How to Manage a Multi-Dog Household
How to cope with conflicts in a multi-dog household.
[Updated December 18, 2018]
As I write this, our four dogs are scattered across my office floor dozing in happy harmony. Dusty, our 8-pound Pomeranian, is curled up under my computer station on one side of my feet, Dubhy, the Scottie, on the other. Eighty-five-pound Tucker is sprawled across two dog beds next to the file cabinet, and Katie-the-Crazy-Kelpie is stretched out on the purple fleece on the far side of the room. All is well in the Peaceable Paws kingdom.
It is not always so, however. Katie and Dubhy have squabbles from time to time – usually a result of ownership disputes over some mutually coveted possession, or claim-staking for the highly prized location at our feet in front of the sofa. An occasional defensive falsetto Pomeranian snarl will ring out when Dusty perceives a pending threat to his small self by one of the larger dogs. And when Tucker and Dubhy engage in rowdy bouts of Chew-Face and Chase-and-Maul-the-Scottie, Katie, driven by her herding dog genes to maintain order, will often spoil the fun with fear-inducing glares, backed up by painful and effective nips to the offenders’ hocks.
Because dogs are pack animals, we have high expectations about their abilities to live peacefully in groups. If you are a human member of a multiple dog household, it is important to be realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish with your canine family members. Your own personality, behavior, commitment to managing and training your pack, as well as your choice of packmates, will all play important roles in your ability to create your own peaceable kingdom.
It’s in the Genes
Once upon a time, our dogs’ ancestors were all wild and lived in packs. It was critically important to pack survival that they get along well with each other. Even a minor injury from an aggressive packmate’s tooth could become infected and cause the disability and death of a pack member. Wild dogs depended on the abilities of the whole canine family to help with hunting and pack defense – a disabled member was a liability to all. For these survival reasons, dogs developed a highly ritualized language that enabled them to maintain pack order without bloodshed. Meaningful eye and facial expression, body posture, snapping, snarling, and even tooth contact without enough pressure to break skin all contributed to harmonious pack life.
Enter the human. Over the centuries, as we molded the canine species’ exceptionally plastic phenotype, we created breeds such as Beagles, Bassets, Foxhounds, Coonhounds, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and others – the hounds and sporting breeds that still have very strong genes for pack harmony. At the opposite extreme, we also created breeds such as the American Pit Bull Terrier, that genetically have very little tolerance for the proximity of others of their kind.
If you are just starting out on your path to pack life, your shortest route to a peaceful pack is to select canine family members from the harmonious end of the scale, and avoid the pugnacious fighting breeds, feisty terriers, and obsessive herding dog types. That’s not to say that some Pit Bulls, Scottish Terriers, and Australian Kelpies can’t live in group homes – they certainly can – it just takes more effort on the part of the human to make it work.
Order in the Pack
Pack management is as much an art as a skill. If you have always had a multi-dog household, never had problems, and never thought twice about it, congratulations! You are one of the lucky ones – a natural. You probably instinctively have done all the right things to help your pack be well-adjusted. Many dog owners aren’t so fortunate.
Pack problems run the continuum from simple delinquent behaviors to serious intra-pack aggression. While many dog owners tolerate the former, group bad manners is often the precursor to aggression, and is far more easily addressed before canine emotions escalate to the blood-letting level.
The basic tenet for a successful multi-dog household is simple: The more dogs in the home, the more “in charge” the human pack member must be. The “in charge” tenet for pack management is closely followed by this corollary: The more dogs in the household, the more well-trained and well-behaved the canine members of the pack must be. So how does a floundering human leader restore order to the pack?
The first step is management. If you are facing pack behavior challenges, start by identifying the key areas of conflict, so you can figure out how to put a management plan in place while you work on long-term training solutions.
Conflicts Between Family Dogs
A sample list of common conflict situations might look something like the following. We’ll call our sample dog guardian Jane, and describe representative personalities of various players in her pack.
• Feeding time: Angel devours her food and then runs over to eat Sweetie’s, which sometimes starts a fight. Meanwhile, Sugar tries to pick up her bowl and carry it under the sideboard, often spilling it in the process. Honey wolfs down her food, growling and making evil faces all the while.
• Going outside: All four dogs jostle for position at the door, accompanied by snapping and growling, and an occasional full-on battle. Jane has been bitten trying to maintain order at the door while restraining Angel by the collar.
• Watching TV: Jane’s house routine is to eat dinner on the coffee table while watching TV. Dogs all vie for the closest spot to catch dropped crumbs and hand-fed tidbits. Fights most often occur between Angel and Honey.
• Playing: Sugar and Sweetie love to roughhouse together, biting and chewing on each other. All goes well for some time, but Jane can see their energy level rise as they play; three out of five times it ends in a fight.
