know that I once simply dragged a dog up a stairway (this was my own dog, not a client’s) after spending a few sessions trying to shape her progress with a clicker. This was a little BC, Misty, who I got as a puppy, and who appeared to be terrified of going up the (carpeted) stairs. I began teaching her to get close to the stairs, put a paw on the first stair, etc etc, over several sessions, and then began to wonder if I wasn’t making this too complicated. I put on her leash and walked up the stairs. She resisted, but had to follow. We went up, down, and up again,and that was the end of that. In 60 seconds she discovered she adored going up and down the stairs and never once hesitated after that.

    However, and this is a huge however, that method would have made some dogs worse. I felt I knew Misty well enough to make that choice, and it worked out well. But that’s the complicated part: knowing when to make the dog go up the stairs, or just put on the jacket, and when not to. Same with dog-dog introductions I think. Overall, no hovering and lots of freedom of movement is always best… unless, gosh, you don’t know if the new dog will attack and try to kill your own. Or you have 6 dogs and are bringing in a new, shell shocked dog and don’t want them overwhelmed at the front door. I could go on… but am thinking that this topic deserves a blog on its own. Agree?

  20. Trisha says

    To Mihaela: Other dogs will indeed act as social facilitators to the indoors IF the dog in question is well socialized to other dogs and comfortable around them. You could even try a method I’ve used successfully in the past: make being indoors “hard to get.” (Which increases value to people and dogs too it seems.) Teach the new dog a sit-stay at the door (while it is outside), and after it has mastered that, tell it to sit and stay at the doorway while it watches other dogs get treats inside. Don’t let it come inside, but use gentle, quiet methods to block it from coming in to share in the treats. Eventually, once the dog is clearly trying to get inside to share in the fun, release it from the stay and let it eat some treats. Then back outside. Gradually increase the time inside. This, of course, presumes that the dog can stay outside part of the time, hope that is true!

  21. says

    It was a good thing that we never had a problem introducing a new dog into our family. We basically just let the new dog roam the house by itself until it is comfortable enough to mingle with the other dogs. Occasionally, on feeding time the “senior” dog will try to dominate the new dog but that’s the only time that we intervene.

  22. Shana R says

    What about bringing in a puppy to a new household? I just brought one home last week, she is the fourth dog. One dog is usually indifferent to other dogs most of the time, the other two like to play with known dogs. But because the adult dogs in the house are all close to or more than 100lbs, interaction with the puppy is minimal.

    I normally allow supervised interaction from right off the bat, and puppies aren’t allowed to harass the other dogs. The adults are allowed to reprimand the puppy. All items worth fighting over are removed so there is no resource guarding. I am finding my intact bitch is taking more time to warm up to the puppy (also female), while my intact dog is warming up quickly. My girl seems to be coming around now. But I’m curious what your thoughts are for integrating a puppy?

  23. Mihaela Onciu says

    Thank you! That sounds not only clever but also fun (at least it made me smile just imagining it happening). Yes, we have a large fenced back yard and this dog will have plenty of outdoors space, in addition to long walks. I am getting him in a couple of days and I am armed with everything, from yummy treats, dog-appeasing pheromones, herbal remedies, and a special enclosure to limit his access to one room at the beginning, while still allowing free access to the other two dogs to visit with him, without anyone getting hurt (he is quite a bit larger than the other two, but seemed friendly when they first met)… He loves us petting him and scratching his ears, too (normal dog, I guess). Maybe it will be easier than I fear. I won’t know until we actually have him home.

  24. Beth says

    I wonder if you have thoughts on the recent trend to bring in street dogs from outside the United States and adopt them out? Or is that too subject too much of a powder-keg to even discuss?

