“They SAID he was house trained!”
“She said he loved EVERYBODY!”
“He was FINE at my house! What did the new owners do to him?”
Every trainer and behaviorist who does consults hears these phrases on a regular basis. About the “house trained” spaniel who pees on the rug, the “everybody loving” Border collie who is terrified of strangers, the Boxer who loved his crate at the foster home, but bark/screamed whenever his new owners left the house. Understandably, new owners are disappointed when their new dog behaves vastly differently than described by the foster home. Fosters and shelters sometimes express frustration when told of behavior problems, and exclaim: “But he never did that here! Those new owners just don’t know what they are doing!”
But the fact is, Fido in one place is not necessarily predictive of Fido in another. Context and the environment plays as big a role in dog behavior as it does in yours. Probably bigger. But let’s start with us: Are you the same person during an intense meeting at work as you are when having drinks with friends, just a few hours later? [Full disclosure: I am not.]
Because environment plays such a large role in the behavior of all mammals, every dog behavior consultant I know hears about dogs who behave one way at the shelter or foster home, and very differently once adopted. Of course, there are plenty of dogs who are context proof–the goofy retriever-type who really does love everyone, doesn’t care where they live, and are fine being left alone. But there are just as many, who, for example, leave a foster home where they seem relaxed and friendly to all, who become fearful and sometimes aggressive when placed in what looks like a great home.
The two most common issues I’ve seen over the years related to changes in context are house training and dog’s who leave areas with multiple dogs and become the only one in the house.
House training is the simple one. (Note: Simple does not necessarily equal easy.) Just because a dog has learned not to potty in one place doesn’t mean that they generalize this knowledge to another home. I doubt our children are any different: Surely they need to learn not to use “outside voices” at the neighbor’s house as well as in their own. If I was sending a dog off and asked if they were house trained, I’d say “Not in your house, they’re not.” Actually, I wouldn’t wait to be asked, I just tell everyone to assume that no dog is “building trained” until they have lots and lots of experience to the contrary under their belt. Or their collar. You get my drift.
This is especially true of dogs who were not house trained at an early age. We got Skip when he was three, and as best I can tell, he lived in crates or a barn his entire life up to that point. I trust him 99.99% now at our house (100% if we’re sure he’s pooped right before we go to bed), and 100% at the vet clinic. But I still watch him every second if we’re staying at a motel. He hasn’t tried to lift a leg inside for two years, but . . .
Dogs house trained at an early age can usually be trained easily enough in a new house IF the new owners start off as if the dog was a puppy. (See Love Has No Age Limit for more on this.) The key is to understand that there’s no reason a dog’s brain would understand that “house training” means more than “only go outside where I live,” versus “never go inside anywhere.”
Far more complicated are the dogs who have been living with multiple dogs for years, but end up as a single dog in a new home. This can be tricky, because it is impossible to know how a dog is going to react to such a big change. Let me start by asking you to imagine that you’ve been living on Mars for a few years. The Martians are in charge, and seem benevolent and kind. However, they are Martians, not Earthlings. Luckily, you live with several other Earthlings, who happen to speak the same language as you. All is well, because, although you’re on an alien planet, you still spend time with individuals who speak the same language and understand how you think. But suddenly, with no time to prepare, you are taken to another place, where there are no Earthlings.
It’s a nice place, and the Martians there couldn’t be kinder. You get all the good food and attention you could ever desire. However. You’re alone. At least, in some ways it must feel like that, right? You’ve lost your friends, the ones who understand you, and who you understand without having to work at it. I’m not sure it even matters if those others were close friends; just being there must have made a big difference.
This is my hypothesis of why shelters, fosters, trainers and consultants see so many “But he NEVER . . . ” cases. (I think I’m going to coin a new diagnostic here: The “buthenever syndrome.”) All environmental changes are stressful, even ones in which the dog’s life is greatly enhanced. It’s still a change. But nothing like having your Earthling equivalents disappearing, and being on your own in Mars.
No wonder we see so many dogs with Separation Anxiety who were fine in the foster home when surrounded by six other dogs, but not when left completely alone. Or dogs who are fearful of visitors at their new place when they’d never met a stranger when they lived in a kennel. I don’t want to overstate this–many behavioral predispositions can be easily seen in all environments, although they might perhaps be exaggerated once sent to a new home. But it does explain much of why some dogs appear to behave so very differently from a shelter or foster setting and are placed as a single dog in a new home.
So. What to do? First, it’s critical to get our expectations in line–it’s very difficult to know how dogs are going to respond after going from a canine pack to a human-only family. I just talked to some good friends with a new dog, suggesting that they think of the first weeks as an adventure and an experiment. Who knows how Georgie will behave after the first days or weeks of shock start to fade away? If he’s shy, will he express that as defense and back away from visitors until he relaxes, or will he go after them–guns blazing–using offense to protect himself? Will Snowflake be okay for most of the day while you’re gone to work, if the house is a vast, empty cage after you leave? We just can’t know until some time has gone by; meanwhile, our job is to support the dog as best we can and learn who he or she is in this new environment.
Secondly, I’d like to suggest that dogs coming from a multiple-dog situation into a single dog home be given even more time to adjust. I guess this goes back to expectations–and understanding what a huge shock it must be to go from one environment to another. (See The Stress Factor in Dogs about the profound and lengthy effect that stress has on physiology and behavior.) I love that many shelters and fosters suggest keeping things extremely low-key for several days after dogs first arrive. For dogs from multiple-dog homes, I would love to see dogs left home alone to be surrounded by familiar scents, and left in cozy, safe-feeling spaces for literally just a few seconds initially. I personally take the same attitude with separation anxiety as I do with house training when a dog comes to a new home–Job One is to prevent trouble, starting on Day One. (See I’ll Be Home Soon about preventing Separation Anxiety.)
