New Dog Tips
By Kim Barnett
If you are reading this article you have most likely just adopted a dog, either from a rescue organization or shelter and are hoping to make your dog’s integration into your home go as smoothly and stress free as possible. To begin, let’s consider where your dog has come from and how this may have an effect on his or her ability to fit in. If your dog has come from a foster home the likelihood is that he has been living as part of a loving family with plenty of walks, play and company, all of the things that a dog needs to be mentally and physically balanced. If however you dog has come from a shelter, kennel or home that couldn't cope, there is the possibility that he may have spent his time there penned up, frustrated, possibly bewildered and without much interaction with humans or other dogs.
Everyone working in shelters does the best they can for the dogs in their care, but of course the conditions are less than ideal for a dog and many leave with vast amounts of pent up energy and having developed undesirable behavior as a result of their basic needs not having been met. These are hardly ideal circumstances for meeting a new family, but we can help to make things much easier for everyone concerned.
When a dog has been separated from his pack and is about to join a new one, she will be searching to find where she will fit in, what her position will be in the hierarchy of the pack. This is necessary for a dog, he isn't a solitary animal, he’s a social one, used to living in a family or social group, just as we are. His primal instincts immediately kick in, “who will be my leader in this new pack, is there already one or will it be left to me?” This is the all important issue for a dog joining his new family.
If we consider this aspect then it is clearly an important first task for a new owner or adopter to show our new dog that we the humans are her pack leaders from the moment that we meet. In this way we can have influence through good leadership over any introductions that will be made to other pets in the family. If we fail to establish this before any introductions take place, our new dog is less likely to respect us, as are our existing dogs if intervention or moderation are called for at any point. At all times our dogs need to see us managing the pack calmly and effectively.
Unless we are prepared to let our dogs “sort it out for themselves” which can lead to a potentially dangerous situation, then we must get this right, our new dog and our dogs waiting at home deserve nothing less. With good leadership they will all trust us to make good decisions on their behalf, to provide for and protect them from danger where necessary and not the other way round.
This is our responsibility so let’s get to it!
To establish what we need to do to make a dog feel at home and to maximize the chances of this, we need to look at the needs of the new dog in our care and what the experience is going to be like for both him and the pets he is about to meet. When dogs meet for the first time their three most important senses are used, smell, touch and sight.
1. Dogs will begin to build a picture of one another by using their amazing sense of smell, the sense that along with touch, guided them as new born pups to their mothers to suckle and get warmth. A dog can build a complete picture of other animals, including us using this highly developed sense. They will naturally smell one another as a form of greeting, beginning by sniffing at the anal area and genitals. To deny a dog this as humans often do, would be as bad as not shaking hands with another person whose hand was extended to us, we would be off to a bad start.
2. They will next move on to touching, moving close to one another and brushing or rubbing against one another .If all is going well with the introduction then eye contact will follow but will be limited to brief glances, everything that needs to be communicated has been done by smell, touch and gesture. Of course there are many other gestures and signals being given at this time from tails, ears, stance etc, but this is a huge subject in itself and it’s wise to know as many of these as we can to help us understand what our dogs are communicating. After all, it’s their language; it makes sense to be able to interpret it.
3. When dogs are in an aggressive mode, feeling threatened, protective or defensive, they will often use eye contact to challenge or confront another. Combined with body gesturing, this can make for an intimidating show and create a response of either submission or retaliation, depending on the recipient’s wish to take up the challenge or peacefully submit by simply turning his head and breaking the eye contact, indicating that he wants no part of any trouble.
In understanding this language, we can see that to introduce dogs who are strangers by asking them to come face to face as humans often do, is not only risky but deliberately encouraging the dogs to become hostile because we are triggering primal responses by our actions. For this reason, when we encounter strange dogs whilst out walking we should do everything we can to avoid direct eye contact.
Consider how those engaged in the practice of dog fighting incite their dogs to want to fight to the death as soon as they are released. The dogs are placed face to face in such a way that eye contact is intense, the dogs are deliberately encouraged to stare one another in the eye until all the dogs want to do is attack. Even in the show ring, one competitor can often unsettle another dog by turning theirs and having them stand face to face, this is why we stand competing dogs nose to tail, facing the same way.
So why do we need to understand all of this, how does it help us to help our dogs? By learning from the dogs themselves, we can see how the basic elements of a dog’s language, their communication skills, can be used to great advantage in creating the best situation for our dogs to meet. Because our dogs are living inside our homes, sharing all aspects of our daily lives with us and our children, it’s in everyone’s best interest that this runs as smoothly as possible. A home where dogs are unbalanced, where there is no harmony, where dogs are challenging and confronting one another or their humans is undesirable and dangerous.