    Maybe it’s just where I live (my part of the country lacks enough shelter dogs from the local area to meet demand, so rescues routinely bring in hundreds of dogs from outside the area), but between the groups who are adopting out dogs rescued from fighting rings and those importing semi-feral street dogs, it seems to me that there is perhaps a mismatch between the heartfelt desire to help and the number of owners who, realistically, can be expected to have the extreme expertise and commitment needed to safely integrate these special-circumstance dogs into social situations.

    As your current discussion points out, introducing dogs from traditional backgrounds can be perilous enough— I could not agree more with your reminder that rescues need to be able to take dogs back without leaving the potential adopter feeling guilt on top of the confusion and sadness they already feel on having a “failed” adoption.

    Is this trend a good thing? Or is it setting up both adopters, dogs, and neighbors for potential heartbreak?

  25. HFR says

    Em’s comments remind me so much of when I think about growing up with dogs. To say we were ignorant about any kind of behavioral knowledge would be putting it mildly. We used rolled up newspaper to bop their noses when they were bad, stuck their noses into their mess when they soiled in the house. We actually had 2 intact males in the house at the same time. No lower middle class person neutered their dogs in those days. Why spend money on the dogs when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Oh and we also let our female mixed-breed have a litter, because it was common knowledge that you should always let your female dog have one heat before they were spayed so they wouldn’t get fat (and of course she was impregnated by a stray so she had a litter). Sheesh, it’s amazing we weren’t reported to the humane society for cruelty to animals. Seriously, we loved our dogs and treated them very well (they slept in my bed with me), but it was just the culture at the time.
    The idea of desensitizing them to anything was completely foreign. If they didn’t like something we just waited until they got used to it. The 2 males would occasionally fight, we just broke it up and moved on (altho I do remember hating when it happened). We rarely “walked” them as in take them out for the sole purpose of walking them and they often would fight the leash. We just waited until they stopped squirming and settled down. Obviously, I don’t think these were the good old days and am very happy that times have changed. But like with helicopter parents I do wonder if we sometimes go overboard. I do think it would make a great blog post.

  26. em says


    Thanks so much for your response. It seems like, as in so many things, knowing your dog is the most important thing. It is frustrating when life refuses to reduce itself to hard and fast rules, once again.

    I think I make decisions about when and how to push my own dogs beyond their comfort zones mostly by ‘educated instinct’. On the surface it feels like I just ‘get a sense’ of how a dog coat or new dog introduction will go, and whether it will go better if I forge ahead all at once or if I go slow (and there absolutely are situations where I just don’t have the knowledge or skill to go slowly without adding in stress and frustration to the equation) but the reality is that there is a LOT of groundwork laying the foundation for those predictions.

    When I decided to just jacket Otis up and go for instance, I wasn’t starting from scratch with a strange dog. I knew that I had:
    A dog who already was accustomed to getting “dressed” to go out with collar and leash.
    A dog who had positive reactions to body contact- he likes and seeks physical touch and pressure on his body at virtually all times, burrows under blankets, etc.
    A calm, emotionally resilient dog highly tolerant of new situations.
    A dog who would stand quietly and patiently while the jacket was put on and adjusted for fit.
    A minimally restrictive, comfortable jacket (like a horse blanket) that I didn’t need put on over his head or work his legs through. (Attached with Velcro).
    A dog who found cold, wet conditions highly aversive.
    A dog who did NOT have a strong background in positive reinforcement training at the time. It was hard for me to find appropriate and effective reinforcers, and he whould show signs of anxiety very quickly when I attempted to shape behaviors.

    All of this informed my decision (mostly unconsciously), and I certainly wouldn’t assume that the ‘just strap it on and go’ method would be appropriate for EVERY dog. I can surely see how, for a shy or physical-touch reactive dog, or a dog for whom it would be a major physical struggle to get a coat on, it could be a disaster. But, and this is the thing that worries me, it is sometimes difficult for me to effectively shape or reinforce desired behaviors. If I had tried to go slow, believing that to always be a ‘safe’ approach, I have a sneaking suspicion that I would have made it MORE stressful, rather than less.