I have no research to support my hypothesis that dogs coming from multiple-dog households/facilities often find it a bit more challenging to adjust than other dogs do. It is just the strong impression I’ve gotten after 30+ years of working with behavioral problems. (Question: Wouldn’t this be a great topic for a thesis? Answer: Yeah!!!) I put this out to you then, curious what your experience has been. Have you thought about whether your dog came from a place with other dogs, or a single-family, all-human home? What’s been your experience if dogs come from a pack and become the only dog?
As I write, I realize I’m burying the lead here: Basically, I’m arguing that one of the biggest changes in a dog’s environment, from one place to another, is whether there are other dogs there or not. Jump in here–we’d love to hear from you.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Some more photographs from Arizona, including this shot Jim took of me and the view, while walking around Windy Point Vista on the drive to Mt. Lemmon north of Tucson.
Two more shots of birds from the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. First, a Cactus Wren, flying free on the grounds. We saw Cactus Wrens every where, in Phoenix and Scottsdale. They are big for wrens, striking to look at, and, typical of all wrens, busy, busy, busy.
Jim took this photograph of a Hooded Oriole inside the large aviary, such a great shot!
Here’s the view from the backyard of the house rented by our dear friends. (Meg and Randy: We are SO grateful!) I grew up always understanding what “. . .the purple mountains majesty . . . ” meant.
I’ll leave you with something more current: Thank you King Arthur for your Swedish Almond Coffeecake mix. I get to pretend it’s home made cuz one has to add several things, has to knead it and let it rise twice, so, it’s home made, right? Who cares if it is or isn’t, because it’s DELICIOUS.
Here’s to delicious in your life too!
And jump in with your thoughts about dogs from “packs” to single homes; I’m so curious what your experience has been.
Tonya Allen says
I learned pretty quickly that dogs who are well-behaved at home are likely to forget their manners or test their boundaries as soon as they are in a different environment, or even in their own environment if new guests or residents (human or canine) arrive. Piddling from excitement, territorial marking, stealing napkins or food from people’s laps, stealthily chewing up dropped items such as eyeglasses… My perfectly-behaved dogs have done all these things in other people’s homes or when we have guests.
I liked your analogy of a human being spirited off to Mars. I think it might explain the radical change in behavior of one of my dogs. We adopted her from a shelter, and I was not surprised when she was very nervous and insecure for the first few weeks. We were told she had been the only dog in her previous home. We adopted a second dog a month later, and although she has always tolerated him rather than liking him, within a day or two after his arrival she changed into a calm, confident leader. I always thought she gained confidence just from having a younger dog to boss around, but now you’ve made me wonder if her insecurity came from being the only dog in the house.
Great post, gave me lots of food for thought! Great photo of the coffee cake too! Glad you enjoyed your vacation!
Carol Hanson says
Patricia this is so timely – it’s almost uncanny! We’ve recently (3 days ago!) re-homed a 1 year old Lurcher who is on her 4th home with us. Her last family loved her dearly but found her resource guarding of toys challenging with a toddler and another baby on the way. She has always lived with other dogs and with our circumstances (I am a licensed home boarder in the UK) will have other dogs, who are regular clients as playmates. I’ve taken a few days out of the business to settle her in, but already sense she is missing canine companionship. She’s friendly with the dogs we’ve met so far and in particular my client dogs who I’ve lined up to do meet and greets before they come to stay again. So it will be very interesting to see how she adjusts with our different lifestyle, but also how she feels about having other dogs around her new home. I’m hoping as our clients are all a very friendly bunch that she’ll enjoy it and not get overwhelmed.
4 years ago, we adopted 8 months old standard poodle, who lived with his parents and brother. All day he run and played with his pack and at night he shared a crate with his brother. He had minimal exposure to humans. Our household only consisted of an old cat, no other animals. If we knew then what we know now (it was your book Trish, which put us on path of truly understanding dogs), we would have handled it all very differently. Unfortunately due to our inexperience and bad trainer we have ended up with fearful, reactive, aggressive dog. When people ask me if I’d get Monty if I knew he’d be like that, I always say yes, but I would treat him and the environment very differently. With me and my husband Monty is so kind and gentle etc, but any stranger, especially men, are seen as a threat. Monty is very attached to me, he experiences separation anxiety when I’m gone. But I couldn’t love him any less. I’ve never learned so much about dogs and their needs that I learned and still learning from Monty. My dream is to one day attend one of the best dog schools and provide a retreat for dogs like Monty.
Spot on Patricia!
I, too, have thought of our dogs’ entry (especially puppies) into our lives as coming to live with space aliens. Poor things! Our current dog came (as a 4-month-old pup) from a rescue, where three of her littermates plus other fostered dogs were living, and indeed, the transition was too hard for her. We have had multiple dogs in our household before, but we did not want to do that in our current phase of life. So to compensate (or try to), we ferry her back and forth to daycare twice a week for half-day sessions. She does love that, but she also does now seem happy to go home afterwards. (Pre-pandemic, we also did lots of classes with her — obedience, agility, nosework — where she also saw other dogs. But that’s fallen off, I confess.) Now she is nearly 4 years old, and I THINK she sees the upside of being an Only Dog, but I still do feel very sad for her that she had to make that transition which was completely NOT ideal, and which I think has shaped her personality. “If I knew then what I know now…” would we have adopted her into an only-dog situation? I am not so sure. We might have done better to look for a different dog who already preferred to be an only dog. Sigh. She is much loved, and we do a lot for her, I think (in terms of trying to see things from her perspective), though, and in many ways, she has landed on all four paws, when you consider her mange-y, under-the-porch start in life. Still, a tough one.
Great post! I agree – I’ve seen this many times through my almost 10 years volunteering with shelter dogs.
I am curious about your experience with dogs who come from a single-dog household/ situation/ strays who move into a multiple-dog households. What research (if any?) is there about the adjustment in those situations?
