Introducing a new dog

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 3/18/08
By: Gail T. Fisher

Oh how the Internet has changed the world of communication. We were contacted last week by a woman from Wisconsin I’ll call Brenda. Brenda was seeking help for her dog problem. While her query started me thinking about her issue, the following is a compilation of similar stories gathered over the years.

Brenda’s family recently adopted Maggie from a rescue organization. Their most important requirement was that Maggie gets along with other dogs, since they were considering adopting her as a companion for their wonderful dog Shira, who loves playing with dogs. Brenda and her family thought Shira was lonely during the day, and would be happier with another dog.

Brenda introduced the dogs the recommended way away from their home on neutral territory. They seemed to get along fine, mostly ignoring each other. They sniffed the ground, investigating the area where they were introduced. Occasionally they briefly sniffed each other, then walked away to continue exploring. Feeling sure that a friendship would evolve, Brenda brought Maggie home.

Unfortunately, the dogs haven’t become friends. In fact, Shira growls at Maggie a lot, and Maggie is intimidated by Shira. The family feels bad. Shira isn’t her usual friendly self – showing an unpleasant side that they hadn’t seen before – and Maggie seems unhappy, too. They don’t want to give Maggie back to the shelter, but they feel bad for both dogs.

Before she called us, Brenda had gotten contradictory advice from several people she had consulted, including some knowledgeable dog professionals. One person told her to scold Shira for growling and then pet Maggie. Another recommended ignoring Maggie and petting Shira. She was told to feed Shira first; but wait, she was also told to feed Maggie first. Totally confused by conflicting information, Brenda was hoping we could give her the real skinny on what she might do to fix it, or would they have to place Maggie.

Brenda told us that most of Shira’s growling occurred in three situations: first, when the dogs were eating; second if Maggie walked by when Shira had a toy or was chewing a bone; and finally, if Brenda was petting Shira and Maggie approached. She didn’t growl at Maggie when anyone else was petting her – only Brenda.

There are two important clues in this information. First, the dogs’ behavior when they were first introduced speaks volumes. The dogs went out of their way to ignore each other. Sniffing the ground, brief glances, walking in circles, but not doing anything overtly friendly (or unfriendly) says they were unsure and feeling each other out.

They were both sending signals, using canine body language appropriately to communicate their uncertainty. Being careful not to impose on each other, they needed time to work through their ambivalence. Their hesitation at this first meeting might have been overcome in an additional meeting or two to get to know each other more before being thrown together in the home. Too late for that now, let’s examine the second clue, and some solutions.

Each situation in which Shira is growling has one thing in common: They involve something of high value to her – food, toys, her mom. Called “resource guarding,” she is demonstrating her possession of an object, food or a person. Resource guarding behaviors include standing stiffly over an object, giving a “hairy eyeball look,” growling, snarling and even snapping or biting if the more subtle signals are ignored.

There are solutions to resource guarding, starting with discontinuing any scolding. We recommended that Brenda stop chastising either dog and start training them both, spending individual time working with each dog separately. We suggested removing Shira’s favorite toys for now, and feeding the dogs in separate areas, picking up their dishes before she lets them together again.

With the exception of Brenda herself, this eliminates “guardable” resources from the dogs’ interaction. Shira’s attitude toward Brenda as a “resource” will change through training, by Brenda’s taking a leadership role. She can easily affect the dogs’ behavior with simple commands.

For example, she can put one dog on a sit or down-stay and pet the other, and then switch her attention to the other dog. If the dog she’s petting starts to growl, she can send a strong message that this is unacceptable by simply marking the behavior with “Uh!” and discontinuing petting. Much more powerful than scolding, it lets the dog know, “When you growl, I stop petting you.”

Over time, as they get to know each other better, it’s likely that Shira and Maggie would at least learn to tolerate each other, and might even become friends. Finally, this story illustrates one problem with getting a dog for your dog. Adding additional dogs to your family should be based on what the humans want. So unless you want another pet, don’t get a dog for your dog.

To learn more about this subject, I’ll be giving a free lecture entitled Adding a New Dog to Your Life – Considerations, Selection - Introduction on Tuesday, April 1st. Reservations required.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2007. All rights reserved.
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