ADDING A NEW DOG TO YOUR PACK: A dog guardian’s guide to expanding your canine family
Tiva and Taylor look quite ferocious here, don't they?
We took this photo a few years ago when Tiva Marie first joined our family. She was only a year old then, and Taylor Bay was six. Despite the toothy engagement, there’s no hostile intent. This is a snapshot of classic physical canine play. It lets dogs expend pent-up energy, challenge each other for pack position, gain trust that they won’t be deliberately hurt by the other canine, and share the sheer joy of being dogs.
It took about three weeks for this to happen, and when it did, we were very happy and relieved. This bonding and play behavior meant that Tiva had now been accepted by Taylor and was now being treated as a pack member, not an “outsider.”
When we supervise with minimal interference, and let dogs be dogs, this is how they roll; or should we say roll, tumble, snarl, growl, nip, and leap? It’s a little like “pro wrestling” on TV, with lots of drama and noise, but usually no one gets hurt. There's an occasional yelp, indicating that someone chomped down a little too hard, or stomped on a tender body part; in "fair dog" play, that yelp is an important signal and prompts the other dog to respectfully back off and let things cool down. It’s fun to watch their antics, and we marvel at their athleticism.
This was cause for celebration, because until a new dog is accepted by his or her species mates, the family can’t be re-integrated as a new whole. Humans may think that we can “force” dogs to accept each other, but inter-dog relationships are ultimately determined by the dogs. They need to build a relationship in which they like and trust each other.
It is our job as guardians and stewards of our dogs to prepare properly for new dogs and manage the situation intelligently.
SHOULD YOU ADD ANOTHER DOG? For those considering adding a new dog to an existing one-dog or multi-dog family, there are many things to consider. On the plus side, a family that has a well-adjusted, reasonably well-behaved, and healthy dog (or more than one) has proven their dog parent credentials. This experience means that they have a head start in integrating a new dog and giving the newcomer a wonderful new home. But making the leap from one dog to two or more is a big step. This article was written to help guide families in making this decision and to provide practical guidance to increase the chances of success.
ARE MULTI-DOG HOUSEHOLDS HAPPIER? Your solo dog may benefit from the addition of a well-matched canine companion. Based on 30 years of observation with our own dogs, and thousands of contacts with other dog lovers, I believe that most dogs are better adjusted and less stressed when living with at least one other dog. They flourish when they can bond with a friendly member of their own species who "speaks their language." Separation anxiety is one of the most common causes of serious behavior problems and canine depression in solo dog homes, and this is especially so with busy working families who need to leave their dogs home alone daily. The good news is that separation anxiety and its sometimes destructive behavioral results are very rare in multi-dog households.
THE DECISION TO ADD A NEW DOG SHOULD BE MADE CAREFULLY. You don't want to bring a dog home and then have the gut-wrenching experience of having to return them to the shelter or rescue because of failure to successfully integrate into the household. Failure to integrate can be caused by aggression and tension between the new and existing dogs. And despite the above reference to safe “rough canine play,” there is always a risk of actual fighting or one-sided aggression that can cause serious injury or even death to one of the dogs involved.
SIX QUESTIONS TO ASK BEFORE ADDING A NEW DOG: By no means is this article intended to discourage you from adding a new dog. Instead, look at it as a checklist of reminders. Before getting another dog (or getting your first dog, for that matter) you must first think seriously about it and decide if it's right for you and your family. Enter this commitment as one would enter a marriage, with eyes wide open and the intention to MAKE IT WORK even when its neither fun nor easy. Here are the questions:
- Can you afford it? The extra dog will mean more money for food, toys, accessories, and the biggest obligation, proper veterinary care.
- Do you have the time and patience? It sounds like fun, and indeed it can be very rewarding, to have a new canine companion in your family. But before making that decision, be honest with yourself about whether family members are prepared to step up to the plate and find time to handle the extra demands on your time to walk, feed, play with, and clean up after a new dog. If your kids are begging for another dog, make sure they are ready to help out to the best of their ability based on age.
- Can you deal with a few bumps along the way? You'll need to accept the inevitable housebreaking accidents and minor damage that can come with a new dog. This is not to say that you should tolerate these things long term, or that you shouldn't intervene to prevent them! But even if you adopt a mellow older dog, some mishaps can still occur. Don't bring a dog into your home if the first chewed shoe or pillaged trash can will have you exploding with anger! That stress is bad for your health and the dog's future. Take it in stride and correct firmly but gently. This too shall pass.
