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As i write this, i go back in time when i ran a home-stay service for dogs in the heart of Mumbai a couple of years ago in Bandra. As a pet parent the one worry that plagued me was whom do i trust with the care of my Prince, i had options fortunately family that i could trust when i had to go out of town. So i started my very own home-stay service where dogs would live with me just as they would live in their own homes – pampered & free. As a Canine Behaviorist it was real easy for me to manage 8 dogs at a holiday season time without any squabbles between them.
Multiple dogs in a household do have squabbles from time to time – usually a result of ownership disputes over some mutually coveted possession, or claim-staking for the highly prized location at our feet in front of the sofa. Dogs will engage in rowdy bouts of Snarls, Chew- Face and Chase and Maul, Fear inducing Glares maybe even backed up by painful and effective nips to the offenders hocks.
Because dogs are pack animals, we have high expectations about their abilities to live peacefully in groups. If you are a human member of a multiple dog household, it is important to be realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish with your canine family members. Your own personality, behavior, commitment to managing and training your pack, as well as your choice of pack mates, will all play important roles in your ability to create your own peaceable kingdom.
It’s in the genes
Once upon a time, our dogs’ ancestors were all wild and lived in packs. It was critically important to pack survival that they get along well with each other. Even a minor injury from an aggressive pack mate’s tooth could become infected and cause the disability and death of a pack member. Wild dogs depended on the abilities of the whole canine family to help with hunting and pack defense – a disabled member was a liability to all. For these survival reasons, dogs developed a highly ritualized language that enabled them to maintain pack order without bloodshed. Meaningful eye and facial expression, body posture, snapping, snarling, and even tooth contact without enough pressure to break skin all contributed to harmonious pack life.
If you are just starting out on your path to pack life, your shortest route to a peaceful pack is to select canine family members from the harmonious end of the scale, and avoid the pugnacious fighting breeds, feisty terriers, and obsessive herding dog types.
Order in the pack
Pack management is as much an art as a skill. If you have always had a multi-dog household, never had problems, and never thought twice about it, congratulations! You are one of the lucky ones – a natural. You probably instinctively have done all the right things to help your pack be well-adjusted. Many dog owners aren’t so fortunate.
While many dog owners tolerate the former, group bad manners is often the precursor to aggression, and is far more easily addressed before canine emotions escalate to the blood-letting level.
The basic belief for a successful multi-dog household is simple: The more dogs in the home, the more “in charge” the human pack member must be. The “in charge” belief for pack management is closely followed by this ideology: The more dogs in the household, the more well-trained and well-behaved the canine members of the pack must be. So how does a clumsy human leader restore order to the pack?
The first step is management. If you are facing pack behavior challenges, start by identifying the key areas of conflict, so you can figure out how to put a management plan in place while you work on long-term training solutions.
• Feeding time: Angel devours her food and then runs over to eat Sweetie’s, which sometimes starts a fight. Meanwhile, Twinkle tries to pick up her bowl and carries it to her safe place, often spilling it in the process.Ginger wolfs down her food, growling and making evil faces all the while.
• Going outside: All four dogs jostle for position at the door, accompanied by snapping and growling, and an occasional full-on battle. Pet Parent has been bitten trying to maintain order at the door while restraining Angel by the collar.
• Watching TV: Pet parents house routine is to eat dinner on the coffee table while watching TV. Dogs all vie for the closest spot to catch dropped crumbs and hand-fed tidbits. Fights most often occur between Angel and Ginger.
• Playing: Twinkle and Sweetie love to roughhouse together, biting and chewing on each other. All goes well for some time, but pet parent can see their energy level rise as they play; three out of five times it ends in a fight.
• Getting home from work: All the dogs are very excited when Jane walks in the door after a long day at work. She is happy to see them too, so she greets them effusively, in a high-pitched voice, with lots of hugs and kisses. Occasionally in the excitement Honey turns on Angel and pins her to the ground.
• Bedtime: Twinkle has claimed the human bed as her own, and that’s okay with pet parent, she’s willing to share. The others usually work out who gets which dog bed on the floor with only minor grumbling, but Ginger will sometimes test Twinkle’s claim and jump up to join pet parent and Twinkle, to the tune of much snapping and snarling.
How did i do it, well here are some solutions to help you manage a multiple dog household
• Feeding time: Feed the dogs separately, either in different rooms, in opposite corners of the same room, in crates, or by letting them come in one at a time to eat. Doors and baby gates can keep dogs confined to their separate rooms, while crates or tethers can allow them to eat safely in opposite corners of the same room. Eventually, after the dogs are trained to “Leave It,” Jane may be able to referee feeding time without having to physically restrain the dogs.
• Going out: The “Wait” exercise is exceptionally useful for maintaining peace at doorways with groups of dogs. Until she has taught her pack members to “wait,” pet parent can use baby gates or tethers to restrain two or three of the dogs while letting them out one or two at a time to reduce the excitement and arousal that leads to aggression.
