How to introduce unfamiliar dogs

As you know, we have learned the hard way from some dog-to-dog introductions (see Rainer attacking potential adopter’s dog) that introducing strange dogs to each other is a very important and delicate process.

Heath and Loki
Young bros Heath and Loki sizing each other up.

Most of you probably have already heard these tips before, but here are some of the things I’ve had to remind myself of, repeatedly, when introducing dogs to each other.

Calm yourself first

Especially after the Rainer incident and seeing how badly introductions can go, I get SO nervous about new dogs meeting. Pyrrha, obviously, picks up on this, and this only ratchets up her anxiety. The big thing I’ve had to teach myself, every time, is to slow down, BREATHE, and loosen up. I close my eyes for a second, I take deep breaths, I loosen my posture and my grip on the leash (not entirely, but so that Pyrrha isn’t feeling any tension on her harness or collar). Dogs reflect our moods and study the nuances of our body language so much more than we even realize. Putting myself in a calm state is always the first thing I have to do when introducing new dogs.

Truly “neutral” ground is hard to find

All of the advice you read says to let the dogs meet on “neutral territory,” but I’ve found that this is quite difficult. Fosters are often just dropped off at our house, and even if we went to a nearby park, there’s still the possibility that Pyrrha would see that as “her” territory. Thankfully, Pyrrha has never shown signs of territorial protection/aggression (she is not very shepherd-y in that way), so our strategy has been to keep the dogs leashed and far apart in our spacious front yard, and then if that observational period/meeting goes well, we transition to the backyard and let them drag their leashes for a bit before unhooking them. Have you been able to find and utilize “neutral” ground when introducing new dogs?

Don’t try this alone

Always have another dog-savvy person help you! Particularly if you don’t know the dogs’ backgrounds (as if often the case with foster dogs who have come straight from the shelter). My husband is usually the one who helps me introduce our fosters to Pyrrha. Talk to your helper in advance about what your strategy is going to be (e.g., you walk that way, I’ll walk this way, and then we’ll see how they do, etc.).

Resist the urge to let them meet face-to-face

This is a hard one, and this is why the “walk apart from each other for a while” method is repeated. Most dogs are naturally going to pull you straight up to each other, and this is how the fights can start. I wasn’t sure how to pull off this “walking apart” business, but the best strategy I read seems to be to have one handler-dog pair walk in front of the other, kind of staggered, and then switch places, let the dogs sniff where the other dog has been, and carefully observe the next step:

Study that body language!

Brush up on the subtleties of canine body language, and watch for those calming signals (or, more importantly, the lack of calming signals). Be extremely wary of stiffened postures and hard stares. The slightest shift in a dog’s movement can signal a transition toward either play or fight mode.

Also: Don’t be afraid to tell the other handler what signals you’re noticing. I wish, wish, wish I had done this with the dog that Rainer attacked; I should have told his owner, “Your dog is giving Rainer a really hard stare. This probably isn’t a good idea.” But she couldn’t see that — and I couldn’t see what Rainer was doing. And so we ended up with a fairly serious dog fight. The dogs are already communicating with each other silently; as humans, we should remember to communicate with each other verbally about what we’re observing, otherwise we can both miss some pretty clear signals that the dogs are giving off.

Off-leash behavior vs. on-leash behavior

Once dogs have passed the on-leash greeting portion and seem to be amiable toward one another, I like to transition them into a spacious fenced area for them to be off leash together. As we know, leashes build tension, and dogs can really have the freedom to interact naturally with one another when the leashes are off. I like to let them drag the leads for just a few minutes once in the fence — in case something does escalate, we can intervene with more agency if a leash is still attached. But once things seem to be going smoothly, leashes come off, and we stand back and watch and let the dogs do their thing.

Play-date with Juniper
Juniper and Pyrrha. As you can see, this could have been tense, but Juniper is defusing Pyr by averting her gaze.

Online Resources

Break for some butt sniffing
Some good old-fashioned butt sniffing. (Pyrrha and Roland)

What have you learned from your experiences of introducing two unfamiliar dogs? Any helpful advice or wisdom you’d like to share?

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23 thoughts on “How to introduce unfamiliar dogs

  1. Thanks for this! I get so anxious when my Cairn, Mr. Gatsby, meets new dogs. He can be kind of a bully (hello, Terrier breeds!), and most people just think he’s a small, sweet dog. He gets some pretty rough leash rage at times, but I’m working on my signals to him to help calm him down.