    I am fully willing to accept this as a personal failing, rather than a failure of the approach in general- I am sure that it would be my own ham-handedness that soured the milk, but it’s not just about impatience and wanting quick results. I think that there is also a degree to which how we approach things communicates our expectations to our dogs, and those expectations do seem to color their reactions. In those early days especially, if I made a big production out of introducing something, what Otis seemed to take from that was not what I wanted to express. I would be TRYING to say, “see, this is no big deal, we’ll do it a little at a time so it’s comfortable for you,” and what he would ‘hear’ was, ‘see, this is going to be awful and I expect you’ll hate and resist it. This new thing is not to be trusted.”

    Just so, if I brought a dog into the house and kept him gated away from Otis and Sandy, I’d be afraid that the message they recieved wouldn’t be the one I intended to send.

    I’d absolutely LOVE to read more blog posts on any topic you choose, frankly, but especially on issues relating to these!

  27. Mary K. says


    I really have nothing of value to add to this conversation. I just wanted to say that you are a breath of fresh air.
    I just had to smile immensely when I read that you “howled” at people’s initial response to your photograph of the covered logs!

    I have been working with shelter dogs for going on three years and I so appreciate the balance, commitment, and passion you bring to this blog. Every single time I read it, it just reminds me and humbles me to know how much knowledge I still need to gain in terms of doing the best for the dogs I interact with. Thank you so much to helping me to learn and grow in this area!

  28. Kat says

    If you’ve ever taken a young child to the doctor for a vaccination and watched the child’s resistance increase the more the medical personnel try to reassure I think you know exactly the point em is trying to make. Sometimes going slowly and trying to reassure, etc., actually has the effect of increasing the fear factor. “If there’s this much reassurance going on what’s about to happen must be terrifying.” I’m always very matter of fact with both my children and my dogs. I also try really hard to listen to what they’re telling me.

    Teaching Ranger to wear his pack I put the pack across his back, he started to shake it off and I gave him a negative reward marker, he sighed his “oh, more human weirdness” sigh, and we adjusted the straps, gave him a treat, and that was that. Finna’s front clip walking harness she accepted without any problem, put it on and she happily went walking; when I tried that with her tracking harness she shied away exhibiting signs of stress and anxiety. We shaped her to wear that one over the course of a couple weeks. That one has more straps and requires lifting her legs and, worst of all in her mind, it was different than the one she understood. Now that she knows this harness means walking, and that harness means tracking she’s delighted with them both.

    Since Finna was almost never handled as a puppy she has a lot of body sensitivity so even toweling her off after being outside in our neverending rain was overwhelming for her. I thought about trying to carefully shape her to allow toweling off but realized that would just make it a big deal in her mind so instead I invented the game of toss a towel, light blanket, fabric, whatever over her and cheer and treat when she got out. We desensitized her to having something on her back as part of a game. Once she figured out that she could safely escape whenever she wanted the act of being toweled dry stopped being overwhelming. Knowing your dog and dealing with that individual rather than some generic example dog is really the key.

  29. LisaW says

    My last comment seems to have gotten stuck in awaiting moderation cyber limbo, but I wanted to add that what both em’s comments point to is knowing your dog. My shy dog would not take kindly to having a coat put on her without a period of seeing the coat, smelling the coat, conditioning her to be near the coat, laying the coat over her, treat, treat, treat, slowly fastening the coat, treat, treat, treat, etc. And then, she still might not want anything to do with coat for quite a while. I’ve never tried a coat, but when she tore her CCL, I did find a harness to help her up the stairs, and it took quite a bit of desensitizing for her to let me put in on, fasten it, walk with it on and then eventually go up stairs with it on and me holding the handle. If I go too fast or she thinks something’s up, she will have nothing to do with it.

    Has there been a change in the make up of dogs or where many people are adopting dogs from or is it a chicken and egg question? It is complex, and yes please, blog-worthy.