Nana C. says
Four years ago, I adopted a 6 month old dog from Puerto Rico who had been fostered with 3 of her 9 litter mates. They were not separated until they came to the Humane Society in Florida – flown up, spayed and neutered, and then placed in separate kennels. All 4 of them were terrified and pretty shut down. Izzie, the only female, was the worst. I was a volunteer at the shelter and when I saw her cowering in the back of the kennel, my heart broke. I went in and she put her face flat against my leg and that was it. I took her home to my older dog, who immediately became her surrogate mother. Izzie is also the most submissive and skittish dog I have have ever known. Sophie helped her learn new things and they were inseparable. When Sophie died last year, I was afraid I would lose Izzie too. She refused to eat or go for walks, and the anti-anxiety med the vet prescribed just made her sick. I had her evaluated by a behavioral specialist as to what kind of dog to get to give her a pack again. Enter Olivia, from the same shelter, a young happy-go-lucky mix that has become Izzie’s bestie. She’s not the mothering type, which is actually helping Izzie become more confident.
Great post! My personal experience was rehoming a foster dog with my son (whom she saw and greeted happily at least once a week). She had been with me as a foster for a few months through knee surgery and rehab, and was comfortabe bossing around my two male dogs. When my son took her home it was obvious she was very unhappy. No housebreaking problems, but she was nervous and kept waiting by the door as if waiting anxiously for him to take her back ‘home’. We realized it was not going to work. He brought her back to me and I adopted her. Another example is a sweet Boston girl I walk every day. She was a breeder surrender rescue who bonded quickly with her new people but was scared of everyone else. Although she walked with me willingly enough, it was clear that she was stressed by sounds, strange people, and dogs we passed. Her people recently adopted another Boston, a young male from the same breeder. He is outgoing and very friendly with everyone he meets. The change in the first dog has been remarkable. She now runs, with him, to greet me – butt wiggling – when I come in, and is happy to walk as long as he is with her, All she needed was a personable canine companion to change her life.
Great topic! After fostering some 80+ dogs and seeing some of them do really well in their new homes and others have difficulties, this helps bring some context and perspective. I have two of my own dogs and the foster is the third, so when my foster dog is going to the home with no other dogs, the Martian analogy really makes sense. One of my two passed away a few years ago, and my remaining dog had my foster dog to play with. When the foster was adopted, my guy was alone while I was at work. The first day I came home to plenty of destruction. Poor guy! I crated him while I was away until I could adopt another dog as quickly as possible. Side note, newest dog was a rushed decision, and definitely not one I would have made if I had taken the time. I’m “stuck” with him now, but it’s getting better. Slowly.
Lis Bennett says
A friend commented a few days ago how Sulis (16 months) tries to watch and copy all my other dogs. Until I adopter her, she lived with her (at least) semi feral mother and , to start with her apparently 9 other littermates.
She still has difficulty entering the house when called, and having her lead clipped on. She’s recently started classes and getting her into the car on her own is a struggle. Ask her to get in with the others and she’s first in. She’s shy around the other dogs in class, but afraid of the trainer, so yes, I’m sure that if I took one of the other dogs with her, she’d cope so much better. I wonder what happened to her other littermates and if they are struggling as only dogs.
My new dog (of 3 months) has never pottied in my home, she know all her commands and was such a quick learner I was stunned. Severely starved with multiple wounds and evidence of overbreeding, this dog was not quite what I was told. She does not love all dogs, and did not like men at all, a growl was the response when she saw them. As she has lived in my home for 3 months now she no longer growls at men, but does watch “some” of them very carefully. We are in obedience classes now and she is now a big girl of 70 pounds. She does have some pulling issues so we are seeing a reputable trainer this week to learn how to counteract some of that. She cries and pulls when she sees other dogs, and being a large pitbull most owners don’t want her near them or their pets. I am not sure if she wants to play or what, she is not growling or showing her teeth, she just whines. But I must say, I had forgotten how much training is required for both pet and owner when adding a new dog to the household, it is a lot of work. I am enjoying it though and don’t expect the dog or me to know everything, so we have consulted the professionals. We are both learning quite a bit!
Margaer Tucker says
When I adopted my rescue, I had two other dogs, one of whom was a natural leader, able to calm any dog. Sashi was calm and comfortable with the dogs. When Mac died, Sashi decided she was the boss, and became more belligerent to toward my other “soft” labrador as well as other dogs. She bullies my present lab, but he tolerates it and looks out for her. I do worry about his reaction when she dies, as she is almost 14 and he has never been the only dog.
I’m loving the comments here, especially the ones about the effect that one dog has on another. I almost wrote in the post about how differently Maggie behaves now that she sees other dogs when out and about with Skip by her side, versus when with Willie. Maggie spent her first 14 months of life with her mother and several siblings, and coming here was a huge shock. My heart still aches remembering how stunned she was when she arrived. Willie was here, but he was initially frightened of unfamiliar dogs. After years of conditioning he was much, much better, but still, I always managed him. Skip is a much bolder dog, about everything really, and the difference in Maggie with Skip is remarkable. She used to freeze and growl when she saw unfamiliar dogs approaching, although once she was able to sniff and greet them she was completely relaxed. As soon as we got Skip, Maggie’s response changed significantly. She looks curious and relaxed when seeing other dogs now, with only a few exceptions. Of course, we’ll never know, but it feels like Maggie has a big brother now who helps her to feel safe and protected. I feel a bit the same with him–not that he needs to protect me, or that he even would, but that he seems to care deeply if I am upset or hurt. These different personalities are so interesting, aren’t they? And, thanks for the comments, I’m enjoying them immensely.
My most relevant experience is with Nina the Flat-Coat. She always had some low-level separation anxiety, but when she became an only child it turned into Purdue-vet-behaviorist and Prozac territory. It came in two stages; first, when I lost my two older dogs within four months in 2014, Lia, age 8, to osteosarcoma, and Elly, 14, to renal failure, but still had a guide dog puppy. She showed more visible stress, but was still able to cope.
When I turned my last (so far) puppy in in 2016, she just fell apart. Any absence except work and she would bark, howl, and injure her muzzle on the crate. If I left her out of the crate I’d be lucky to find the house still standing.
