“We put the new dog into our car with our other dog.”
“I held each of them by the collar and put them nose-to-nose to meet.”
“Our son brought home a stray dog and took her into the back yard with our other dogs. I guess it was too much for an eight-year-old to handle by himself.”
When it comes to dog-dog introductions, I’ve heard it all—usually because the introductions have gone badly, very badly or disastrously, which leads to families coming to see me in varying stages of distress. Some are unsure about keeping the new dog, many are scared and a few are injured. All have learned the hard way that introductions are not to be taken lightly.
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People introduce dogs to one another in all kinds of suboptimal ways, including those mentioned previously. Some of the time, it goes just fine, but even so, they’re still gambling with the safety and well-being of both their dogs and themselves
Whether you are introducing a new dog into your own household, setting up a first meeting between your dog and your partner’s, or just want to go for a walk with a friend and her dog, it’s more likely that the new relationship will flourish if the first meeting goes well.
As in all aspects of behavior, knowledge is your ally. It’s important to know that there’s no standard protocol for dog-dog introductions that works best for every dog in every situation, and no introduction is risk-free. That said, there are a few general guidelines and techniques that go a long way toward making the first meeting between dogs a positive experience for everyone. (Don’t feel you have to do it alone. Line up professional help if you have reason to suspect that there will be trouble, or that one or more of the dogs isn’t good with other dogs.)
• Have new dogs meet one-on-one. Group introductions can be a bit challenging even for a well-adjusted dog. For a dog who struggles in social situations, meeting multiple dogs simultaneously can be so overwhelming that it could damage the new relationships.
• Choose the location of the meeting carefully. Off-territory is best so that neither dog feels like the other is the intruder. And conduct the initial meeting outside rather than inside. Often during meetings, a dog will urinate and then walk away, especially if he is feeling overwhelmed. That gives the other dog an opportunity to get to know the stressed dog by sniffing the urine without coming into close contact with its source. If dogs are inside where urinating is a no-no, their options are limited.
• Avoid gates, fences, doorways and other tight spaces. They tend to make dogs tense, and a tense dog is unlikely to be at his best. In general, dogs feel more relaxed and are more likely to exhibit desirable behavior when they don’t feel confined, so do your best to keep both dogs in open space and away from narrow passageways. For example, try to conduct the introduction in the middle of the yard rather than along the edges.
• Don’t crowd the dogs. Like narrow spaces, having people too close can also make dogs feel uncomfortably confined. For many dogs, being crowded by people is worse than being crowded by inanimate objects and tight spaces because it puts a lot of social pressure on them. Resist the urge to lean toward them or hover over them. It’s natural to want to move toward the dogs if you perceive even the slightest sign of tension or trouble, but ironically, it can make things worse. Moving away is far more likely to lower the arousal or tension level and prevent escalation of the situation. If you see tension, use a cheerful voice to say something like, “This way,” or “Let’s go,” then clap your hands and walk away.
• Keep moving. This is a great way to help an introduction go smoothly. It not only prevents you from crowding the dogs, it also keeps their interactions with each other from developing intensity. If humans walk purposefully, dogs will often follow, allowing them to avoid greeting or interacting more closely than they’re comfortable with.
• If you can and it’s safe, drop the leashes and let them drag on the ground so you can easily take hold again if you need to. “Safe” means that the area is securely fenced and both dogs have a history of behaving appropriately around other dogs. If you can’t let go of the leashes, keep them loose to prevent tension from traveling down to the dogs. This is easier with thin, 12-foot lines, but can be done with 6-foot leashes, too.
•Model calm, relaxed behavior and remember to breathe. Our dogs respond to our emotions and behavior, so if you’re holding your breath because you’re tense, or sending out nervous energy (“Oh jeez, oh my, oh no! Yikes, I hope this goes okay!”), the dogs will pick up on that. Focus on breathing evenly, avoiding negative thoughts and keeping your own body relaxed.
• Make the meeting a food-free, toy-free experience. Many wonderful dogs are not at their best in the presence of other dogs when food or toys are around, especially if the toys are their own or the food is held by their people. Eliminate the possibility of possessiveness, which can cause problems.
• Keep the first meeting really short. By “short,” I mean just a few minutes. Many dogs find meeting new dogs fun and exciting, and if both dogs are like that, no harm is done by a short meeting. You leave them wanting more, eager to hang out again, and that’s not a problem. But if one or both dogs find meeting new dogs stressful, upsetting or tiring, a short meeting helps them avoid becoming overwhelmed, and that prevents trouble. The next time they interact, they are not truly “new” to each other, and a longer interaction is not as likely to be as detrimental. For dogs who really struggle in new social settings, a few short sessions may be indicated, but for most dogs, even one short session goes a long way toward a successful introductory experience.
• Make a new dog seem less “new.” Novelty is often exciting to dogs, and the resulting high levels of arousal can work against a smooth meeting. If you can remove some of the novelty from the situation, it helps make introductions easier and less intense. How do you take away some of the “newness”? By getting them used to the sight or smell of each other ahead of time. Then, by the time they meet, much of the novelty will have worn off.
One way to do this is to walk the dogs in the vicinity of one another without allowing them to greet. Continue to move in the same direction, keeping several feet between them, and adjust the distance as needed. Walking in the same direction (rather than facing each other head-on) and exploring smells is one of the normal ways dogs get to know one another—it’s the canine equivalent of “let’s have coffee.”
Having the dogs smell each other’s urine before they actually encounter one another is another way to get them over the “newness.” You can either lead each to a spot the other has used to urinate, or actually collect some urine from each and present it to the other. Oh, the things we do as dog people for the sake of a successful introduction!
And a successful introduction is the whole point. Proper meetings go a long way toward preventing social problems, from minor angst all the way up to and including serious fights. Whether you are adopting a new dog into your household or making the acquaintance of an occasional play buddy, following this advice will make it more likely that the dogs will become friends. That’s especially important when the goal is to have a “blind date” lead to a “together forever” happy ending.