  2. Great post, Abby!

    Jayde and I recently moved into some dog-friendly apartments. It always amazes me when people will either completely avoid any interactions between my dog and theirs, or just let their dog loose into the dog park (that serves as a play space & potty park for the resident dogs) without any thought to how my dog may react to theirs.

    Jayde is a dog that doesn’t care for other dogs; she’d rather play by herself or with me, and is also insecure around new dogs. I always try to monitor the situation and make it as comfortable for Jayde as possible. But it is very frustrating to deal with “ignorant” or “loose” owners! Maybe I’ll make a flyer with your key points and hang it up on the gate. ;P

    1. I agree with you; I always am watching oblivious owners almost as closely (if not more closely) than their dogs! And if someone is walking a dog on a retractable leash, I cross to the other side of the street. It’s good that you know Jayde so well and know that she just doesn’t prefer to meet other dogs; I feel like not everyone may know that about their dog(s)!

  3. I’ve had similar problems with trying to introduce dogs in neutral territory. I don’t consider Cabana territorial, but then, she is in some ways. She doesn’t fight over territory, but I do think she feels a bit “invaded” when a foster comes into our house without her getting to meet him/her first somewhere else. I think she’s more playful toward a dog she’s met elsewhere and more reserved when there wasn’t a previous interaction.

    I had a really bad experience recently where the introduction went great but then, hours later, the other dog attacked Cabana without any warning. I think if you know a dog has had reactivity issues, it’s necessary to stay alert (without being tense–pretty tough to do!) and have something in your hand that can help break up a fight if it should occur, like a hose or squirt bottle with water or Bitter Apple.

    1. Thanks for this point, too, that things can go well for a while, but then escalate into a fight. Good reminder to remain vigilant in dog-to-dog interactions.

  4. We found that even if two dogs have met once on a previous occasion, meeting the second time in a car still prompts a bad reaction because our car is not neutral territory to two dogs who are acquaintances and not buddies. This is a good list 🙂

  5. We had a great meet & greet when we introduced my Terrier rescue dog to my elderly Lab mix. We walked them, one inside a tennis court fence, one out. They sniffed each other and were greatly rewarded for positive interaction through the fence. My Lab very much thought that part of the park was all his and soon felt comfortable enough to let the Terrier into our yard. I’m sure since then; he’s had a few second thoughts 🙂 They have navigated a friendship since then.

  6. First time visitor! Great tips. We have three dogs and introducing our littermates to their new brother was great. But Sydney and Rodrigo love new dogs and Blue was a puppy at the time so we just stayed on hand to monitor play time. Blue didn’t need our help. I love watching the videos of that first weekend.

    I have had to tell people that we won’t allow our dogs to be introduced to others while on leash, because like you said, if I’m unable to relax, then they can’t relax either.

    Thanks for being a voice of reason and helping dog lovers understand dogs.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kimberly. I think you’re right; I personally need to be better at telling PEOPLE what I think about our dogs meeting, instead of just “letting things happen,” which can often lead to unfavorable situations. Appreciate you stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

  7. I think we often expect far too much from dogs to meet and accept dogs in one breath. For foster dogs, coming into my home, there is no rush for them to be introduced to the dogs in my house. They normally run in a yard first for a few hours, then I run them alongside another dog (in another yard) for an hour so and go from there. Some dogs don’t cope next to another dog in a yard, so they might not be introduced to my dogs for a week or two. Some dogs display pleasant body language through the fence and it might only be a few hours before I have them running with other dogs. Depends on the foster dog and what they’re giving me, and their levels of stress.

    In my house, it’s very rare that all 3 of my dogs interact happily and friendly with the new addition. If it does happen, it’s only after patience and a number of weeks of side-by-side running and crating.

    1. Great points, Tegan! Thanks so much for sharing them. I certainly agree with you — take your time, suss out how the dogs seem to be feeling about each other, etc., before forcing any interaction.

  8. Thank you for the info!!! About a month ago my brother brought his two chihuahua’s over (1 boy, 1 girl) and the meeting with our girl ( she’s a Shepard/Husky/Pit mix) didn’t go so well. Now this weekend my other brother is bringing his two rat terrier girls over for the weekend and I am hoping this meeting will go better.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rachel! Good luck with the terrier meeting this weekend! Hope everything goes smoothly and that the dogs enjoy each other!

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