TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Dear Carla,
My boyfriend and I just moved in together and between us we have four dogs. I have a male and female who were both rescued from a shelter. They are good dogs and get along well with all people and dogs. My boyfriend has had his two male dogs since they were puppies. The female is pretty easy going and the male is shy and nervous. What can we do to help them adjust to the new living situation?
Two Dog Lovers
Dear Dog Lovers,
Living with multiple dogs is considerably harder that living with one. One dog may bark at the door, but a group can work themselves into a frenzy and they can learn both good and bad behaviors from each other. Also, the more dogs you have, the harder it will be to get their attention because they are less dependent on the humans in the house for companionship. Much of the traditional advice about living in a multi-dog household centers around “dominance” — deciding which dog is the “alpha” — and reinforcing that dog’s position in the pack so the other dogs will understand their place. This concept is rooted in a common comparison between wolf and dog pack behavior, which is a very complicated subject. Suffice it to say, dogs aren’t wolves.
My advice for living with multiple dogs is to provide structure and training. Dogs like predictability. Predictable schedules and rules will help enormously. Create and stick to a regular feeding schedule and be sure to give each dog a quiet space to eat and finish without the pressure of the other dogs breathing down their neck. This is especially important for the shy dog, however you want to avoid situations where any of the dogs can develop resource guarding behaviors. With this many dogs, one may decide he needs to protect valuable items like food, toys or bones.
When you start to train, you will need to work with each dog separately before you can implement any kind of group cue. I like to work with one dog while the others watch from behind a gate. This builds motivation (is it my turn yet???). Teach your dogs they will get what they want if they are polite and patient. Want to go outside? Wait nicely at the door until I tell you to go out. Do you want dinner? Sit politely and wait until I tell you to eat.
If you aren’t sure how to get started, consider attending a positive reinforcement based basic manners class with one or two of the dogs. You can take the knowledge home to the other dogs.
Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog Training and Education Center in Truckee. If you have a pet topic/issue you would like to see covered in the Ask the Trainer column, please email her at email@example.com.