It’s also for this reason that it’s best to discourage active displays of hierarchy within a pack. Whilst some believe that dogs should be allowed to express themselves freely, sorting out their natural order among themselves but still living under a pack leader or leaders as they would in the wild state, let’s bear in mind that we are asking our dogs to live with us within the boundaries of our homes. So although scuffles and disagreements between lower pack members are common as a part of the pack hierarchy, the lead dog will step if he sees fit, to assert authority and diffuse these situations, reminding everyone of who is Alpha.
Whilst we can't change the order as such; we cannot make a naturally dominant dog completely submissive to others or a submissive dog dominant, we can as human pack leaders dictate that no active displays of pack hierarchy will be tolerated and that everyone will be treated as an equal .In this way no dog has their natural personality suppressed but they learn to live with boundaries and rules.
OK, so how do we apply what we know in a practical sense to maximize the chances of a successful introduction?
Let’s assume that our pack at home whether one dog or several are in no doubt as to whom their pack leaders are. I say this because if there is doubt then it’s unwise to be introducing a new dog to the home. Success hinges on the knowledge that we the humans are in control and not one or more of our dogs, otherwise our chances of being able to influence or moderate any undesirable behavior will be somewhat compromised.
Although the job of pack leader is an on going one, full of responsibility, it also holds several privileges, the greatest of which is your pack’s acceptance that you, as a respected and trustworthy pack leader make all of the decisions, including who is allowed to join the pack. The exception to this, where the human is not an effective or convincing pack leader and has no desire to be, would be to only introduce a dog who is a calm, relaxed, submissive type into our family who would offer little or no resistance to a dominant dog stepping forward and asserting it’s authority.
Know your dogs, know yourself and choose your new dog accordingly. When adopting a rescue dog, offering as much information about yourselves, your individual personalities, your lifestyle and home will help tremendously in finding the right dog for your family. Dogs with strong dominant personalities need leaders who are self confident and can match or exceed their dog’s personalities just as much as they need to be able to match their energy needs. Be honest about yourself when adding a dog to your home; get the match right and you'll have a long lasting, rewarding relationship.
Now we understand how it all works, let’s meet our new dog and get the introductions under way.
If it’s simply not practical to apply the following, due to your dog arriving home late at night etc, then do as much as you can to bond with the dog yourself but keep introductions with other dogs until the next day and proceed as laid out below:
As soon as we meet our new dog, the relationship begins and our dog is getting the measure of the new human in his life, so let’s give him or her what they deserve; a good leader, respecting and loving them as a dog, not a surrogate baby, not a fluffy human, but a proud Canine, another species that we have chosen to live with.
There is no room for pitying or feeling sad for a rescue dog, however bad their former life has been, they live in the here and now, not in the past and this is why our amazing companions are so open to rehabilitation. Dogs cannot respect or follow weakness and this is how they perceive these emotions, as weak energy. If you do feel for a dog with a bad history and of course we all do, then be strong for your new dog and lead him into a better life with confidence and forget his past, don't recount it time and time again, making it a part of who he is and trapping him there. Allow him to move on as dogs do so much better than humans by beginning afresh. I try to respect my dogs by never blurring the boundary between the two species, in this way I can better understand my dog’s needs.
1. As I approach my new dog, I won't look him in the eye; a nervous, shy dog could feel intimidated or threatened, a dominant or excited dog could find this confrontational.
2. I'll confidently slip my lead and choke or slip collar on, after allowing him to sniff me and off we
go without hesitation. So why won't I speak, hug and offer my new dog lots of affection at this time?
Surely a dog needs all of these things, particularly if he’s been in a shelter or suffered neglect? Well the fact is that’s how we humans see things but it’s not a dog’s way and the purpose of all this is to do the right thing for our dog, not to satisfy our need to hug dogs, there will be time for that later. If I were to offer baby talk and kisses at this moment, my new dog would immediately perceive me as weak; to him this would be an act of submission, not a leader of strength. So for now I will put aside my needs and give my dog what he needs most, a sense of leadership.
3. The first thing that I will do for him is take him for a good walk with any other humans in the family. I want him to get a sense of joining a new pack and of bonding, I want to use this time to show him that I am worthy of both his trust and respect. If there are children in the family, they will stand quietly and not look, touch or speak to the dog, allowing him time to smell them first. Most small children are at eye level with dogs and move quickly and can be unpredictable and hard for dogs to understand. We need to take time to prepare children by explaining things to them from the dog’s point of view. In my experience, the more you explain and include them, the more interested they become in getting it right. After we have all walked as a pack, children in front, there will be time for interaction.
At all times I am confident, walking my new dog beside me, never in front of me and never pulling. Any pulling will be corrected with a short ‘snap’ on the collar or chain which is placed up high on his neck, immediately behind his ears where I have the most response with the least effort, not low down on the base of the dog’s neck where he is very strong and I cannot correct him without harming his throat. If I allow pulling or walking ahead, then he will think that I am asking him to be pack leader, not a good start.
