Updated: Feb 29, 2020
If you are a dog lover, you’re likely friends with other dog lovers. And if you have one dog, you may at one stage decide to bring another into your family. This means it is likely that as a dog lover, you’ll have to introduce your dog to another dog on occasion. For some well socialised dogs, this may not be an issue at all, but for many, it can be a very stressful situation.
There are many different examples of dogs with experiences that can lead to an introduction becoming an unpleasant confrontation.
· A young lab who is extremely high energy who bounds towards other dogs without a care in the world.
· An older dog which feels anxious when confronted by a younger more energetic dog.
· An unsocialised puppy mill dog who has never gained the appropriate skills to successfully interact with other dogs.
· Or a rescue dog who has been attacked by other dogs in the past creating reactivity.
So whether you are introducing a new dog into your life or have a dog coming to stay, it is in the interest of everyone involved to introduce the dogs in the best way possible.
If you were to rate dog aggression/anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most aggressive/anxious and 1 being very confident and not aggressive at all, dogs with an anxiety or aggression rating ranging between 8 and 10 will require rehabilitation prior to a controlled introduction under the supervision and control of a qualified canine behaviourist. Dogs within the range of 1 to 3, which are what we might describe as socially balanced, can meet each other on a loose leash and present dynamics of play on initial introduction. Dogs which would sit within the range of 4 to 7 can be introduced to each other using the following steps to increase the chances of a successful social meeting.
1. Ensure the people involved understand the process. Introducing dogs to each other safely takes 2 or more people. It is very important that everyone understands what each step includes and that they remain calm and confident throughout the process. The reason for most poor dog introductions can be traced to human error rather than any issues with the dogs.
2. Have complete control of the situation. Even if you have a dog which you believe behaves better off-lead than on-lead, there is no guarantee that the other dog is going to do well. Without a lead on your dog, you'll have no way to separate them safely should either one decide to attack. So, for the safety and comfort of everyone involved you must have both dogs leashed.
3. Walk the dogs separately, yet together – in single file. Your temptation will be to let the dogs meet and sniff each other first. This can be a mistake. The reason that it's often a bad idea is that as two dogs approach each other, the emotional intensity can run high. This makes it the most risky stage during a dog introduction. You and the other person should decide which direction you're going to walk in. One of you should start off in that direction, with the other person following. Start off with a good 5 meters between you and the other person.
4. Set your dog up for success and confidence. Stay positive and comfort your dog, no matter what they do. Your goal is to help your dog (and the other dog) relax in this situation. The only way you are going to do that is by being a positive, supportive and calming presence. Any barking that they are doing is just their way of letting out steam. As you move on the walk, you will be letting the steam out in a positive way - teaching your dog an alternative to barking or excitement. Think of yourself as saying "good dog, thanks for letting me know how you're feeling right now".
5. Don’t stop moving. One of the most difficult aspects of a dog-on-dog introduction is the emotional intensity between the two dogs. If they are focused exclusively on each other, there is no way for this energy to dissipate (unless you're lucky and they just start playing together, which is the way two socially calm dogs handle the intensity). As long as you keep walking, the energy of the situation is moving. This will make it a lot less intense for the dogs. Instead of the dogs being solely focused on each other, they are taking in all of the scents, sounds and sights of the walk. This actually simulates the situations of the dogs being on a ‘hunt’ with each other. When canines are on a hunt, they are most social and accepting of one another.
6. Slowly close the gap and let them sniff each other as they are walking. The dog behind the other will likely make the first sniff, generally in the rear of the other dog. The utilisation of the olfactory sense is an indicator that your dog is transitioning into ‘hunting’ mode, so it's a good sign. There may be a slight pause in the action, which is ok (still, though, try to keep it moving). The dog being sniffed will be reacting as well, so both handlers need to remain calm and be vigilant about what's going on. After the trailing dog sniffs the forward dog ,it's a good idea to switch positions. This gives the dog which had just got sniffed a chance to do the sniffing. During the switch in positions, avoid stopping, just have the trailing dog overtake the other giving a wide birth. Keep taking turns with each dog having repeated opportunities to be in the lead over the course of the walk and each to smell each other while walking.
If one dog poops or pees, let the other sniff it. Make sure the dog has finished their business and you have removed the excrement before allowing the other dog into sniff. The smelling of facies and urine is an important exchange of information and energy between the two dogs. Think of it as a non-verbal way of communicating. Once the two dogs are eliminating in each other's presence, that's a very good sign that the dogs are getting used to each other.
7. Watch for signs of play between the two dogs. If one dog makes a play bow, that's an excellent sign. If this happens, you will be tempted to just let the dogs play with each other at this point, but don’t. For a start they're still on leashes that you're holding meaning you are running the risk of them getting tangled and the excitement of the moment turning into a fight. Even if they were off leash, the excitement could raise beyond positive and into a negative confrontation. Keep walking, giving them a chance to chill out a little bit, and be happy that they're showing you signs that they'll be able to get along.
8. Start to take treat, reassurance and/ or play breaks. Keeping the dogs focused on their handlers and at a distance. Now we give them a positive outlet for their energy by giving repeated small treats, reassurance and/ or play. It is important that the dogs have been moved away from each other to do this - you don't want there to be any food-induced aggression between them. Before starting the walk again give your dog slow, massaging strokes down the length of their body. The goal is to get your dog as physically relaxed as possible, so imagine that you're a massage therapist in charge of giving your dog the greatest level of relaxation possible.
9. It may be time to walk side by side. After you've been walking in a single file, allowing the sniffs and have taken a few breaks without any negative signs of interaction, you can move so that you're walking next to each other. Start by having one handler between the dogs. If there are no signs of negative interaction at this point you can allow the dogs to walk side by side without the barrier of a handler. (If you do see any signs of negativity have a handler move between them, this acts as a calming signal communicating to both dogs that they can relax) Walking side by side will give the dogs a chance to experience more direct contact between the two of them while keeping them aligned with a common purpose, the walk.
10. Slow the walk to a standing and relaxed interaction. Plan on the walk being at least 30 minutes of steps 1 through 9 before doing this step. The dogs should be relaxed while walking side by side. (You can learn more about how to read your dog in the Noble Canine Article, ‘Introduction to Calming Signals’) Once relaxed, slow the walk and positively interact with your dog, a treat and a pat on the head as you slow normally does the trick. As you slow to a stop the handlers must stay vigilant and calm while keeping the leads loose. This standing section of the process should only last between 3-5 minutes before ending the process.
The dogs having spent the last 30 minutes getting used to each other’s presence should be able to meet again with a lot less stress and less potential of any aggressive behaviour. The way that two socially balanced dogs will handle this stress is through the dynamics of play - but "play" isn't a necessary component for this. After the walk, it's not important for the dogs to have "free time" to play with each other. The walk has given your dogs a perfect opportunity to get to know each other in as stress-free a manner as possible. After a successful introduction, they should be relaxed and able to handle being indoors in each other's company. Just remember to keep the indoor environment as relaxed and low energy as possible.
Spending the time to teach the dogs a healthy way to deal with the stress of getting to know each other is the best way to reduce any potential aggression between a new canine family member or visitor. However, if you are unsure of your dogs or the dog being introduced, ability to handle the introduction as described you should consult with a professional behaviourist. This would be the best way to mitigate any negative experiences or results.