Then we went to Purdue and started treatment, and she began to improve. After realizing how different she was when I was dog-sitting, I decided to get Nina her own dog, and got Kate, a 3yo Keeshond, a retired show dog who was available because she had rejected her puppies.
It was night and day.
I was able to wean her off the Prozac, and Purdue discharged her–and her initial prognosis had only been “fair”.
So, with the presence/absence of other dogs as the only variable, I think we’ve proved your point.
Jean Silva says
I often use the Mars/Martian example when discussing with owners whether their rabbit would be happier with a companion rabbit. Our rescue holds regular “Hoppy Hours” during which 20 to 50 rabbits from different households share a large pen with lots of hide boxes, tunnels, grass to graze, and other fresh greens. For the most part the rabbits are relaxed with only a few, easily interrupted conflicts. During Hoppy Hour, when we introduce two rabbits in a smaller pen the are much more relaxed and less likely to fight than when we do such introductions at the shelter. I “think” two things are happening. First, as a prey species, rabbits in a group can share the work and stress of watching for predators. Second, more confident rabbits who have more experience in groups model behavior for those who have lived alone since they were 4 to 6 weeks old. In a household a pair of rabbits experience the same benefits, in addition to rabbit behavior that their human can only approximate: for example ear and eye washing.
Louise Toole says
I have thought about this. I adopted a border collie from a border collie rescue group mid dec and this is exactly what has happened. She was a forced surrender, possibly in a remote area. I know that she would jump the fence. And she got pregnant at 2. After she had the puppies, I adopted her. Then on 1/17, I spayed her.
I do wonder, was she an only dog? Or is this because her environment changed. Does she think that she went to Mars? We are working with a behaviorist vet and just hired a behaviorist trainer that is reward based.
We read your books. You are awesome.
My latest thought is that I have had other dogs needing to change behavior. Just not these issues. So I am positive that we will conquer them too! I am thankful that I realized the need for help early and managed to obtain it.
Sarah Nelson says
Thank you for this excellent post. I’m captivated by the Martian/Earthling metaphor–particularly this passage and how it can relate to a death within the same household:
“You get all the good food and attention you could ever desire. However. You’re alone. At least, in some ways it must feel like that, right? You’ve lost your friends, the ones who understand you, and who you understand without having to work at it. I’m not sure it even matters if those others were close friends; just being there must have made a big difference.”
We were a two-dog household until mid-December when we euthanized our very senior dog, Sammy. Ralphie, 11 years old, remains and is a solo pup for the first time in his life. We knew Sammy was Ralphie’s emotional support dog for out-of-house settings like the groomer and the vet. What I didn’t expect was the novel ways in which Ralphie’s home behavior would change without Sammy. They hadn’t played together in years, perhaps due to Sammy’s advanced age, so we didn’t think Ralphie was losing a playmate. Ralphie spent his previous evenings lounging, chewing a stuffed toy, and generally being chill. Now, as a solo dog, Ralphie nightly turns into a banshee. No toys, snuffle mats, LickiMats, or puzzles can satisfy his intense and anxious energy. Ralphie is getting “all the good food and attention”–we’re taking him on longer walks than ever before and caving (too often) into his demands for more food.
I’ve always wanted to maintain a two-dog household because I love dogs. Having read this blog post, THE STRESS FACTOR IN DOGS, and ANIMALS MAKE US HUMAN, and after observing Ralphie’s behavior as a solo dog, I know that getting a second dog isn’t merely for my human needs. Ralphie needs a dog companion to understand him. While we work through the adoption process, I’ll be giving Ralphie more grace.
Ive enjoyed reading everyone’s posts. Perhaps our now 2 yr old herding type dog (we purchased from breeder at 8 wks during pandemic) would do better with a house mate dog. That dog would have to be more mature and laid back because our dog doesn’t seem to like other dogs
and he’s also a fearful dog. We’ve been with a behaviorist for two years now. We are home hostages because he cannot be boarded successfully for these reasons.
If anyone has experienced such a dog I would appreciate any feedback posts Thank you
P. J. Grath says
It occurs to me that every puppy, leaving its littermates, is coming from a multi-dog household, often to be an “only” dog. My little girl cried so much the first night I hardly slept at all until I hit on the idea of playing lullabies for her. (Music did soothe that little beast.) As for mistakes in the house, I think there was only one, because I was able to make her my full-time ob for the first three months we were together. All that aside, she is nothing at all like two previous dogs with similar breed backgrounds! She is her own person!
Dawn King says
We are possibly getting a puppy soon, who will be leaving her 4 sisters to come live with us, no other dog. So I need to recognize this will be hard for her.
rita penner says
Not sure how you feel about Caesar that dog guy, but he used his pack to ‘reset’ dogs that had gotten off track. That certainly speaks to the changes of environment being transformative. More personally, my dog came with a history. He’s a very active guy who came from an apartment during the day with one other dog situation. No idea how much running time he had when he was taken out. My daughter and her husband took him next. I think it might have been a “he needs more room” decision by the apartment person. He got lots of room but no company and he chewed/ate anything he could find, including a child swing once they had a child. It became obvious to them that it was now really not working out with this dog. They had him for 2-3 years. When we visited, I could see the loneliness and yearning to be included in his eyes. So, he came to live with us and although he’s still an only dog (bc the cats don’t count for him) he’s almost never alone. He’s happy outside alone only for minutes but he’s really a lot happier being with us. He’s always been super social with both people and other dogs, no house-training problems or anything, but the chewing is completely gone. Occasionally we have to board him at a place that lets all the boarders out into a single yard for playtime, and they have remarked that our dog is absolutely perfect with any other dogs, from dominant to super shy, young to old, the best they’ve ever seen.