Once pet parent has taught each of the dogs to “wait” at the door she can start practicing with them two at a time, then three, then all four. The pack should learn to be released from the “wait” one at a time so there’s no door jam, and pet parent should vary the order in which she releases them so they don’t learn to anticipate the release.
• Watching TV: pet parent is setting her dogs up for conflict by feeding them from her plate. She needs to stop this practice immediately. She can use tethers to keep the dogs safely separated, comfortable on their own beds, while she eats dinner at the coffee table. She can eventually teach them to go to their designated beds on cue by rewarding them generously when they are there. Chances are good that with time and practice, they will go to and stay on their beds when asked, without being tethered.
• Playing: It’s good that pet parent can see the energy level rising between Twinkle and Sweetie, because that enables her to step in calmly and break up the play session before it turns ugly. She can tether or crate the playmates for several minutes to give the arousal level time to subside, and then release them to play together again – no harm, no foul.
In time, Twinkle and Sweetie may figure out that too much excitement makes the fun stop, and learn to better control their own energy. Pet parent’s intervention needs to be calm and cool; if she yells, punishes, or moves quickly, she is likely to escalate the energy between the dogs and actually trigger a fight.
• Getting home from work: Pet parent adds fuel to the fire with her excited homecomings; after a day spent inside, and a few hours of anticipating her return, the dogs are already keyed-up. The joyous greeting is too stimulating, and the dogs’ responses boil over.
Pet parent can manage her dogs’ greeting behavior while she does long term training by crating the dogs in her absence, assuming she won’t be gone longer than the dogs can tolerate. For pups, a good rule of thumb is one hour longer than the pup’s age in months – four hours for a three-month-old pup, etc. Adult dogs shouldn’t be routinely crated for longer than about eight hours a stretch.
When pet parent comes home, she can let the dogs out one at a time and greet them calmly. If they get charged up she can just quietly turn her back and walk away from them, or even turn and walk out the door.
She can also simply start entering the house without greeting the dogs, ignoring them completely until they calm down. Once again, this teaches the dogs to control their own behavior, rather than submitting to her forcibly imposed will. Chances are good that if she does not “feed” their energy, they will settle quickly and fights won’t happen.
- Separate dogs before leaving the house:This is one of the hardest things for new multi-dog owners to accept: Dogs can be the best of friends BUT they may still find something, someday, that will cause an argument. When you’re home, a small spat can often be stopped fast with a loud shout. But if you’re not home, this same argument can escalate, drag on and cause injury. Avoid this terrible possibility by getting your dogs accustomed to being separated during ‘down time’ in a crate or on a tie-down, first while you’re home and then while you’re away. You can rotate dogs so one is out while the other is contained. Or, let one dog sleep in your closed bedroom for the day while the other gets the sofa. Dogs are creatures of habit, so once you let them get used to this routine they’ll accept it as perfectly normal. Remember to exercise the dogs before you confine them so they can rest and enjoy a chew toy while you’re away. By following this standard protocol of many dog owners you can leave the house knowing that you’ve done everything possible to ensure the well being of your pets.
• Bedtime: One word – crates! I am not opposed to dogs sleeping on the bed, unless “dogs on the bed” is causing problems, which in this pet parent’s case it clearly is. She is at risk for injury herself, lying on her bed beneath two squabbling canines.
She could start by crating all the dogs at night, then, if her ultimate goal is to have them uncrated at night, experiment with letting one out, then two, and as long as good manners hold, eventually all four. Any nighttime growling or snapping is grounds for a renewal of crating.
Of course, while pet parent effectively manages her dogs’ behavior in the home, we also expect her to enroll in a good, positive training class. She may not be “a natural,” but she can learn. A Canine Behaviorist will be a valuable resource to her in identifying and resolving her dogs’ pack behavior challenges.
It will take her some time to complete basic classes with each of the four dogs, but the improvement in her communication with and understanding of her pack members’ behaviors and thought processes will be well worth the effort. In fact, it will be the ultimate key to her long-term success in turning her home into a peaceable kingdom, and ensuring that she enjoys mutually rewarding lifelong relationships with each of the members of her pack.
Give Your Dogs ‘Special Time’ Apart from the Others
Multi-dog households benefit greatly when each dog has a strong bond with his owner. To deepen your bond with each of your dogs, take time out for individual attention away from everybody else. A ten minute tug session, a ride in the car when you go on an errand, a quick walk around the complex that’s outside of his normal routine – These things can help each of your dogs feel more connected to you and improve their listening skills when they’re with the other dog(s).
The Rewards of having multi-dogs are obvious. When you’ve chosen carefully and have committed to common sense management, the potential for conflict is minimized and you can truly enjoy your pets. The dogs enjoy the benefit of extra socialization, mental stimulation, fun play sessions, and – the ultimate drug for so many pit bulls – more shared body heat at the end of they day. Enjoy your beautiful pets!