  30. Trisha says

    To LisaW: Sorry you got stuck in cyber space, not sure why I missed your original comment.

    And to Mary L, thanks so very much for the reinforcement. I’m having one of “those” days, so it came at an especially good time. :-)

  31. LisaW says

    Please, no apologies necessary. I seem to have a cookie issue (in more ways than one).

    I’m sorry you’re having a less-than-stellar day. I wish I could wiggle my nose and have a chocolate cookie appear in front of you!

  32. Annie R says

    To Debbie, I wonder if your new little Maltese is simply still grieving. That’s a long time for a small dog to live as a single dog with one person; she may be a one-person type of dog and now her person isn’t there, and all your dogs may just be too much for her to make her way through in order to connect with you.

    I have adopted a series of older dogs over the past 8 years, and I have had a couple failures along with several successes. Looking back the failures were dogs that really needed to be the “only” dog in a household, who just were very stressed and uptight trying to share space and resources with the one or two other dogs in my house. I also am the only person, so there was no one else for them to take on as “their person”. Both those dogs went back to their rescue organization, as in each case, there were fights and safety was an issue.
    Of the successes, most were very at home within a few weeks. But I had one midlife, large male independent-breed mix who was rather disengaged and then at six months with me, visibly relaxed and became more and more affectionate over the course of five more years with me, during which I got two additional dogs who were a bonded pair. He became very engaged with the female, let her become the alpha, and co-existed peacefully with the other male tho they weren’t fond of one another. Another, later, soft-personality male Aussie whose elderly owner had to go into assisted care, took a couple months to settle in and then was mine for life.

    Anyway, if I were in your situation, I think I would try two things, in parallel if you like. One is to give it a little more time, during which you can try to make yourself available to her alone a few times a week; and you could also put out some feelers about whether there’s an elderly person who would like to take her in; a little well-socialized companion who doesn’t have an endless number of years left herself might be just the ticket for an older person who needs company. I am not usually much of a “magical thinker”, but I have found that sometimes, just holding the idea that the best situation will arise for your little girl, will sometimes be followed by serendipity in one way or another in an amazing way.
    Good luck with her and bless your heart for giving her a safe place and your love and affection in her time of need.

  33. Robin Jackson says

    I think em has touched on the main point, which is that dogs are different, people are different, situations are different. Many of us have started out with one plan, whether that was slow or fast, and switched to a different one because we could see the first plan wasn’t optimal for this particular dog in this particular moment.

    My own belief, although I have nothing scientific to back it up, is that just like people, dogs may have either intellectual concern or emotional anxiety. I’ve known mostly border collies, and they will definitely observe a situation and then make a reasoned judgment about it before diving in.

    So if my dog has decided intellectually that “Hmm…that looks like it might be dangerous/unpleasant,” and we have a high level of trust between us, I may just walk the dog through it to demonstrate that that intellectual assessment was incorrect. At which point the dog will usually go, “OK, I was wrong, no problem.”

    But if my dog is having an emotional anxiety/fear reaction, I’m far more likely to go slow, because plunging the dog into the situation is unlikely to change the dog’s emotional state even if objectively there’s no negative outcome. Instead I want to back up, sometimes literally, until the dog isn’t feeling anxious, and is back to being able to assess things dispassionately again.

    Because I regard most desensitisation as giving the animal a chance to figure out for themselves that nothing bad is happening, I tend to try to keep my own role as neutral as possible. I may use a lot of food at a high rate of reinforcement, but I don’t use baby talk or coaxing or reassurance. I’m not trying to override their natural ability to evaluate what’s going on. I’m just trying to make a lot of good stuff available as they make the choices I would like to see.

    This may be because, as I’ve mentioned, in my childhood we dealt with many different species, many of whom did not find human presence particularly reassuring at first. So we went very much for objective rewards, usually food.