M. McDonald says
Conversely in the delightful surprise difference category, I’ll never forget the foster saying “oh no, he NEVER gets on the furniture.” Within 10 minutes of arriving at my house, he was sprawled out on the sofa. My favorite moment of the integration into the family process. 💙 Course I continue to sit on the floor ever since. LOL
Maureen Finn says
I’ve used the landed on Mars analogy for our rescues (Rottweiler rescue) for years – it’s so apt! I also use the “kidnap” analogy when people aren’t getting why the dog is doing X. Imagine if you were kidnapped – would you be happy with your captors? While a little more fraught with negative connotation, it is especially accurate for some dogs. And it’s sometimes easier for adopters to understand.
We almost always try to place dogs in a home where there are other dogs (unless the dog has dog aggression – sometimes we get them into rescue because they’re NOT good with other dogs – these are actually much harder to place), for just the reason you mention. They settle faster and have a model to follow – so often the dog who had reactive behaviors in the failed adoption does GREAT with the foster who has a solid dog of similar age/size. I know I like having multiple dogs too – the dogs, even if they aren’t best friends, seem to do better having one another. My current rescue boy really depends on my little Setter boy (little old Setter boy is not so keen on this big Moose of a Rottweiler so interested in him) – he’s a sweet boy with a soft heart and having another dog in the home (and on walks) seems to keep him feeling more confident and grounded.
It was only after my old dog died, and my younger one suddenly became unable to function outside the backyard gate, that I realized how much he relied on her. I would never have guessed he needed her so much to tell him the world was safe. She was the more high-strung, nervous dog, he was a seemingly outgoing goofball. Except… We did get another dog a year and a half later, but the two never had much to do with each other although they lived together amicably enough. They rarely chose to interact with each other unless it was both interacting with me. When the older dog died, it was clearly a relief to the younger one and he has thrived being an only dog (with dog friends he sees regularly). Like so many things- “Yes, but!”
Pamela Kramer says
I can say, pretty much with certainty, that this is the case. 8 years ago I fostered a dog who lived with us for several months. He was friendly with everyone, kids, other dogs, cats. Gentle but pit-bull active. I had 4 dogs of my own then. My daughter’s best friend and her husband adopted him. They lived in a condo with no other pets. Soon he began displaying inappropriate behaviors and was overly protective of them. I realized that he was not sure of how to behave because he didn’t have my (other) dogs to look to for reassurance. They couldn’t signal that everything was ok, so he didn’t know if it was. I suggested they get a second dog, but they weren’t in a position to do that. Luckily, he’s never bitten anyone but he snaps and acts aggressively toward almost everyone except the two of them, and now their baby. But her mother is coming from out of the country to help and they are worried.
I’ve fostered for over 30 years, and know that most dogs prefer to not be “only” dogs. There are, of course, exceptions. But my last foster is still puzzling. He was a pit bull left at a local animal control as an adolescent (7-8 months, maybe?) and stayed there for over 4 months. They are a good AC as it goes, but he was still in a kennel surrounded by other barking dogs. They did say he was dog and cat friendly, and he is, but only if introduced. He lived with me for 3 months with my two girls, met my daughter’s two dogs, a male and female, and was fine. Lived with his adopter and their 2 female dogs for 3 months. But he also bit 3 other dogs during that time. One was a 6-month old golden puppy who rushed the porch at him. Another time he ran out of the car by accident and saw a dog on the sidewalk in front of their house and ran and bit him. Before he was adopted, a neighbor’s dog was in the yard and rushed the sliding glass door to meet him and he bit her on the nose. He doesn’t bite and then shake; he just holds on. He does release. I feel like it’s fear, but I can’t figure it out because he’s great with our dogs and dogs he meets the right way. He also is aggressive to dogs through a fence. We are working on it and my gut tells me that over time it will get better. He’s still got anxiety in new situations. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Then there was the foster who kept having accidents in my house, got adopted, and never had an accident!
Dieta Decker says
I use ‘house trained’ (will not have accidents indoors) and ‘home trained’ (won’t have accidents in their own home, but everywhere else is fair game).
Wonderful info, thank you. I have 2 greyhounds and foster greys. As they live there race lives in kennels with many other hounds they are used to being with other hounds. Generally my fosters do well here after a day or two of anxiety and stress. I was often surprised at the problems the adopters have when they went home. Many became only dogs. Always use the rule of 3 and stay calm.
I adopted a heeler who had been fostered with one other dog (also a heeler, and not a playmate) but was billed as preferring to be an only dog. In my very quiet single-dog home with two cats she was an increasingly anxious mess, reactive to everything, especially other dogs. I ended up rehoming her to a couple with two other dogs and a cat, based more on gut feelings (and reference checks!) than the logic that suggested she couldn’t handle other animals. She seemed to do much better in a home where other dogs could reassure her that she didn’t need to try to be in charge.
Now I have a foster fail who came from a series of homes with other dogs where she variously did fabulously or resource-guarded and picked fights. I often wonder if she would prefer to have a playmate since she seems to love other dogs, but I don’t feel equipped to get another dog or handle a multi-dog household, especially given Maya’s history of resource guarding. And she seems to be doing fine as the only Earthling on Mars, though she dearly wants the kitten to play more.
One other story of a personality change: For nearly my entire life mother has had two dogs who seem (to varying degrees by dog) like they would prefer to be an only dog. After her beloved rescue BC died she swore she would spare the other dog, a lifelong diva, the experience of a new addition. Though they had not been great friends, the survivor appeared to sink into apathy if not depression, uninterested even in her favorite activities (e.g., fence fighting and shouting invective at the neighbor dog). Only the arrival of a new ~4yo canine brother, whom she for weeks appeared to despise, restored her to her former self.
I very much appreciate your post and the comments from the front lines of adopting a rescue as I am about to select a dog to adopt after a lifetime of raising wonderful German Shepherds from puppies, although there were a few dogs “from the dog pound” who are now part of family lore—“Remember when Scoppy swallowed the golf ball?” Yikes, I knew nothing. The dog I need at this point of my life will be smaller and an adult. Thank you all for your stories and your knowledge but most of all for making me aware of what this new guy may be feeling as he lands on my personal Mars. I may be back to tell my own rescue story.
