It often seems that when it comes to dogs in your home, 1+1 isn't 2, it's more like 3 or 4! Don't get me wrong, I love having more than one dog at a time, other than about a year after Reese passed before Tristan came when Tilly was an only dog, I've had 2 or more dogs since 2003. However, it does involve some extra challenges. So lets look at some ways to set your multi-dog home up for success!
This is important for several reasons. If you want to teach your dogs something, it is best to teach them individually, then to practice with both of them together. If you've had multiple dogs before, you know how much they can feed off each other's excitement! Also, especially if your dogs are close in age, or littermates, individual time allows them to practice coping with things on their own, and builds their confidence. If you dogs are always together, and a time comes when they need to be separated (i.e. injury, illness) it can be very distressing for the dogs if they are not used to it.
My preference if I have two dogs and I'm taking one dog out for an activity/training is to leave the other dog with a special treat/toy/stuffed Kong to enjoy. If it is a training session, I'll then switch dogs and leave the other dog in with a special treat while we're out working. It makes me feel better, and I feel it helps the dog who isn't currently the focus of the training/outing.
I am a huge fan of teaching dogs to go to a place (usually a dog bed or mat) on cue and to remain there. I find that this helps in a variety of situations - when I'm working in the kitchen, when someone comes to the door, when we visit someone else's home, etc. I find it extra helpful in managing multiple dogs. Depending on the dogs, they may share a station, or you may find it helpful in some settings to use separate stations so that the dogs can have their own space to settle down and relax.
Positive Interrupter Cue or Strong Response to Come
With multiple dogs, especially if one is a puppy or young dog, it is very helpful to have a way to interrupt them if you see them practicing unwanted behaviour. This can be taught as a specific interrupter cue, or you can call them to you if that works. You will need to teach this and practice it initially when your dogs aren't excited, and then start introducing distractions/excitement to the point where you can give your cue when the dogs are playing or excited and get a response.
Taking Turns, Treat Delivery
I like my dogs to know what to expect when I'm handing out treats. There are two concepts that really help with this - taking turns & where the dogs are when you deliver the treat.
Taking Turns - this is a game where you handout treats one at a time, so that your dogs can see that another dog getting a treat predicts a treat for them, and isn't a reason to worry or get upset. You can say the name of the dog you are handing a treat to if you wish. Deliver the treats one at a time, and do not allow a dog to snatch a treat from your hand that wasn't intended for them. Note: if your dog is currently experiencing challenges with this, please contact a professional for guidance personalized to your specific situation. The described activity is preventative in nature, and assumes there are currently no big feelings around treats.
Degrees of Separation - if you are about to deliver treats and have two dogs, it is ideal if they learn to be slightly off to the side to receive their treat to avoid any pushing/shoving/altercations. If you imagine that you are standing in the center of a clock, having one dog at the 10 and the other at the 2 position provides some separation between them and makes it easier for them to know if the treat being delivered is intended for them or not. If you have 3 dogs, then I would try 9, 12 and 3. Four dogs, they will probably be closer together, so you will want to make sure they can calmly wait their turn without pushing before doing this with them all close together.
Have Your Dog's Back
Dogs have a right to feel safe in their own home. They also have the right not to be pestered or constantly pushed around. This usually requires oversight on our part, as well as the ability to accurately read the situation and intervene appropriately. Here are some examples of common scenarios.
Situation A: Puppy wants to play with Adult dog, who is lying down resting. Puppy starts with offered play bows, some advance and retreat, then moves on to barking and grabbing at Adult's paws. Adult is currently ignoring Puppy and not responding. Left alone, Adult may 1) Tell puppy off 2) Give in and Play 3) Continue to Ignore, which will likely cause Puppy to continue to escalate. I would recommend stepping in and redirecting Puppy. By not engaging after the first play invitations, Adult has made it clear they are not interested. Puppy is starting to become a pest, and if Adult gets up and plays, Puppy will repeat those behaviours in the future. It isn't a good idea for Puppy to practice inviting play in this way, instead, we should be helping Puppy to learn to pay attention and respect other dog's "no thank you" communications. Therefore, not intervening is also not a good idea. While there may be an appeal to hoping Adult will tell Puppy off, this isn't a great solution either. The one in the house who should be in charge of setting rules for appropriate behaviour is you. So go ahead and redirect Puppy to another activity. If Puppy insists on repeatedly going back to pester Adult, go ahead and put Puppy on leash with you instead.
Situation B: Dog X has a toy, and is lying on the floor playing with it. Dog Y walks over, stands in front of Dog X and stares at the toy. I would recommend redirecting Dog Y to another toy option, or another activity. That freeze and stare is intimidation directed at Dog X. If they were going to share play, there would be no need to freeze and stare. If Dog X was happy to give up the toy, they would have moved away.
Situation C: The dogs are playing, running around and wrestling. Things seem to be going well, but there have been no breaks in play yet. Here, I would say it depends. If the dogs know each other well, and both seem into the game, I would probably let it go. If the dogs are new to each other, I would probably interrupt for a break (call them over and reward) so that excitement doesn't continue to build, increasing the risk of happy play spilling over into someone getting upset. I frequently interrupted play when I first brought an adult female home to another slightly older adult female, as I really didn't want any bad feelings developing before they got to know one another. I stopped interrupting once they had lived together peacefully for a while and exhibited the ability to take their own breaks as needed.
Is It Good Play or A Problem?
Speaking of play - this is a question I get frequently. Are the dogs playing? People often ask this due to vocalizations or movements during play.
Signs of "good" play include:
What's a consent test?
If we're unsure if both dogs are enjoying the play, you can temporarily stop the dog doing the chasing, or the one on top of the wrestle pile, and see what the other dog does. If the other dog immediately turns back like "why did you stop?!" and tries to continue to engage, they were likely fine. Allow play to resume. However, if the other dog does a shake off and heads away to something else, they are likely happy you intervened, go ahead and redirect the dog you have to a different activity for a bit and give the other dog a break.
Be Alert for Potential Hot Buttons
Since relationships are always evolving, it is a good idea to keep in mind potential hot buttons for multidog homes so that you can address anything concerning before it becomes a problem. Common Hot Buttons include: