In hopes it will be helpful to others in the same situation, I thought I’d outline how I handled the introduction of lovely little Maggie into the family. Here’s some background on the actors:
1) Willie: Eight-year old BC neutered male, at one point extremely aggressive to unfamiliar dogs, relatively comfortable outside now with new dogs, but tense when unfamiliar dogs come into the house. Willie is a classic alpha-wannabe: Fearful but desperate to maintain control. He is very responsive to acoustic cues from me, 99% of the time a sweet, lovely dog, but can lose his temper around other dogs and be downright rude and inappropriate when tired and/or stressed. Willie at his worst? Think Jack Nicholson’s face in the movie The Shining. Willie at his best? The best dog you’ll ever be lucky enough to have.
2) Maggie: Adolescent BC intact female, grew up with a pack of familiar and unfamiliar dogs on a ranch in Idaho. Lots of opportunities to learn to read dogs and how to behave politely in canine society, lots of opportunities to meet unfamiliar dogs (who came in for training), but hadn’t ever been away from her dam and natal pack. (I’ve learned this is a huge factor in a dog’s behavior toward other dogs. You simply can not predict how a dog will react to much of anything if they grew up with their mother and related adults, and then leave to a new situation where they are on their own.) Maggie is clearly afraid of unfamiliar dogs now that she is away from mom; she ran a good 40 yards away from Willie in a panic the first time she saw him.
3) Tootsie: Nine-year old Cavalier, spent first seven years in a mill. Greets other dogs appropriately and as if comfortable and interested, and then completely ignores. Never plays (with anything), never even acknowledges Willie when together in the house. Lives for laps, food and car rides. No worries about her and a new dog.
Okay, take a breath. I knew Tootsie would not be an issue, but I had two dogs who were both uncomfortable with each other and were destined to live together in a small farm house. Here’s a summary of how I handled their first two weeks.
1. FIRST MEETING. As I’ve already described in an early post, the dogs met in a huge, fenced field where they could both be off leash. No pressure on either of them. I ignored Maggie when she ran away from Willie, and only signaled Willie a few times just to keep things moving. (For more about first introductions, see Love Has No Age Limit and The Art of Introducing Dogs.) But what happens after the first meeting outside? How does one begin to integrate the dogs into the house?
2. PREVENTION PREVENTION PREVENTION. Given Maggie’s discomfort and Willie’s history, the dogs were never loose in house together until they appeared to be 100% comfortable outside.What could be more important than preventing a bad beginning? Jim and I moved heaven and earth to keep the dogs from scaring each other until they were comfortable. It takes some serious effort if both dogs live in the house, because you always have to think two or three steps ahead. “Let’s see, if I put Willie in the crate in the study and close the door, I can let Maggie out of her crate in the living room and take her outside and then put her in the crate in the car to take Willie out…” It was a bit tiresome and tedious, but well worth the effort.
2. HOUSING. I thought long and hard about where to put Maggie’s crate. Willie and Tootsie’s crates are in the study, and we had a third crate for Maggie all set up in the same room. But given the level of discomfort, I decided not to house the dogs in the same room. Doing so felt like it might be forcing them into a physical proximity that was over their comfort level. We set up a second crate in the living room for Maggie, which avoided the dogs being forced together, even if in crates. Right now, one month in, Maggie is learning to go into the study crate for treats. Once she is comfortable in the new crate, we can finally have our living room back. (It is tiny and the crate is huge.)
3. THE GREAT OUTDOORS. I am lucky to have a variety of fenced areas where I could let Maggie off leash safely before I was confident that I could keep her safe from the road. Four to five times a day I took all three dogs out, with Maggie on a leash until we got into the fenced areas, and then let the dogs interact freely. Maggie and Willie began running together from day one, but mostly avoided close interactions for a good week. Whenever they did begin to sniff each other, and one dog looked tense, I’d cheerfully say “Let’s go on a walk!” Keeping things moving is probably the most important thing anyone can do to help dogs become comfortable with each other. Thank heavens I knew that, I’m not sure what would have happened if I didn’t.
4. LEASH WALKS IN TOWN. On day 4 we began taking Willie and Maggie on leash walks in town through a neighborhood close to my office. It is relatively quiet, but has enough traffic that no dogs are loose in the yards. However, the lawns beside the sidewalks are full of the scent of passing dogs, which allowed Willie and Maggie to concentrate on other dogs, instead of each other. Everything is relative, and Willie became the most familiar “other dog” to Maggie, and they soon were nose to nose sniffing the calling cards of others. We did this three times, and it worked like magic. Both dogs were noticeably more comfortable with each other once we got home after each trip.