I have one dog that I really did NOT want. But she chose to stay here because she craved dog companionship. I have my heart dog as well, who wishes she was the only dog.
and Ironbark, the Hunk who loves everybody and anything and has a bark big enough to scare off unwanted visitors (aka his Welcome Song! 🙂
Jann Becker says
Our youngest was rescued from a hoarder (lots of dogs) and brought to a shelter, where he was pretty much isolated for medical reasons. Then we brought him home at 10 months to 2 other dogs and “Yay! Dog friends!” You could see so much of his anxiety drain away as the whirling tails and butt-sniffing began.
One of those other dogs left the planet shortly thereafter, but not before she showed him the ropes of how the household works: who feeds you breakfast, who feeds you supper, who gets up early, who stays up late. That the TV and recorder practice are harmless (he still barks if there’s a dog on TV.) He was still quite cautious with us humans, but he immediately bonded with his canine buddies.
I’d been needlessly worried how the introductions would go, but watching them together I thought “Aha! Of course, he was used to lots of dogs before without many people!”
You gave me a new perspective on our situation. We adopted a 1-1/2 year old dog 4 years ago who’d been living in a foster home with 2 other dogs. Reportedly one of the foster people took him on runs. After we got him, our experience was he’d go ballistic when he got within 200 yards of another dog. After much training and years on meds, we can now get within 100 yards of another dog without crazy barking & pulling. Needless to say, it’s good we have a big yard because we just can’t take him out in public. At the vet’s office, I call from the parking lot to make sure the lobby is free of dogs before we go in. I assumed the rescue lied to us about his personality (he was returned once before we adopted him) but maybe living with other dogs had a calming affect on him. The only time he has gotten close to another dog was when it jumped our fence and they got into a fight. We had a trainer who “tested” him by exposing him to stuffed dogs. He sniffed the little one, ignored another, and muzzle punched the third.
Thank you so much for the article!! I foster and have four of my own. The last one I adopted us a “foster failure”, she came with separation anxiety, leashing out to strangers, not being able to relax etc etc. I had to put so much training and work, that I thought “if she turns out well, I will be sorry to let her go. If she does not no one will take her”. So I adopted her. She was and is splendid with other dogs, beautiful respectful play – right now with a Chihuahua, she weighs 18 kg, and if the Chi wrestles her to the ground or chases her, it’s just comical. Luckily I was able to help her to return to her normal sweet self. I can now leave and she doesn’t bat an eye. But she will stay with me. She needs the other dogs probably more than myself.
Another dog I had was fine in the group, but she really blossomed as “only dog” in her new home.
And I remember a foster pup (youngster, 1 year of age), a lovely hairy mix, who was wonderful with my group, on walkies etc but in his new home attacked repeatedly the first dog, a calm and peaceful English Bulldog (I name the breed because I think maybe they didn’t understand each other?). He was returned and taken into another foster home, living with 3 more dogs and integrated perfectly.
Adopting my new rescue pup from a multi-dog foster into my single-dog home has worked out surprisingly well for me. I could not be more thrilled.
I was told my pup Snoopy scent marked in the house but that he would also use a pee pad. I got ready. I got a baby gate that stretched over my kitchen opening (one of the few places with a hard surface in my apartment). And I stocked up on pee pads–just in case.
Amazingly, Snoopy has been perfectly house trained from the very first day. Even when it was bitterly cold and I offered him a pee pad option, he preferred to go outside.
I expected going from a busy household to my quiet one would be a big adjustment. So I also keep constant noise–Star Trek playing in the other room and constant sound from my speakers. I run the dishwasher and air conditioner and sing to make my home more lively than it was before Snoopy came to live with me.
But I kinda wonder if my pup is relieved to be away from those other dogs. And as I work on his reactivity toward people I’m VERY grateful that I’m also not having to do house training.
It’s not just dogs. Tilly-cat came to me with a warning that she tended to be nervous and had been returned by her first adopters as being “too feral” – “not your usual kitten” was her fosterer’s comment. Pippin-cat was 7 months old and desperately missing his brother, who had vanished off the face of the earth a month or two before. We did everything wrong when it came to introductions by the book – Tilly’s fosterer brought her to my mother’s house where we let the kitten wander round the kitchen while we drank coffee; once she had relaxed I brought Pippin in. He sniffed, she arched and spat, he walked off, she followed him. Five minutes later they were playing, fifteen minutes later they were curled up together as he washed her ears. He had the playmate he craved, she had the placid big brother she needed to give her confidence in the world, and I don’t recall ever seeing a startle response from her again inside the house. She grew up into a thoroughly happy, well-adjusted cat and is still actively enjoying life as she heads for her 20th birthday.
Raising a puppy with the help of a confident adult dog has been a whole new experience for me – there is so much Sophy has taught and modelled for Freddy that I as a human would have struggled with or found impossible, even after carefully observing dogs for over a decade. Some things I wish she had refrained from teaching (the use of the bath mat as an “emergency” toilet spot and how to eat the chicken and spit out the tablet, thus getting a second helping of chicken…) but the ease with which he adapted to household rules and routines was largely down to Sophy. She steered him through encounters with people and dogs, warned him of possible danger, and has generally shown him how to thrive as a dog in a world run by humans. Thank you, Sophy.
john chapman says
the way i see it is simple a dog takes after its owner quite simple change the owner change the dog same with behavior one strict one thats soft and shouldn’t have a dog
Except for lone strays and solo litters, aren’t most dogs going from being with their own species (littermates, kennels, shelters, etc) to an interspecies setting often being the sole canine?
And if there are resident dogs, it’s still a shock, I would think. It’s like going to bed in your bedroom and waking up a world away in a strange kitchen. I’m amazed so many dogs adapt so well.
