Whether you’re bringing a newly adopted dog home or you’re introducing your dog to a dog outside of your family, proper introductions will help set them up for life-long success and allow you to stay ahead of any potential problems. Because the first few interactions set the tone for the entire relationship, it’s important to go slow, pay close attention to both dogs’ body language, and ensure each interaction is positive, fun, and low-stress for both dogs.
As with all animals, all dogs have preferences when it comes to dog friends. It’s perfectly normal for dogs to do be great friends with some dogs but to struggle, show aggression towards, or want to avoid others. Things like age, size, socialization, medical status, history, energy level should all be taken into consideration when introducing other dogs. Play style is also extremely important when looking at who your dog might enjoy interacting with; some dogs may love to wrestle intensely or play games like chase or tug, other dogs may prefer to quietly share space or have short spirts of gentle play.
Above all else, remember that play and interactions with other dogs are only positive if the dog is having a great time and wants to be there. Make sure to always listen to your dog and consider what kinds of dogs your dog might prefer before introducing them to a new friend.
Choosing your Location
Choose an outdoor location that provides ample room for either dog to move away if they choose to do so. This helps to decrease the likelihood that one of them will feel trapped and feel the need to resort to using aggression if they become uncomfortable or fearful. A low-traffic and enjoyable location, such as a park is often a great option. Additionally, select a location that is on neutral territory to avoid seeing any kind of territorial aggression.
On Leash Walk
Start by going for an on leash walk. Begin with at least 30 feet between the dogs and remember that the more distance you can start with, the less pressure there will be on both ends. Going slow and making it positive is the key to success here. Bring along some tasty, high value treats and reward the dogs the moment they see each other at a distance. This will begin to build a positive association to one another before they even meet and will help bring down any arousal or frustration. Some dogs will do better starting on opposite sides of the same street while others will feel more comfortable walking one in front of the other. Assess which will be best for the pair and adjust as needed.
Decreasing your Distance
As the dogs are successful and are both showing overwhelmingly positive body language, you can begin
to decrease the distance between the dogs. Be sure to always work at the pace of each dog, paying close
attention to their body language to determine what those next steps should be. Continue to reward
both dogs for being in the presence of each other and slowly decrease the distance until you’re within
12 feet or so. As you get closer, they may begin to get more excited and need more help being redirected
or require some additional space to calm back down before coming closer again. Avoid frustration by
continuing to use food to redirect or move your dog away from the other dog, if needed.
On Leash Greeting
Assuming both dogs are relaxed and displaying loose, friendly body language, you can proceed to the actual greeting.
Provide enough slack in each leash to allow the dogs to greet in a circular fashion with each dog having the ability to access the other dogs rear end. This is how dogs gather information on one another and is the most respectful and polite way for them to say hello. Tense, head on face-to-face greetings are considered confrontational and can often derail otherwise successful greetings. Be sure that handlers stay opposite each other and rotate as the dogs circle each other to prevent leashes from crossing and getting tangled. After a few seconds of interacting, call each dog away and reward them for disengaging from one another. Taking brief breaks helps to decrease any tension or pressure and provides both dogs with an opportunity to reset. Always reinforce each dog for exiting the interaction to ensure you don’t create any frustration. Continuing to walk with both dogs sharing space is a great way to give them something else to do if they are having a hard time taking breaks or moving away from each other.
Be sure to end the interaction on this positive note and come back again later to repeat. Giving dogs an opportunity to slowly get to know one another before being off on their own is a great way to build a strong relationship so they are better equipped to navigate any potential conflict when interacting more freely. Having a relationship prior to being asked to share their valued space, guardians, and toys also helps to reduce the likelihood of seeing resource guarding once they are in the same house. When possible, have multiple, short, positive interactions before moving on to the next step. Using things like baby gates and keeping dogs in separate rooms while they are building their relationship is a great way to make this realistic and set them up for success.