    I do use verbal praise as a reward, or even just a comfort, with a dog who knows me well, I just don’t usually use it in a classical conditioning situation like counterconditioning.

    So for me the first question is how much emotion is behind the dog’s concern?. Which is usually pretty obvious from body language with my own dogs.

    The second question is how justified is the dog’s concern–is this something that will be objectively unpleasant, like nail clipping, or just unfamiliar, like a rain coat?

    And my third question is what’s the downside of my being wrong about the answers to questions 1 and 2?

    I suspect it’s that third one that leads to the frequency of the advice to go slow when introducing new dogs to each other.

  34. liz says

    I think that introducing a dog adopted from a shelter may be an experience that differs from introducing new dogs acquired by other means. My hunch comes from conversations with foster parents initially struggling with some unruly new fosters in their homes. It’s usually not easy to drum up consideration for the new dog when he or she is acting like um, an idiot, but it’s worth a shot.

    I usually say something along the lines of:
    A novel environment, tons of stimuli, and lack of social interaction are among the factors that cause dogs stress when entering a shelter. I’ve been told that most dogs’ cortisol levels remain at elevated levels for three days after intake to a shelter. Apparently three days gives dogs the necessary time to begin to adjust to the surroundings and schedule. Behavior evaluations, for example, are not typically done during this adjustment period for the hope of “seeing a more accurate representation of who a dog is.” By so many measures, entering a home is better than entering a shelter. There are more creature comforts, more space, more freedom. But it’s still a giant change. There’s a good chance that the dog will still in some way experience an “intake adjustment period” in your house. You may not get to truly see who your foster is until their stress has subsided. With three days and a prayer, hopefully they will settle/mellow/stop chewing on the house/humping everything.

    Foster homes differ from permanent homes in that many foster organizations encourage (if not require) an initial quarantine area in the home, in large part for medical concern. Shelter medicine is a huge challenge (understatement- stressed animals with depressed immune systems in close quarters) and animals who may not appear sick when leaving for a home may come down with symptoms shortly after leaving. I know a foster family that took in a litter of “surprise parvo” puppies and hadn’t quarantined them. They felt their resident dogs were healthy, hardy, and appropriately vaccinated. But when one of the resident dogs coincidentally developed some digestive issues which mirrored parvo-like symptoms, they felt awful for not having kept the litter separate. Additionally, the already sick pups were at risk of catching any other minor, overlooked illnesses of the resident dogs…

    This is not to suggest that all shelter dogs are stressed out and sick! But it might to not hurt to expect that they could be in either of those states… and to give them that consideration if their body language tells you that they are not altogether comfortable.
    Of course there will always be the dogs who embody resilience, can deal with any change in stride, and fit into any situation with chameleon-like ability. But for the dogs who need at least a few days to adjust, it’s important to remember that they just entered what could be a completely unpredictable environment.

  35. Vicky in Boise says

    When our last rescue came home he was about 1.5 years old. The two resident border collies were 9. The first thing I did with Hobbes was let him explore the yard on his own. Carson and Zoe could see through the door and watch Hobbes. After this, my kids and I took everyone for a nice long walk so they could get acquainted on neutral territory and doing something my dogs loved to do. I think poor Hobbes had never been for a walk before and he was so happy! Once we got home, Hobbes came indoors and the other two stayed in the yard. Then everyone was allowed into the house. While Hobbes was crated at night and they were separated during the day if we were not home, everyone adjusted fine. Carson is a rather serious dog and Hobbes is a bit of an oaf, but they have always gotten along well. Zoe bosses the boys around, but not too much. Maybe we were just lucky, but I tried to not make a big deal out of the intros while trying not to helicopter too much.

    Hobbes came from a neglect situation. He had never really was able to form an attachment with anybody. It took a while before he seemed to understand that he was home. Now, he follows me just about everywhere and is a very affectionate fellow. We train together for obedience and seeing how happily he works and how much joy he brings to our training sessions is so heartwarming. He has come a long way!