• Getting home from work: All the dogs are very excited when Jane walks in the door after a long day at work. She is happy to see them too, so she greets them effusively, in a high-pitched voice, with lots of hugs and kisses. Occasionally in the excitement Honey turns on Angel and pins her to the ground.
• Bedtime: Sugar has claimed the human bed as her own, and that’s okay with Jane, she’s willing to share. The others usually work out who gets which dog bed on the floor with only minor grumbling, but Honey will sometimes test Sugar’s claim and jump up to join Jane and Sugar, to the tune of much snapping and snarling.
Why Do Dogs Fight? Stress!
Aggression is caused by stress, and there is clearly plenty of it in Jane’s pack. Jane is obviously not “a natural.” She knows she has a problem – if she had any doubts, the $800 vet bill for the last incident between Angel and Honey erased them.
She has tried to control her rowdy family members, but failed miserably. On the advice of a well-meaning friend she was letting the dogs work it out themselves, but things have only gotten seriously worse. She read a book that suggested supporting the “alpha” dog. As best she can tell, Honey is top dog in the pack, so she feeds Honey first, tries to let him out the door first (hence the bite by Angel), and lets him sit by her feet while she eats her dinner and feeds him treats. If a fight happens, she yells to break it up, then puts the other dogs out in the yard but lets Honey stay in, to support his position in the pack.
Jane needs a whole new approach to pack management. As the benevolent leader, she needs to decide what dog behavior is appropriate, not Honey. Order is best restored through calm management and positive training, not yelling and punishment.
Solutions to Multi-Dog Conflicts
Here are management plans and training suggestions for each of Jane’s six trouble spots:
• Feeding time: Feed the dogs separately, either in different rooms, in opposite corners of the same room, in crates, or by letting them come in one at a time to eat. Doors and baby gates can keep dogs confined to their separate rooms, while crates or tethers can allow them to eat safely in opposite corners of the same room. (See “A Gated Community,” this issue.) Eventually, after the dogs are trained to “Leave It,” Jane may be able to referee feeding time without having to physically restrain the dogs. (See “Off Limits,” January 2002.)
• Going out: The “Wait” exercise is exceptionally useful for maintaining peace at doorways with groups of dogs (see “Wait a Bit, Stay a While,” May 2001). Until she has taught her pack members to “wait,” Jane can use baby gates or tethers to restrain two or three of the dogs while letting them out one or two at a time to reduce the excitement and arousal that leads to aggression.
Once Jane has taught each of the dogs to “wait” at the door she can start practicing with them two at a time, then three, then all four. The pack should learn to be released from the “wait” one at a time so there’s no door jam, and Jane should vary the order in which she releases them so they don’t learn to anticipate the release.
• Watching TV: Jane is setting her dogs up for conflict by feeding them from her plate. She needs to stop this practice immediately. She can use tethers to keep the dogs safely separated, comfortable on their own beds, while she eats dinner at the coffee table (see “Tethered to Success,” April 2001). She can eventually teach them to go to their designated beds on cue by rewarding them generously when they are there. Chances are good that with time and practice, they will go to and stay on their beds when asked, without being tethered.
• Playing: It’s good that Jane can see the energy level rising between Sugar and Sweetie, because that enables her to step in calmly and break up the play session before it turns ugly. She can tether or crate the playmates for several minutes to give the arousal level time to subside, and then release them to play together again – no harm, no foul.
In time, Sugar and Sweetie may figure out that too much excitement makes the fun stop, and learn to better control their own energy. Jane’s intervention needs to be calm and cool; if she yells, punishes, or moves quickly, she is likely to escalate the energy between the dogs and actually trigger a fight.
• Getting home from work: Jane adds fuel to the fire with her excited homecomings; after a day spent inside, and a few hours of anticipating her return, the dogs are already keyed-up. The joyous greeting is too stimulating, and the dogs’ responses boil over.
Jane can manage her dogs’ greeting behavior while she does long term training by crating the dogs in her absence, assuming she won’t be gone longer than the dogs can tolerate. For pups, a good rule of thumb is one hour longer than the pup’s age in months – four hours for a three-month-old pup, etc. Adult dogs shouldn’t be routinely crated for longer than about eight hours a stretch.
When Jane comes home, she can let the dogs out one at a time and greet them calmly. If they get charged up she can just quietly turn her back and walk away from them, or even turn and walk out the door.
She can also simply start entering the house without greeting the dogs, ignoring them completely until they calm down. Once again, this teaches the dogs to control their own behavior, rather than submitting to her forcibly imposed will. Chances are good that if she does not “feed” their energy, they will settle quickly and fights won’t happen.
• Bedtime: One word – crates! I am not opposed to dogs sleeping on the bed, unless “dogs on the bed” is causing problems, which in Jane’s case it clearly is. She is at risk for injury herself, lying on her bed beneath two squabbling canines.
