Managing a multi-dog household

It is estimated that 67% of Australian households own a pet. This puts Australia as one of the highest pet-owning countries in the world. To top it all off, Victoria has one of the highest levels of pet ownership in Australia. Let’s face it, we love our animals and can’t live without them! Many of us also live in a household with one or more dogs. While this arrangement often comes with many pleasures and enjoyment, sometimes it may feel like we’re living in the middle of the dog-house or zoo, with little control or understanding of how to better deal with the issues between the household pets. With a little bit of simple management and thought-out planning, you will be able to maintain the harmony within your household and ensure that you get the most out of living with your canine family.

Who’s ‘Alpha’ and all that jargon?

When dealing with our dogs, often what most people are concerned about is who is ‘alpha’ within their pack, which includes both dog and human members of the family. We find that the best approach to managing multi-dog households is not to worry about ‘who dominates whom’. We often misinterpret interactions between our dogs as meaning something completely different to what was intended. Furthermore, trying to place one dog in an unnecessary position by feeding it first, petting it first and other similar techniques can cause tension and unease in your household. Instead, we like to look at teaching all of our dogs to be polite and patient in order to get what they want. If we can teach these basic manners, it makes it much easier for us to manage and control interactions between our dogs.

YOU set the rules and the boundaries

Can you imagine what havoc there would be in our world if there were absolutely no rules or boundaries? It’s the same for our dogs. We need to teach our dogs what is acceptable and what is not. Sit down with your family and decide what the house rules for the dogs may be. Will they be allowed in all the rooms, or not? Will they be allowed on the couches? Where you can, reward any calm and respectful behaviour displayed by the dogs, whether it is directed at you or another dog. It is really important that we treat all of our dogs equally and try not to show favourites. Rather than feeding the ‘top dog’ first, have them all wait until permission is given to eat their dinner. Rather than always having one dog through the door first, have them all wait and randomly call through the dogs in any order. Teach the dogs that you control all of their resources and that by co-operating with you, good things happen!

It’s just me and you…

When living with more than one dog, it is very important that we spend some one-on-one time with each dog. This is invaluable in building a strong bond with our dogs and helping them become more responsive to us. If we don’t set aside time to spend with each dog, the bond between human and dog often becomes weak. After all, it’s much easier for dogs to decipher what their canine buddy is saying, compared to the confusing language that we speak. This could be as simple as spending 10 minutes together inside with the other dogs away, a brief training session, or a quick walk with just the one dog. This helps the dog maintain a strong bond with you rather than with the group itself.

Although they live together and love each other’s company, we also need to teach our dogs that it’s ok for them to spend time apart. This can be time spent in a crate, on their mats, in their kennel or in another room. Be sure to reward your dogs with toys or food. This will teach them that being alone is just as rewarding as being with their canine pal.

Basic training is essential…

A solid understanding of basic behaviours through positive reinforcement training is the key to success within a multi-dog household. Ensure that your dogs have a clear understanding of some basic commands, such as ‘sit’ and ‘wait’, and that they know their names and are able to settle or wait on a mat. You want your dogs to be able to perform these behaviours in distracting environments, so they need to be highly rewarded. By spending some time working on simple behaviours you will be able to teach your dogs to:

  • Sit and greet your visitors
  • Stay on their beds while others are getting attention
  • Take turns with toys
  • Wait politely at entry and exit points of your house

If we can set up some basic commands that the dogs are able to respond to quickly and happily, we will be able to manage our ‘pack’ with much more efficiency and control.

Life’s not always fair

Teach your dogs that life is not always ‘fair’ and that it’s ok. Sometimes one dog will be getting attention and the others won’t. In some instances, we need to make exceptions for some members of the household, but not for others. Your young pup may need to be confined while the others have free rein, as the puppy can’t be trusted yet, which is ok. It is up to us to teach everyone that this is ok and to make it a fun, enjoyable and pleasant experience. If it is rewarding to be alone and away from the rest of the pack, the puppy will start to settle quickly and not think twice about it.

Alternatively, you may be sitting down and petting one dog and not the others. Let your other dogs know it’s good news for them too when their ‘friend’ is getting all the attention. Throw some food to them if they remain polite, calm and don’t try to get in the way. Nice, calm behaviour, e.g. lying down, is going to reap the rewards, whereas any pushy behaviour will result in you walking away and not interacting with any of them. Teaching your dogs to be able to cope with these constant changes in the environment helps them to deal with frustration. Sometimes you will be playing ball with Fido while Lassie has a break, and that’s ok.

Controlling playtime

For those of us with more than one dog in the household, we usually love nothing more than watching a romp and play between our dogs. It is important, however, to always be able to control the situation so it does not get out of hand. Remember that the more arousing the situation, the more likely it is that things will blow out of proportion. Learn how to read your dogs’ body language and identify when they are perhaps feeling a little uncomfortable. Be sure that you are always able to break up the play with your voice should the play become too rough. Remember that prevention is better than cure, so be ready to intervene and take the toy away, or remove a dog or two if tensions are getting too high. Most importantly, don’t forget to communicate with your dogs and reward them for listening and abiding by your requests. If you ask for the play to improve and it does, reward them.

Prevent and manage

Prevention is better than cure. Try to avoid situations where you think an argument might break out. If you have a dog that is possessive over toys, don’t play fetch together with a playmate that may get pushy with toys. If they start to argue over toys, simply take the toy away and remove yourself – inappropriate behaviour ends the game! Yelling or making a commotion if two dogs are growling or snapping at each other can add fuel to the fire and heighten the tension. Instead, just remove both dogs and let them have a bit of breathing space. Distract the dogs and ask them to do some obedience for you instead.

Spend plenty of time ‘thanking’ your dogs for getting along. If they are resting calmly together, reward this with a piece of food or a game. Let them know that being calm around each other and maintaining a calm environment, is what reaps the rewards.

Following these steps will help you manage you multi-dog household. We don’t need to be harsh and domineering to have our dogs understand and respect us. By following these steps, we are giving our dogs the best chance of living harmoniously both with us and any other animals that we may have.

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