This post got me to think of our dog Grace. She was a malnourished, under-socialized pup that apparently had bounced around by too-young-to-have-anything-you-are-responsible-for kids, and she spent her first few months living in a room by herself (at least as far as we were told by the humane society where we found her). She would not look at us, and we had to avert our eyes and speak in whispers for the first few weeks. However, she glommed onto our Golden, Ester. Ester was a solid, kind, fun dog who eventually got Grace to open up and realize we were a family who could be trusted. Grace was wary of the world at large but eventually had a small circle of beings she loved. Grace would never take a biscuit or food from someone she didn’t know, and even if she knew you, she had to trust you (drove bank tellers and my dad crazy).
Those two dogs were inseparable, they played hard and rested hard and went on hundreds of adventures with us. In every picture we have of them (and that’s a lot), they are leaning into each other–shoulder to shoulder. When Ester died, Grace mourned for her until the day Grace died at the age of 15.
I guess this is the opposite of your query–Grace came from a lone existence into a multi-species house and eventually thrived. Amazing the resilience and grace dogs have.
Wendi Hammer says
Very timely. I’m currently fostering for a rescue, and just took in a 7 month old, who I was told was housebroken, but the first day with me (I have 4 other dogs, all neutered males), she proceeds to pee in my house 4 times! While I was not very pleased, I realized she was very stressed, and cleaned up the pee and took her out about 10 times that day praising her everytime she peed outside. Fast forward a week, and she isn’t peeing in the house anymore, and settled in nicely with our routine. But, I do think it would be vastly different if she were an only dog. I will make sure I cover that with whoever adopts her. Thank you. 🙂
We lived with six, large adult dogs (think GSD, GSD mixes) and fostered puppies. Terrier mixes Major and his two sisters were three of those puppies. From the beginning it was obvious that Major had anxiety issues. Initially if separated from his sisters he would bark constantly. Even in the puppy expen with his sisters he would carry on a bit when everyone else went to bed. His sisters were readily adopted. Major was friendly and loving but too anxious to garner attention. One day I caught him do an alarm bark, run toward the fence and look over his shoulder to make sure one of the big ones was coming with him reinforcing my fear that he was a setup for separation anxiety. He became a “failed foster” . Thirteen years later, he has never had to spend a day alone. Afraid of thunder, fire crackers and gun shots – you bet, but no separation anxiety. He is my shadow and bed cuddler.
Aleda Johnson says
Such a great article! 3 yr ago I adopted a 6 yr old brood bitch from a high volume breeder who lived in an isolated setting. I was told this bitch needed to go to an ‘only 1 dog home’ as she was picked on a lot in the kennel pack setting. That suited me perfectly, I just wanted 1 dog.
She had never been to the vet, never been on leash, never been in a car, never been off the property (out in the bush), & had seldom met other people.
Well, it took her about 3 weeks to decompress, a year to relax…. I started thinking she maybe needed a companion. It took me 18 months to find a suitable affordable dog (& I still wound up with a dog who was far larger than her but he desperately needed a home).
She & Carlos do not play, neither has any interest in toys, but they coexist happily. Others have commented on the increased confidence she shows, she definitely has less anxiety. Carlos too is benefitting from being in a 2 dog household, for 2 yr he was an only dog after coming as a rescue from Mexico. He watches Luna for cues about household routine, his adjustment here has been quite easy.
My husband and I adopted our pitbull from a friend who had gotten him from the humane society, where he was placed after being rescued from life as a “lawn ornament” dog. He did great with the friend’s dog of equal energy level but was pretty reactive towards people. I had an older black lab (9 yrs) who did some running in the yard with him but not a whole lot of playing. We always thought the pit would be better as an only dog where he could have all the things (treats, attention etc.) But since my lab has been gone a little over a year, I’m starting to doubt that judgement. Our Pitty has made some new doggo friends in that period of time since but I still wonder if he would prefer a live-in buddy. He is still slightly reactive to people (much less so than the beginning but still). He is also very much a “bully” and would need another dog that can deal with his level of bossy-ness. I don’t know, I’ve never gotten to pick a dog – they just always fell into my lap so do I go looking for a friend for him? Or wait for the one that needs us, to come along?
Elizabeth P says
So interesting to read all these stories! I realize now what a difference having another dog has meant to my past dogs. Martha had no issues until older Sally, who’d always been there, died when Martha was about 10, then Martha developed separation anxiety. Daisy was always a fearful and anxious dog, but after Rosa came along when Daisy was five, Daisy improved greatly, clearly following Rosa’s lead when meeting strangers. Our current dog Pippin is an only dog, but Daisy was here for her first week with us (we obviously did not plan on losing Daisy so soon) and helped ease her into the Martian family.
Giang Rudderham says
Thank you so much for your blog post! It gave me a lot to think about. I love the Martians/Earthlings analogy and it definitely fits my experience with my first adoptive dog.
I got Bonnie when she was an adult (maybe 2 years old?) from a shelter. They said she was picked up as a stray so we don’t know her history, but as far as I can tell she was most likely owned at some point in her life and probably lived outside in a barn, perhaps with several other dogs and cats. When we walked her, she always pulled on the leash to approach new cats, dogs and people. After 6 weeks with us, it was clear that she had a lot of energy that we couldn’t satisfy by walking, playing fetch, or playing tug. After some considerations, we took her to a local dog park on Christmas Day, hoping that it would be emptier than usual. It worked wonderfully. She greeted every single dog enthusiastically and played really well. As time went on and we learned more about her personality, it became clear that she loved playing with other dogs. What’s more, she’s so socially adept. I’ve observed her interact with so many dogs, and she always handled the interactions well whether it was with older or younger dogs, smaller or bigger dogs. She’s just one of those special happy, level-headed, calm and confident dogs. I’m jealous; I wish I could be as unfazed as her when life throws lemons at me!
A year after adopting Bonnie, we brought home a 3 month-old pup and they are still playing with each other all the time now. It makes my heart happy watching them wrestling or chasing each other.