Off Leash Play
Once the dogs are clearly enjoying one another and have navigated on leash greetings and interactions successfully without showing any signs of fear, discomfort, or aggression, you can move on to allowing them to interact with the leashes dropped. Keep leashes on for the first few play sessions in case you need to quickly separate the dogs. Choose a fully fenced, outdoor space where they can safely interact with leashes dropped. Avoid tight spaces and remember that the more room that they have, the more successful the interaction will be. Start with the steps above and then move into the fenced area once they have gotten over the excitement from the initial greeting. Drop leashes and allow dogs to play. Monitor for any signs of fear or discomfort and take breaks or adjust, as needed. Keep these play sessions short and always end on a good note.
Moving Into the House
Once you’ve gotten through the steps above you can move to interactions in the house. This is a big step because even for the most social dogs it can be hard to have to suddenly share things like your bed, toys or humans. New dogs that really enjoy playing with toys may be drawn to the new items they find in the house. This can easily make the resident dog feel the need to protect their resources and can cause them to take some steps back in their relationship. To prevent this, make sure to pick up any item that your current dog(s) might find valuable, such as toys, bones, beds, or food items. Start by having the dogs on opposite sides of a baby gate so you can assess how they’ll do together in the house. Once you’re sure they are both comfortable and safe together in the new space, you can allow them to interact in main living area. Keep them away from tight spaces such as behind couches, in doorways or in small bedrooms or hallways. Actively monitor all interactions the first few weeks to months until they’ve gotten a chance to know each other and you have seen how they react to one another in various situations. As always, keep interactions brief and end on a good note.
Learn to Read Canine Body Language
Knowing what your dogs are saying and how they’re feeling is critical in helping them successfully navigate life in our world and provides you with the gift of being able to communicate effectively with them. When meeting new dogs, being able to read body language quickly and accurately dramatically improves your ability to know when to step in, slow down or stop an interaction.
Help Them Navigate Conflict
As scientists and researchers continue to study canine behavior, we’re finding that there is a lot more to know about how our furry friends operate in social groups. Despite popular belief, dogs do not operate using a hierarchy structure and are not submissive or dominant by nature. In fact, much like their human counterparts, aggression is not used to identify their place in a social group and, instead, can often cause altercations or lead one of the dogs to become fearful, withdrawn or avoidant of the other. More often than not, dogs use aggression because they are fearful or because they lack the social skills and ability to resolve conflict in an effective, cooperative way. Our most stable, social, well-adjusted dogs are much better equipped to navigate social situations and tend to communicate without causing conflict or using aggression.
In order to keep both dogs on the right track, safe, and comfortable, be sure to always supervise and step in if you see any signs of fear or aggression. It’s important to always intervene and guide both dogs in the same way we would help our toddlers navigate conflict if they were struggling in an interaction. This will help avoid any incidents and gives each dog the skills they need to better navigate those situations in the future. Avoid encouraging dogs to “work it out themselves” as this can be incredibly dangerous and using this strategy can easily lead to fights or an increase in fear or aggression. Instead, step in, separate, and reach out for help if you need it.
Separate in Between Interactions
Dogs can react differently in different situations. Even if your dogs appear to love each other, be sure to separate them when you aren’t home or can’t actively monitor them. This will help to prevent any kind of incident or fight from occurring when you aren’t there to step in.
When to Seek Help
If you see any signs of fear, aggression or reactivity, you should end the interaction immediately to prevent any damage to their relationship or any potentially dangerous or worrisome incidents for either dog. With help and support, many dogs can be successful together over time but it’s important to consult with a professional who can create a plan to integrate the dogs safely and comfortably.
If either dog has displayed fearful, aggressive or reactive behaviors towards dogs in the past, has a bite history with dogs or people or has a history of resource guarding towards other animals, you should preemptively seek out the assistance of a professional. If any of these apply or if you would like some additional support and guidance, you should reach out to a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or certified professional dog trainer. The two main organizations where you can search a database to find certified trainers near you are the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers or the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. To find a veterinary behaviorist, see the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists website to search for the closest behaviorist near you.
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