  36. Beth says

    Robin Jackson, as the owner of a herding breed myself, I agree with your assessment. If I put a new harness or life jacket on Jack, he gets that “Oh, ick, I can’t even WALK and it PINCHES and it FEELS funny” worried look on his face. I don’t condition it, I just pop a leash on him and make him walk. If he is really being goofy, I’ll throw a frisbee and that’s that. On the other hand, it took me six months to get him to allow me to do his nails. He’s very claustrophobic and I think his feet are ticklish and he was truly distressed by the situation. The poor guy worked so hard— after about three months of work, he got to the point where he’d jerk his foot away, then whine and grumble and shuffle his front feet and offer me his paw back, all without my saying a word. You could almost hear him saying “Whoops, I messed that up. Here, let’s try again.” I knew we were almost there at that point (though one front paw is still very hard to d0).

    Em. regarding shaping— I know that I always had bad results until I finally decided (when I was practicing nails with Jack, as described above) that I wasn’t going to work TOWARDS a goal any more at all. I was just going to sit down with a mess of cheese and fish treats and my dog, and spend five minutes touching his feet. Maybe today we’d let the grinder touch a nail, or maybe we’d only get to hold a foot, or maybe today we’d go back to just touching a toe and rewarding that. But I was just sitting down with my dog and some treats and touching dog toes.

    Getting rid of any notion of what we should accomplish, or how far we should have progressed, allowed me to focus on just rewarding anything, no matter how brief, that involved us handling paws. If we didn’t make any progress, I’d back up to doing something he was already comfortable with and call it a day. My change in approach made all the difference.

  37. em says

    @ Beth, I think you’re absolutely right about ‘loading’ shaping with too many expectations, and I also agree that it works the very best when we have the luxury being able to take our time.

    My problem with shaping behaviors in Otis, in the beginning (not so much anymore, I’m happy to say) was that he
    a) didn’t care about food
    b) didn’t care about toys
    c) was (and is) HIGHLY observant and sensitive to social pressure

    Sandy has been a piece of cake to train with shaping- she loves food and loves attention and would happily train the day away. But Otis can still only take maybe a minute before I get a nervous yawn, averted gaze, or shifting feet (but it’s a minute more than I could get from him in the first several months). He just seems to hate not knowing what I’m after and he never turns his brain off, ever. Instead, it seems like he is always trying to guess at what the ultimate goal is, and the more abstract that goal is (as in trick training) the more baffled and uncomfortable he becomes. A ‘big picture’ dog :-)

    Fortunately, he’s so good at reading situations and gestural cues and guessing what I want that it’s almost creepy. Most of our training has been ludicrously easy, and he’s so physically tolerant that I haven’t had to do any major desensitization. He doesn’t like to do the kind of shaping necessary to learn complex tricks, and I mostly just respect that- his behaviors are mostly taught by guessing the final goal and/or capturing the desired behavior.

    The hardest part has been reminding myself that Sandy DOES like to learn tricks through shaping and that I should do more with her.

  38. Jan says

    I have read several of your books and given same to friends. You are highly recommended as a fine person and author by Teamworks in the Raleigh area. We have just adopted a Schnauzer mix from a rescue agency. He was found to be Heartworm positive by the rescue and treatment was given (Imiticide), by a vet and the dog went home to the foster. We found the pooch on Petfinder and fell in love. After all was said and done, we agreed to bring him home while in recuperation from his treatment as the foster already had 6 other rescues and was going a bit dingy. We have a 3.5 year dol schnauzer that is having a tough time. The new dog has been pretty much confined to crate until today. The treatment was six weeks ago so we are able to let the rescue out to play and check out the house. One main issue is that our resident dog is so jealous and grumpy. We are trying to give love to each and at times the resident dog is sweet and fine. But, other times he gets so mad and gets bossy and nippy. We are in it for the long run so need help as both are loves and we hope it will work. The rescue is 2.5 years…both are neutered males. We do not force them together but let them sniff and gently play as the rescue still has two weeks before heavy exercise can begin again. Meal times are ok but separate. Play time is worse than I imagined it would be. Any assistance will be appreciated. We are a loving household! Thank you!