- Will you work to properly, and safely, integrate the new pooch into the family pack? Not only do you have to teach the newbie how to follow your house rules, you also must be the leaders of the pack when it comes to supervising a new pack social structure among the dogs. Plan on playing an active role in stopping conflicts and encouraging positive play and mutual respect. In our experience, this is a lot easier than getting human siblings to stop squabbling!
- Will you resist an impulsive decision? This is extremely important. As dog lovers, we can get caught up in the emotion of an opportunity to get a new dog. But a new dog decision made in haste has a dramatically lower chance of success. By choosing to read this guide, you're already ahead of the curve. Follow the guidelines, and study your current dogs' behavior, lifestyle, energy level, and demeanor with other dogs before moving forward. TIP: Even if your dog seems anxious when they meet new dogs on walks or at the park, that could change completely when a new dog actually becomes part of your family and their pack. Keep an open mind and do your due diligence by arranging "meet and greets" between existing dogs and new prospects.
- Will you carefully choose a new dog based not only on your preferences but on the criteria for compatibility with your current canines?
TAKING THE PLUNGE WITH A NEW DOG: In our case, we acted a bit impulsively when bringing Tiva home from a local rescue. But the situation was unusual because of our being deeply involved in the pet care industry and knowing the owner of a local rescue, training, and doggy daycare business who we trust and respect tremendously. She is a very knowledgeable dog person, an expert trainer, and she has rescued, raised, and trained very strong-willed working dogs for decades. She made a recommendation based on already knowing our dogs' personalities, and after carefully watching her interact with other dogs at the rescue. Tiva was a "go along and get along" girl, not a fighter or a strongly dominant dog. This would make successful integration far more likely to succeed.
BE CAREFUL WITH DOMINANT DOGS: Bringing a dominant dog or one with a known history of aggression into a current dog-occupied household (or any home for that matter) is work for an expert, not a family who loves dogs but who isn't experienced in advanced training. Do your family, your current dogs, and the new dog a favor by not bringing him or her into a situation in which he or she is being set up to fail. At the very least, there could be the sadness and guilt of realizing that this dog can't work as part of your family, and then having to return the dog for re-adoption after you have already bonded. In a worst-case scenario, your current dogs and the new dog could be seriously injured if they decide to fight and you can't stop it.
CANINE COMPATIBILITY ASSESSMENT: If you have honestly answered "YES" to the tough questions above as to whether you have the time, money, and patience to go ahead with a new dog, the next step is choosing the right one for your family.
- Exercise caution: no hasty adoptions! This means not making a one-visit impulsive decision. If you are drawn to a certain dog, as often happens, look at that as a starting point, not a final decision. Hopefully, the dog is in a situation where they have been monitored for at least several days. This provides shelter and rescue staff the opportunity to observe the dog's personality, and to assess their interaction with other dogs. Hopefully they have gotten along well with most or all of them.
- Size matters with dogs! Use basic common sense when narrowing down your choices. Part of the potential for canine compatibility is based on the size, demeanor, and energy level of the new dog when compared to your current canine companions. It doesn't need to be a perfect match; little dogs and big dogs can be amazingly close friends. Rather, it's an "educated guessing game" based on physical realities with a little "dog-dar" intuition thrown in. For example, is adding a two-pound pocket pooch like a toy breed to a home with two rambunctious 80 lb. Labs a great match? It might work, but it's less likely to allow free play and interaction. You'll wind up "babying" the little dog and the big guys will get the short end of the deal. Dogs of very different size and energy levels who were raised together can get along beautifully, but throwing them together as adults is more challenging.
- Assess the new dog's personality: Get the best feedback you can from everyone who knows the dog, from shelter managers to the volunteers who may have interacted with the potential new family member. It's tough to assess a dog's personality when they are between homes, since they will act very differently when stressed, scared and lonely. They tug at our heartstrings from behind a crate door and seem meek and mild, but this evaluation is of little value in assessing what will happen when they are set loose in your home! The more you know, the better the chance of success. Ask lots of questions.
- Take a Walk on the Mild Side: Ask to take the dog for a safe and gentle walk on a secure lead with proper supervision of the current caregivers. Don't judge too harshly if the dog isn't a perfect "citizen canine" on a lead. Dogs in shelters or temporary foster homes tend to be stressed, and you are a new wild card in their already tumultuous lives. But the "test walk" is still a valuable part of an initial compatibility assessment.
