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?