Managing a Multi Dog Household
Updated: Mar 17, 2021
This is a topic that is much on my mind as I prepare to add Tabiri to my pack this coming weekend. My opinion on this topic is not a popular one among many breeder and trainers, but it's been awhile since I've posted an unpopular opinion, so I might as well tackle this head on.
I don't let my dogs "sort things out themselves". I don't let dogs that are in my care "sort things out themselves". Period. And you know what, out of the thousands of dogs I've worked with, I've never had a bite that broke skin. My personal dogs have never had a fight or even really a scuffle. I can throw random dogs into my pack and they adapt within a week. Scuffles are rare in my groups in daycare. You know why I intervene? Because I have much greater capability to rationalize and reason than my dogs. Because I don't need to put that pressure on my dogs. Because if I back up the one that's being bullied, it's less likely to happen in the future. And if I interrupt or redirect the bully consistently, the bully is going to start to understand what the behavior I'm correcting is and begin to catch themselves (when handled skillfully).
Most posts, I tend to link studies and literature about the topic. On this topic I can only say that this is what I have found with a substantial anecdotal sample.
I value peace in my household. I would much rather control initial reactions between dogs in my pack and be the one to establish those boundaries than to allow my dogs to push and set those boundaries by themselves. Yes, as young dogs mature, there are changes in relationships between the dogs, but ultimately, I find they rarely push the long-established relationship boundaries.
So how do I go about setting my boundaries? I have tangible rules that I follow.
All resident dogs are expected to leave the new dog alone until the new dog shows interest in interacting with the established dogs. This can be a days or weeks long process.
Any puppy being introduced to the pack will leave the adults alone until the adults initiate interaction with the puppy.
No new dog gets to displace the established dogs from their sleeping spot.
No new dog gets to take a toy a dog is playing with actively.
No dog will pester another unless the other dog shows immediate interest in interacting.
No dog will pester another while that dog is working.
All dogs will listen when another dog says no. The first time.
Dogs don't get to mount each other - I have seen too many dogs take grave offense to this and cause damage to allow this within dogs in my pack. Intact males are not admonished for this behavior (I don't want to eliminate the behavior when I need it in the future) but they are gently redirected to other past times in the moment.
If a dog has a resource, another dog does not just get to take it from them. While my dogs have low instances of resource guarding, I don't see any need to push the issue.
This probably sounds like a lot. But I very rarely need to redirect my dogs from interactions that don't follow these rules at this point. The upfront work has made my life so much easier long term and has ultimately made conflict between my dogs practically non-existent. Growling, snarling, or snapping at other dogs is something that by and large does not happen within my pack.
Are those signs of communication between dogs? Yes, absolutely. And it's important for dogs to have that communication in their vocabulary. But honestly, I don't want my dogs to feel they need to resort to that within their own home. Additionally, I don't trust most dogs to correct other dogs at an appropriate time or intensity. When Ami or Ash corrects a dog, it's loud and dramatic, and often for a minor offense. If instead, I expect the other dog to disengage and I expect them to leave the situation, conflict is avoided and they have better coping skills overall.
Why am I this militant about dog to dog interactions? Well, firstly I've seen it go south so often - I've seen some bad dog bites received because one dog over-corrected another. Second, I would rather a puppy or young dog be redirected by me consistently and start to see the pattern than pester the adult and get a harsh correction. Most adults won't correct a puppy hard, but I've seen plenty that will and that's not fair to the puppy. It's not fair to stress the other dog out either when I can just intervene calmly and prevent conflict. Additionally, with the Azawakh, I find this to be a really important step. They are going to take action if I don't. But I don't want them to take action and get themselves into trouble. I want to conscientiously decide what behaviors promote calm pack dynamics and in control interactions with strange dogs. This is so helpful with dogs that are naturally suspicious like Azawakh and livestock guardians, but it's also very useful with herding breeds who have a natural tendency to take a downward spiral if they feel like circumstances are out of control. If your dog always looks to you to settle matters, they still have control and know exactly what to do in any circumstance.
Occasionally, I break my rule, but usually in one specific circumstance. We have a pair of pushy, assertive male dogs at daycare. They like to hump other dogs and will take it entirely too far. But we've discovered that they make a game of humping each other. One will start then back off and play bow, then the other will start. And I'm that way we can allow them to get it out of their system appropriately. Another example, Anubi and Amalu are both excellent at dog to dog communication. Their timing and intensity of corrections tends to be very situationally appropriate and they are more tolerant than either of my other dogs. There are times in private lessons during a play session where I will allow them to correct a specific dog. This is so very situational though. I won't allow this if I think the dog won't respond to the correction appropriately (they'll get overly scared or confrontational). I won't allow this if I don't think the client dog will learn. And I'm only going to do this with client dogs of which I have a very good understanding. And in those cases, I can see my dogs choose to take action rather than walk away - they often look to me to make sure they did the right thing, because they understand the rules so clearly.
More often than not, I use Anu and Alu to meet insecure dogs - either those who are hiding in the corner or those who are barking uncertainly. Those aren't dogs that need corrections, those are dogs that need encouragement, that need play bows and invitations to chase, both of which Anu and Alu will give them.
And this is why I am so hesitant to let dogs correct each other. As many dogs as I've worked with, as much as I know about canine behavior, there are still situations where I read a dog wrong. What if the reactive dog I'm working with turns aggressive? What if the wrong trigger happens at the wrong time? These are calculated risks I know how to take. Most dogs aren't aggressive, a simple bad interaction isn't likely to result in tragedy between your dogs. However, I have seen client dogs where they allowed their pushy dog to routinely paw and poke and prod their more tolerant dog to the point where the tolerant dog snapped and corrected the other dog hard. And I've seen cases where that resulted in substantial damage. So I'd prefer to teach my dogs how to avoid those situations in the first place.
Update: things with Tabiri are going very well. He gets grouchy/will resource guard his space when he's over-tired though. And looking back at my general rules, I'm realizing that if I am better about reinforcing my rule about sleep space, I will have better harmony overall.