- Arrange a meet and greet between your dogs and the prospective adoptee. This should be done with complete supervision, initially at the place where the potential new dog is living. It’s not recommended just walk the new dog into your home for the first meeting. Have modest expectations; although it can happen, don't expect doggy love at first sight. A successful meet is one where you see curious and cautious mutual canine interest without TIP: Don't interpret a lot of barking and noise making at a first meeting as dealbreakers. Many dogs just love to raise a ruckus with new canine contacts. Posturing and bluster are expected as long as there is no overt aggression, the first meeting shouldn't signal a mismatch. But beware if it seems too quiet, with circling and raised hackles, curled back lips, or other pre-fight behaviors. Stay in control.
- DON'T FORGET ABOUT YOUR CAT or other pets. In the excitement of considering a new dog, did you forget about your cats, birds, or small animals? Birds and small animals can be protected, but cats have free reign in a household, so they are especially vulnerable. Ask if the new dog is good with cats. Sometimes, there isn't enough history to answer honestly and accurately, so you'll have to have this understanding as part of your trial arrangement. (see below for trial arrangement procedures and expectations)
- Arrange a visit at your home. If the meet and greet goes well, ask if you can do a home visit. Ask a volunteer to bring the dog and hang out at your home with you and your dogs for 30 minutes to an hour. If you can, offer to donate a little extra money or volunteer some of your time to the rescue for their extra time and effort. Warning: be very wary of a rescue that has little time or concern for insuring compatibility and just wants you to "pick a dog, donate your money, and move on." That's a rescue or shelter that is thinking more of short-term placement than achieving the goal of a forever home for the dog who needs it.
- Learn all about the adoptee's health status. Sometimes there are no records at all, and other times, you will get a complete history. If you have verified vaccination records, DON'T do repeat vaccinations until they are due. Over-vaccination has been proven to cause adverse reactions in many dogs, and "extra" vaccinations don't add more immunity or protection. If you are told that a dog has existing health issues, don't immediately reject the dog. It may be a minor situation easily treated such as parasites (worms), or a temporary situation such as kennel cough which is common in dogs rescued from disaster areas or unknown circumstances. Protect your family dogs by treating the new dog for worms if needed and allowing the kennel cough virus to work through its course before bringing the new dog home.
Serious health issues: Many people adopt dogs with a chronic illness such as diabetes, arthritis, hip dysplasia, or other conditions that are very treatable but won’t get better. This is one of the noblest and most generous things you can do for a dog that needs a new guardian and caregiver. But as much as you may want to help a dog with serious health problems, make sure you know exactly what you are getting yourself into financially as well as emotionally. You won't be helping the dog if you get 3 months in and decide you can't handle their needs.
Geriatric adoptions: Sadly, there are countless older dogs in need of homes because of changes in their human situations. Many rescues specialize in helping older dogs who find themselves homeless. Please consider opening your heart and home to these wonderful senior canine citizens; but again do so with eyes wide open as to the sometimes higher cost of caring for an older dog and with the intention of taking care of them for the rest of their lives, for better or worse.
TAKING THE PLUNGE WITH A NEW POOCH: If the dog stars align, you’ve considered the facts above, and you feel the doggy love bug biting you, it may be time to go forward. But attention, "grownups;" you're in charge. Not the kids, not the shelter manager, not your Social Media friends. NO ONE ELSE CAN MAKE THIS DECISION BUT THE ADULT HEADS OF THE HOUSEHOLD. Reach consensus with your spouse or significant other. If it’s one for, and one against, you're heading for trouble down the road.
Don't get freaked out by rescue and shelter "investigations:" Reputable and conscientious shelters will ask lots of questions and may require more paperwork than you expect. Sometimes you will be asked to allow a home visit to assess your living situation. All of this can feel quite intrusive. After all, you’re about to make a huge emotional and financial commitment out of love and kindness. But if the shelter management aren't crossing the line by being nasty or violating your privacy with excessive or inappropriate questions about your personal life, be patient and candid. Try to be good-natured about it and realize that it's their protective instincts at work, not suspicion personally directed at you and your family. Every rescue has had negative experiences with new guardians, so they are just trying to insure the best chance of a successful result for everyone.