5. GATES IN THE HOUSE. By day 5 or 6, the dogs were comfortable enough outside that we put up gates between the study and the living room and let the dogs out of their crates at the same time. Willie would be in the study, and Maggie in the living room with a gate between them. Around day 7 or 8, Maggie began walking up to Willie with her body loose and fluid and sniffing him through the gate. A few days later I took the gate down and let them together in the living room. If one of them looked a bit tense, I’d distract them or put one back into a room or crate. In other words, more prevention prevention prevention.
6. TOYS AS A BRIDGE. Toys can be a problem if a dog is a resource guarder, and I was concerned that Willie would be aggressive over some of his favorite toys. I put all the toys except one away once I allowed them to be together in the house. I left one out because they began playing tug games with sticks when running up the hill, and because Willie’s favorite house game was playing tug with Lassie when she was still alive. Sure enough, Willie picked up the toy (a battered, de-stuffed fluffy toy) and offered it to Maggie. You would have thought that the clouds parted and the angels began to sing; it was a huge moment in their relationship, and yet another time when something seemed to have bothered my eyes. Darn those allergies anyway.
7. RESPONDING TO TROUBLE. There were moments when things weren’t all so lovely. Two times, while playing with sticks up the hill, Willie got snarky and went after Maggie. I corrected it with a loud and low HEY!, because I wasn’t confident he would stop on his own and it looked to me like he was just being a jerk. Maggie snarked at Willie once in the same context, (the only time she ever has) so I stayed mindful of their level of arousal. I still break things up with a “That’s Enough! Let’s go on a walk!” if I think they are getting overly aroused. I haven’t seen anything close to a snark outside in weeks, but I still pay attention.
On the other hand, during the first week if one of the dogs gave out a low growl or quick but inhibited lunge, I’d say nothing. Both dogs are super sound sensitive and easily corrected and I felt that they needed to learn that I wasn’t going to interfere with their needing to work things out themselves. I find this to be the most challenging aspect of introducing dogs: when do you stay quiet, and when do you interfere? I’d love to hear your thoughts on when, if ever, you intervene when two dogs are interacting in ways you believe are problematic.
8. PREVENTION PREVENTION PREVENTION. Wait, didn’t I start there? Yes, but that’s also where I’m ending up. Willie is much more likely to be grumpy in the house when he is tired, and I know from past experience that if he is really tired he can lash out with an inappropriate and unnecessary intensity. Mindful of that, I gradually increased his exercise with Maggie–first only one hard run a day, then two, with a maximum of three. I also watched him carefully for signs that he was tired and needed a break once back in the house. I discovered that he knew the word “upstairs” (who knew?) when one night I thought he looked tired and said “Willie, do you want to go upstairs?” I didn’t expect an answer, but he got up and walked to the staircase and looked up. I am lucky that Maggie is also an expert at reading Willie, and after a few snarks from him, she learned to avoid Willie when he was sending out “leave me alone” signals. For the life of me, I’m still not sure what they are, but both Maggie and I appear to be literate in Willie-speak, even if we couldn’t teach someone else how to translate.
ALL IS WELL. After a month, I can report that the dogs are doing beautifully together. Willie adores having another dog to play with–they play tug inside and run/chase/herd games outside. Willie does get tired–his exercise has radically increased since Maggie came. Maggie is brilliant at reading Willie, and has perfect social skills. She may be a bit uncomfortable around unfamiliar dogs (more on that later, she’s making great progress), but her social skills are off the charts. She is a lovely, stable dog who appears to be happy to fit in to Redstart and make the most of it. She is barely getting the exercise she needs (more on her and sheep later), and Willie and I are getting more than we’ve ever had. (Picture Trisha looking upward while at the base of the stairs around 9 PM.)
If I had to pick three things that were the most important part of ensuring that the dogs would get along, I’d choose 1) Prevention- never forcing the dogs together, 2) Parallel leash walks in unfamiliar places and 3) Being observant and honoring what a dog needs.
What about you? If you had to choose one or two tips to give to someone introducing dogs together, what would you say? How have your introductions gone?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Lambs! Finally we have lambs. Lady Baa Baa had her first lamb last Thursday evening, a hardy little boy who is doing great. Lady Godiva had twin lambs Friday morning, now known as Salt and Pepper. (Someone on Facebook said it sure was good that one was smaller than the other, otherwise how would one tell them apart? Ha, love it!) So far no need to use ear tags, Lady Baa Baa’s lamb is black in front and white in back. Quite the trio. Only Barbie is left to lamb; her daughter Cupcake was bred but it didn’t take, so we’ll probably only have five lambs this spring. Quite a switch from 17 last spring! (And a welcome one at that.)
Here are the three newcomers, resting in the barn. All with warm mouths and full bellies, just like happy, healthy lambs should be.
And another sign of spring — have flowers ever been so welcome after the long, dark winter?