I’ve read all your books and love The Education of Will. I’ll show this blog post to my husband. Not to pressure him or anything, but I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that in some cases it’s a good idea to have more than 1 dog 🙂
Responding to Giang Rudderham: I have found that dogs who existed as strays or in loose dog areas (like reservations with no leash laws) have had to develop social skills in order to survive. They had to depend on the cooperation of other animals, mostly canine, in order to survive. I have fostered several dogs rescued from reservations and each one of them had incredible social skills with regard to other dogs. And they taught my dogs and other dogs we encountered the same social skills. And that’s why I also have multiple dogs of my own, in addition to fostering for a rescue.
I believe it largely depends on the dog and it’s past as to weather or not she/he wants canine companions or will prefer to be an only dog. Years ago I adopted a senior from a kill shelter who had been taken in, as a senior after supposedly living her life on the streets. Her health and survival instincts (for lack of a better phrase) made me believe this could be plausible.
I was told that “she gets along well with other dogs”. Perhaps so in the kennel, but in my home she attacked my other dogs relentlessly for the first two weeks. She was a loner and only wanted to be close to myself and my…dogs dad.
My speculation is that she had to fend off other dogs during her life to protect her food and her many litters of pups that her poor ol body told me she had. She didn’t trust dogs, they were competition or a danger. She viewed humans a resource for food and maybe a porch to sleep under. She would have lived her last years happily as a single dog. Instead she spent them as part of a pack, and learned she didn’t have.to fight for food or shelter and she even got a lot of love.
I have a rescue poodle who spent his first 18 months living in a crate with no human hands on him. He was untouchable when I first met him at the poodle rescue. Without the companionship of my other 3 rescue dogs(well established and confident), this little guy would have never trusted me… in this case, he had a fear of humans and trusted only his species.
Long story short, I believe our dog’s behaviors are much like out own, shaped by a mix of nature and nurture, but I believe that the immediate surface “personality” we see is largely nurture.
This is my layman’s observation for what it’s worth.
Right on Eurh, couldn’t agree more!
Drew W. says
This is great, I’ve been seeing a lot of clients who are buying in on these “pre-trained” puppies, they stay with the breeder who promises house-training, basic foundation training skills and socializing. Then my clients receive a 6-month-old puppy who is shy and having accidents in the house and are wondering why, the breeder who had their setup in a multiple dog home simply tells them they must be doing something wrong.
Also, I want that donut!
I’ve had Nanuk for about two years now. Almost nothing his old people said match up with what I see. One trainer even joked that they accidentally gave us the wrong dog. He did come from a multidog household and became a single dog. About a month ago, I got another dog. Ria and Nanuk play and cuddle a lot; they obviously enjoy each other’s company. However, Nanuk has only gotten more reactive. I’m hoping that’s due to adjustment stress and a temporary lack of sleep, and that it will thus get better again with time.
Ria feels safer when Nanuk is near her and has learned a lot from him. Unfortunately, it’s hard to keep her from learning his reactivity as well.
I have a hard time imagining living with Martians, so I use the following three scenarios instead:
I’m German by birth, but lived in the US from when I was almost 3 until I was 24. By the end of elementary school, English was my primary language, though we still spoke German at home. When I moved away to college, I was glad to have space from my family. However, not being able to speak German with anyone was a lonely experience. Even though I could communicate far, far better in English, there were certain things I suddenly couldn’t share with anyone. If a German song popped in my head, no one would understand the reference – even if I played it for them. The same went for poems, books, movies, etc. The differences in cuisine and holidays became much more obvious. These weren’t Martians, but fellow humans very like the ones I grew up with. And yet I felt lonely, just because I couldn’t share this one aspect of myself. There’s far more things my dogs can’t share with me – I don’t even have the same sensory abilities, cannot appreciate a simple lamppost!
Taking the language thing a step further: Sometimes I image what it would be like to suddenly be in a country where I didn’t speak the language at all. (I was too young when this actually happened for me to remember.) How could I find out where the bathroom is? Would I panic when I got hungry, unsure of how to get food? I think I would feel much, much safer if I had a translator there – or even someone who only shared a language with me, so we could figure it out together. Again, these are fellow humans – yet the culture shock would still be difficult.
Finally, I think of what it would be like if I were to be stranded in a place without humans and was adopted by a pack/group of feral dogs. Let’s ignore the food and medication question for now and pretend these animals take no issue with me being a human. Here I would be with a bunch of friendly creatures that I more-or-less understand the body language of. They would be willing to cuddle – but not to give me a hug. They would be willing to express their emotions and take mine seriously – but not to have philosophical conversation. They would choose paths that are comfortable with them, not even realizing when they are too steep or too overgrown for me, until I’m quite clearly struggling. They would go at a pace that’s too fast for me, until they made a consorted effort to include me. Almost none of my hobbies would be shared, some not even appreciated. Even though I often prefer the company of dogs over humans, I would get very lonely, very quickly, if I was the only human in a society of dogs.
Diana Steketee says
Thank you, Patricia, for sharing your wisdom and wit with us! I’m “just” a dog owner but I have learned a lot from you. Our dogs have benefited greatly.
Mary Joy says
This is certainly an interesting topic and one that many dog owners can relate to, like me. We often hear stories of dogs who, once adopted, show completely different behavior than what was seen at the shelter or foster home. Like you said, house training is a common example of this, as puppies adopt new habits when living in a new environment. This is why it’s so important for owners to have patience and understanding during the transition period.
Toimistot Espoossa says
Thank you for sharing your insights on the importance of understanding the true nature of dogs and the potential surprises that come with bringing a new furry friend into our lives. Your efforts in shedding light on the fact that we often have preconceived notions about what kind of dog we want, but end up with a dog that has its own unique personality and traits, are greatly appreciated. Thanks again for your valuable contribution to the pet community and for reminding us to embrace the uniqueness of each dog and to appreciate them for who they are!
I adopted a cocker spaniel who is 8.5 years old and, I suspect, was in a puppy mill. I am having some house training problems with him. About every 3 weeks he urinates inside the house. I adopted him 2 months ago. I take him outside often (every 1-3 hours) and reward him on our walks with a treat when he urinates. He has continued to urinate inside the house about every 3 weeks.