THE TRIAL ADOPTION ARRANGEMENT: Just as you should be tolerant of questions about your suitability for the new dog, you have a right to get an ironclad understanding of your rights and the shelter's obligations. This should always include a reasonable and brief trial period in which you can return the new dog. One week is a fair minimum, and two weeks is a fair outer limit. This is not just for you; it is for the safety and well-being of the dog. Trial adoption isn't "borrowing a dog to hang out." It's only properly done with those who sincerely and wholeheartedly have decided to make a lifetime adoption commitment. The return option exists if, despite your best and most sincere efforts, things go drastically wrong. If you can’t see any chance of things getting better, you must consider the extraordinarily difficult decision of returning the dog to the shelter. Your broken heart is a small price to pay to give the dog a chance at finding the right home if yours is the wrong one.
ADVICE FOR THE FIRST FEW WEEKS AT HOME WITH A NEW DOG: These key guidelines will help to dramatically increase your chance of successfully integrating a new dog with your family pooch or pack:
- GET A CRATE, OR DIG OUT YOUR OLD ONE: This is critical! When introducing a new dog to your household, you need a crate for the protection of your home and the safety of both current and newcomer dogs. This will come in handy when you are home and need quiet time or space to get things done without the dogs underfoot. Crating the new dog is essential whenever you leave the dogs alone. DO NOT leave a new dog roaming around your house without competent human supervision until you’ve had plenty of time to establish trust. This could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
- CRATES ARE NOT “PUNISHMENT”: Placing the new dog in a crate is the proper method of giving the dogs a “time out” if they are getting too rowdy, but never treat it as punishment; always be very upbeat and speak softly and positively when gently but firmly ushering the new dog into their crate. Place the dog in the right-sized crate, leave them a toy, and give them a treat. If you believe that crating a dog safely and securely is "cruel," rethink. Without the safety net of a crate, your chances of a smooth transition and ultimate success plummets. With a proper crating option readily available, your likelihood of a successful integration increases dramatically. This advice is not just for the benefit of the dogs, it’s for your You’ll be able to leave your house without worry if you have the new dog crated until you are 99% sure that neither conflict nor destructive behaviors will occur in your absence. You'll know when it's safe to trust the new dog, but expect that it could take weeks or a few months before a new canine family member has unsupervised house freedom.
- Get a "fresh" bed and a couple of toys for the new dog. The current dogs will probably be protective of their bedding and toys. Launder a retired bed or buy a new one. Buy a rugged toy or two so the newcomer can have their own toys to play and sleep with.
- FEED AND TREAT NEW DOGS SEPARATELY AND CAREFULLY: The biggest potential conflicts between current and new dogs is usually around food and treats. Use common sense. Feed your new dog in a separate and safe place away from the current dogs. Do this until the dogs adapt to a new routine and can go to their bowls and eat without food competition causing dinnertime dust-ups.
- IT'S OK TO PLAY FAVORITES WITH YOUR CURRENT CANINES: While your instinct may be to show the current dogs that the newbie is welcome by being effusively affectionate in their presence, it's the wrong way to go. You'll be giving them a reason to distrust the new kid in town. Too much fawning over the new arrival could cause intense jealousy and protectiveness that will cause your dogs to initiate guarding behavior to keep the new dog away from you. After all, you belong to your dogs as far as they are concerned! Instead, make it clear that you care for and intend to make a home for the new dog by your actions as well as a kind voice and demeanor. Go ahead and reassure your established dogs by being especially affectionate and attentive (without going over the top). Of course, there's no harm in sneaking in some hugs and belly rubs with your adorable new pooch when you can do so privately without getting the others jealous.
- GROW AND LEARN AS A FAMILY "PACK": Take advantage of this new beginning to review your nutritional options, enroll in obedience classes with your dogs, and get more active exercising with your dogs if they are the active type and not couch potatoes. This will keep you and your canine family healthier!
Congratulations and thank you for saving a dog. It is often said that there are so many dogs who need homes, so what can one person do about it? The answer is really quite simple: you can make an enormous difference in ONE dog's life by making the commitment and opening your heart, home, and wallet to a new dog. But by thinking it through and doing it the right way, you've given this new dog much more than a place to live and food to eat. You've given this new dog the greatest gift that a human can offer a dog: a forever home, with a loving and bonded family of both human and canine pack mates, for LIFE.
Anthony Bennie is the Founder and Chief Nutrition Officer of Clear Conscience Pet. He is a Pet Industry Icon Award-Winner and writes frequently on pet care and nutrition topics. Visit clearconsciencepet.com for more articles and to explore the award-winning healthy products made by Clear Conscience Pet.Contact: Anthony@clearconsciencepet.com