  39. Nan says

    Trisha –

    Thank you! The books and pamphlets I’ve read – The Other End of the Leash, I’ll Be Home Soon!, Family Friendly Dog Training – have helped my partner and I immensely. We recently adopted a 10 month old Great Pyr girl named Rosie. Though we know little of her history, what we do know is she was rescued in Tennessee, fostered for 6 weeks in Kentucky and then brought here to NJ. She was extremely shy and skittish at first and food aggressive, but after only a month has really come to trust us and settle in.

    However, we have had to keep her separated from our two resident Lhasa-poos who are 13 years old (male and female litter mates). We consulted with a trainer who helped us to introduce them one at a time the day after Rosie arrived – on leashes in our large fenced yard. That intro went well and we went inside. Rosie was behind the gate to her room and stuck her nose through the bars as Duff went by. He immediately stiffened and barked and snarled and snapped at Rosie’s nose. She reacted rather ferociously to his attack and the trainer managed to lure Duff away.

    Since that day, we have continued to take them out whenever possible in the yard and until the yard was an ice rink with a foot of snow on top, they seemed to be progressing. Buffy is much less concerned about Rosie and turns her back and sits down when they’re out together. I’ve been afraid to let them get closer than the 3 feet apart, though, for fear they will react negatively and take steps backward or worse.

    I have been thinking lately that the frustration that Rosie experiences (she wants to play with Buffy so badly!) being kept from them may be stressing everyone more than moving forward would. Reading Em’s response makes me wonder if I’m putting too much pressure on them by taking it too slowly. When my partner and I combined households several years ago, I brought, Casey, my then 7 yr old female Rottie/Shep mix with me making a total of five dogs in the house. Syd, a husky mix and TD, a Pek/Pom mix were Casey’s best buddies right away. Duff and Buffy, on the other hand, would gang up a bit and bark and snap at her, but she was very confident and would stand still and look up and away until they backed down. It didn’t take too long for them to become friends. Because I knew Casey (and didn’t know anything about making proper intros), I felt confident that they would eventually get along. We lost Syd at 16 a few years ago, TD at 17 the year after and Casey at 14 this past summer. My longing for big dog energy got the best of me so when I saw Rosie on the rescue site, our plans to let Buffy and Duff live out their lives with just the cats to annoy them went out the window.

    I will keep reading and working with Rosie and as things thaw out will try to move a little faster than the snail’s pace we’ve been keeping. Any suggestions of books, videos, etc. would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    PS I like the woodpile pic very much!

  40. Alison says

    I’m currently researching dog introductions, so this blog entry is very timely! I’ve also listened to the Webinar.

    I think my situation is slightly unusual, in that the dogs I need to introduce will be living as neighbours, but will be together three days a week, when we go to the other dog’s house.

    I work as a nanny and live in an apartment, attached to the family home. I’m collecting my new dog in 2 weeks and he and I will be together for a week before the family return from their holiday. It is only then that I’ll be able to do introductions.

    I have to decide if I want to let my new dog play in the shared family garden, or keep him to my section. If I want his scent around the garden for the new dog to experience when he returns, or if this would put him on the defense. I only get to do this once, but it could go either way, I feel. I’m hoping the fact that my new dog is under a year old, will make the resident (5yr old) dog less defensive. Trish has spoken about letting dogs learn each other through urine, so should I let new-boy pee in the main garden, or not? Alas, the research shall have to continue – but I think it’ll be gut instinct I go on as everyone seems to have a different view and opinion, and most have no familiarity with our style of dog training.

    Mungobrick – I think you and I have the same eye for art! I also saw ‘not wood’ at first.

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