She could start by crating all the dogs at night, then, if her ultimate goal is to have them uncrated at night, experiment with letting one out, then two, and as long as good manners hold, eventually all four. (See “Crate Training Made Easy,” August 2000.) Any nighttime growling or snapping is grounds for a renewal of crating.
Of course, while Jane effectively manages her dogs’ behavior in the home, we also expect her to enroll in a good, positive training class. She may not be “a natural,” but she can learn. Her class instructor will be a valuable resource to her in identifying and resolving her dogs’ pack behavior challenges.
It will take her some time to complete basic classes with each of the four dogs, but the improvement in her communication with and understanding of her pack members’ behaviors and thought processes will be well worth the effort. In fact, it will be the ultimate key to her long-term success in turning her home into a peaceable kingdom, and ensuring that she enjoys mutually rewarding lifelong relationships with each of the members of her pack.
10 Steps to a Peaceful Pack
1. Manage the behavior
Use management tools such as tethers, crates, and baby gates to maintain order while you modify your dogs’ behavior through positive training.
The more dogs in a household, the more important it is that all dogs be well-trained and well-behaved. Intervention in an escalating conflict is easier and more effective when the dogs respond to calm cues. The Web site of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (apdt.com) offers a “Trainer Locater” list of APDT members, as well as suggestions for finding a good training professional. APDT members may use positive methods to varying degrees; however, there is an increased likelihood of finding a positive trainer on this list who meets your expectations.
3. Be calm
Aggression is caused by stress. If you can maintain a calm demeanor around your dogs, especially when they are becoming aroused, you will help defuse potential conflict. Resist the impulse to scream or yell when dogs are squabbling; this will only increase stress. If you must intervene in a scuffle that doesn’t quickly resolve itself, keep a plywood board handy that you can slip between the combatants to separate them. Then make a mental note to analyze the incident and develop a management plan to avoid a recurrence.
4. See your veterinarian
Medical conditions can exacerbate tense pack relations. A physical condition or illness that causes pain or discomfort to your dog is stressful. Stress causes aggression, so anything you do to alleviate pain or discomfort in any individuals can help reduce the overall stress level in the pack. Ask your veterinarian for a full thyroid panel for any of your dogs who seem particularly anxious and aggressive. Thyroid levels that are on the low end of the scale but still within the clinically normal range can contribute to aggression. Your veterinarian can consult with Jean Dodds, DVM, a pioneer in studying the connection between thyroid and aggression.
5. Let dogs be dogs
While it is not appropriate to let dogs “work it out” if conflicts are escalating, it is effective to let pack members settle small scuffles themselves. These are part of the inherited behavior developed for group survival, and can help to resolve hierarchy unrest and restore pack equilibrium.
A tired dog is a well-behaved dog. Excess energy is a stressor, and a pack of tired dogs is less stressed, less excitable, and far more likely to live in harmony than one whose members are spilling over with surplus energy.
7. Cultivate individual relationships
Spend quality time with each dog outside the presence of the others. This is necessary for training purposes anyway, and will help you develop a relationship with each dog as an individual. This will make it easier for you to establish your position as benevolent leader and manage the pack as a whole.
8. Protect vulnerable pack members
Very old, young, small, sick, or disabled members of your canine family may be unable to defend themselves, especially if one or more pack members are determined to commit mayhem. You must keep such fragile members physically safe by separating them from the rest of the pack. This may be a temporary solution until the invalid has recovered enough to rejoin the group, or it may be a permanent fix if the size/strength disparity between participants is long term or the conflict too serious.
9. Better living through drugs
Some dog owners find flower essence and herbal remedies to be quite useful for reducing the stress that leads to pack conflict. Rescue Remedy is the most commonly suggested flower essence product, and herbs such as Valerian, Kava Kava, and St. John’s Wort are all used as calming agents. For more extreme cases, pharmaceuticals prescribed by your veterinarian may be indicated. Natural remedies, while usually less risky than prescription drugs, can have unwanted side effects; we recommend that you and your training professional work together with a veterinarian well-versed in complementary medicine to determine if and when drugs or natural remedies are appropriate. (See the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association for a listing of holistic veterinarians around the country.)
10. Be realistic
Quality of life is an important consideration for all the family members. If dynamics in your pack are stressing you or your dogs so much that your quality of life is poor, and if your efforts to improve relationships aren’t helping, then it’s time to consider other options. The worst case scenario – euthanasia – might be the best option for a dog who is so troubled that finding an enjoyable environment is unrealistic. Finding one or more of the troublemakers new homes may alleviate the stress for the rest of the family, although finding homes for difficult dogs can be a challenge. Alternatively, you may choose to keep the more difficult ones and place one or more of the easy-going or vulnerable dogs with friends or family members. This could be a win-win for all, creating an extended family for your canine friends while making everyone’s life more peaceful.
Pat Miller, WDJ’s Training Editor, is also a freelance author and Certified Pet Dog Trainer in Maryland. She is the author of, The Power of Positive Dog Training.