Our walk is a structured one where my dog is learning to follow my lead, so no sniffing or wandering off, playtime will come later, for now we are exploring new territory together and laying the foundation for a lasting relationship. As our walk progresses our new dog is developing a sense of belonging and he is relaxing. In giving him structure I am creating safety for him and yet I haven't hugged him yet, I haven't spoken more than a few simple words to him, whether by asking him to sit or to use his name.
4. Once we have walked and my dog has released some of his energy and is now relaxing, we’ll have our other dog or dogs join us in the walk, no introduction yet, right now we are all experiencing walking together as a pack, humans and dogs, side by side, remembering the no eye contact rule. We are fulfilling our dog’s primal need, to cover ground, exploring, hunting, following a leader who makes all of the decisions to ensure the packs safety and survival. There is no other bonding experience like it, my dogs are all having a basic need met, the need to belong to a family, a pack.
5. Once we have all walked for at least ¾ of an hour, more if we have time, we will begin introductions. By this time the dogs have built a picture of one another by sniffing whilst walking, so now we need to allow some contact. Usually I will take the two dogs to be introduced, one in each hand on leashes, both facing the same way, and in turn allow one to sniff the other’s rear end, as we talked about earlier. If the dog being sniffed reacts strongly you can then offer a small lead correction to let them know that you are overseeing the procedure and that if necessary you will control any unpleasant behavior. We don't want this dog turning round and snapping at the other. If you have a helper, you may want to engage them for this, asking them to hold one of the dogs. Equally the dog behind doing the sniffing should not be allowed to become aggressive and only friendly behavior is to be tolerated. Normally we will allow the existing pack member to smell and approach the newcomer first. In the case of a male and female introduction, I will allow the male to sniff the female first; as I believe that this follows the principles of natural dog etiquette.
6. Once we have given the first dog a chance to smell, we will then reverse the procedure.
7. After this interaction where some touching has taken place, we'll walk around a little, side by side, dogs free to touch and rub against one another, but still under control. If we have more than one dog at home then each dog in turn will go through this ritual of introduction .
8. I will then invite my pack to follow me into the home together and lead them into the yard. From the work we have done so far, we now have already established leadership and created a bond between the new dog and our pack. How much free access to one another you allow from this point on depends entirely on your judgment and ability to control your pack, based on what you have observed during the introductions. I will often use this time to let the two dogs off leash where in a fenced in area they can interact, still under my control. If any unwanted behavior is expressed at this time I can step right in to moderate and correct the individual.
9. You may feel more comfortable offering your dogs limited access to one another over a couple of weeks, which is fine, it’s no good allowing dogs to run freely together if you do not feel confident as a leader to step in and offer direction where needed. Take things at a pace that you feel comfortable with and watch how your dogs behave when around one another. Walking your pack together daily is essential for building the relationship and bond that has already begun. Playing in the yard is fine but is often unattended time and will not replace the primal need to walk together with the pack leader.
Over the next two weeks I like to introduce the rules of the pack and create some structure for our new dog, this will make him feel safe and comfortable and he won't have to assume any responsibilities that may promote anxiety or aggression. This will include limited access to all areas of the house, I'll invite the newcomer to explore different areas of the house little by little, otherwise I may give him the idea that the entire house or den is his to own and we don't want that. A canine pack leader will be cautious and keep a newcomer at a distance from the pack, allowing slow access to all pack privileges, like a probation period, thus creating boundaries and rules.
When our dog behaves like a calm and relaxed pack member I will show her affection, offer her treats to positively reward good behavior, but only then, at all times she will be working for me and learning her place in the pack. Every interaction will be by my invitation and never by her demand. When I’m happy that things have gone well and the new pack member is relaxed and calm, then I will offer him affection, touching him by gently massaging his neck and shoulders. Remember that touch is what guided our puppy to the shelter of his mother for milk, it was her touch that kept him warm and nurtured him and it will be our touch that will be his greatest reward of all.
So let’s summarize the key points of our introduction:
- After placing a collar and leash on your dog with confidence:
- Walk your new dog under control as soon as he arrives home to release energy and promote relaxation and before entering the house. This first walk is important even if you have no other animals, you will use it to bond and establish leadership
- Walk your other dog alongside the newcomer next, to create the idea of the ‘pack’
- Introduce the two dogs by allowing them to sniff one another in turn, under your control
- Walk together in close contact, still under control.
- Invite your pack to follow you into the yard. Show the new dog the boundary by walking him round.
- Invite your new dog into the house, allowing limited access for two weeks.
- Show your new pack member their bed or crate.
- Remove all toys and chews until you feel comfortable that they will not cause confrontation. Supervise when you reintroduce them.