How to introduce dogs
A few months ago I took a dog to an adoption event. The dog I handled was an American pit bull terrier named Jesse. I was careful when introducing him to new dogs, because we weren’t sure how he would do.
Jesse is pictured below and is up for adoption. He was a very good boy at the adoption event and did not cause any problems. Still, I was amazed by how careless some people were when introducing their pets to Jesse and the other rescue dogs. So many owners did not keep their dogs under control. A barking, lunging lab strangling itself on a buckle collar is going to cause problems even if he is “friendly.”
There were a couple instances where owners would allow their extremely hyper and out of control dogs to pull right up to Jesse head on. Since I was paying close attention and predicting these situations, I was always able to redirect Jesse so he wouldn’t try to match the other dog’s energy. That’s when a situation can easily escalate into aggression from either or both dogs.
Humans meet face to face with eye contact and a handshake. Naturally, this is how we tend to introduce dogs to one another. When friendly, socialized dogs are introduced face to face, they usually manage to be OK. They are not necessarily comfortable, but they deal with it. Problems occur when one dog is too excited or has any issues with leash aggression or dominance. That’s when head-on greetings can lead to a fight.
Luckily most dogs will be OK no matter how bad the humans screw up the greeting process. But here are some tips for introducing two dogs when one or both could have some issues with dominance, aggression or fear.
Tips for safely introducing two dogs
Exercise both dogs separately before they meet.
It depends on the dog, but a good 45-minute walk is ideal for most. Dogs with any kind of aggression issues should be walked for an hour or more before meeting another dog. The same goes with shelter or rescue dogs that have been kenneled for days or weeks. I ran with Jesse before the adoption event, and another volunteer had walked him earlier in the morning so he was good and tired before meeting other dogs. The less energy the dog has when it meets another dog, the better. Even though my mutt Ace is submissive, I almost always take him for a walk before he meets a new dog so he doesn’t bring extra excitement to the situation.
Walk the dogs together.
This is sometimes impossible to do if neither dog has had enough exercise. That’s why exercising the dogs separately first is a must. Then you can walk the dogs together as a pack. Do this before you allow the dogs to smell one another. Keep one dog on each side of you or walk side by side with the other person. Don’t allow the dogs to cross in front or behind you. After a short walk, then you can allow some casual sniffing but keep moving forward.
Stop and let the dogs smell one another.
After a short walk (5 to 20 minutes) with no issues, stop and let the dogs smell one another. Don’t worry so much about the embarrassing behaviors dogs do like butt sniffing. It’s usually best to let the dogs do their thing. We all know that dogs gather information about one another by sniffing.
As far as humping goes, I block the behavior with a quick “Hey!” or I snap my fingers. Dogs will naturally hump one another to establish who is dominant, but if not monitored the behavior can lead to a fight.
Learn to read dog body language.
I often watch Ace’s tail when we are out on walks. Normally when he’s in a relaxed, working mode, his tail is also relaxed and low. But when he sees another dog, his tail goes up. This doesn’t signal aggression, but it signals he is in an alert mode. Submissive or insecure dogs will have their tails very low or tucked between their legs, often wagging frantically as a sign of stress. Aggressive dogs often have their tail stiff and straight out.
After meeting another dog, Ace will also shake his whole body as though he’s just gotten out of a lake. This shows he’s ready to move on, as though he’s saying, “What’s next?” It’s kind of like letting out a sigh of relief after I meet a new person. The tension is gone and we can move on.
The most obvious sign of a playful, friendly dog is when he does a “play bow.” After Ace meets another dog, he usually proceeds to walk away and smell the grass. This “lack of interest” shows the other dog he is not a threat.
As for signs of aggression, watch for stiff body posture, fixated eyes, curled lips and raised hair.
Use appropriate training collars.
Having control over the situation is very important. A lunging, pulling, panting lab on a buckle collar will be hard for anyone to control. Sometimes a choke collar helps, but only if it’s used properly and stays high on the dog’s neck. Most dogs are easy to control on a pinch collar, which is what I usually use on new dogs. Head collars also work well, but it takes a dog awhile to get used to one. A dog Gentle Leader or Halti often has a calming effect on a dog. Ace sometimes wears his Gentle Leader in new situations for this reason.
Avoid small spaces.
Dogs can attack if they feel trapped and have nowhere to run. You also want to prevent one dog from cornering the other. If the dogs meet in an open area like a park, this shouldn’t be an issue.
Don’t use an excited voice. In fact, don’t talk to the dogs at all. Talking gets them excited, and you want to have two calm dogs. At the same time, don’t allow too much tension in the leash. It will just make the dog resist you and pull away. It can also make the dog feel tense and more likely to strike out.
Introduce the dogs on neutral territory.
Dogs are territorial and can be possessive. It’s a bad idea to introduce them in a home or yard where one lives. Instead, introduce them in a park or parking lot where neither dog will find it necessarily to guard or protect “his” territory.
How not to introduce two dogs:
Don’t allow one dog to cower near you.
If one dog is insecure and using you as a guard or shield, keep moving. This is not cute behavior, it’s insecurity. You don’t want a fight to end up beneath or near you because you could be bitten. Dogs that don’t know how to socialize often end up getting attacked by other dogs who see them as weak. My old golden retriever was an insecure dog and would try to hide between my legs. Whenever I allowed her to do this, I was feeding into her insecurities, not helping her.
Don’t allow dogs to guard you.
Often, one dog is possessive over the owner and the owner doesn’t even know it. I foster dogs and offer pet sitting in Fargo, and almost every time I have a new dog in the house, it tries to place itself between Ace and I. My parents’ golden (right) does the same thing and tries to hog all the attention by pushing Ace out of the way or claiming the ground at my feet. Guarding is not acceptable because the dog is trying to dominate both the other dog and the person. When you are introducing dogs, keep moving and be aware of signs of possessiveness over you!
Don’t use an excited voice.
You want to calm the dogs, not rile them up.
Don’t create tension in the leash.
Dogs pick up on our posture and body language more than we realize. Tension in the leash or in your body posture will only make the dogs feel tense. Be relaxed so they will also be relaxed.
Yelling will only make things worse. If a fight does happen, it will always look and sound worse than it is. Yelling and getting worked up usually adds to the intensity. If the dogs do get into a minor scuffle, don’t separate them right away. Take a step back, take them for a longer walk together and try again. This is the only way they are going to learn to get along. Separating them will not teach the dogs anything.
Don’t let the dogs approach head on.
When animals are challenging one another, they use direct eye contact and a head-on approach. Don’t set up a fight for your dog by introducing him this way to other animals. When I had Jesse at the adoption event, I made sure not to allow other dogs to approach Jesse head on. I always redirected Jesse’s attention to me instead.
Put away all food and toys.
Don’t have anything available that could cause possessiveness or a fight. I’ve seen Ace act possessive over a water bowl! Avoid fights at all costs by putting anything away that could cause a dog to be possessive such as a tennis ball, raw hide or food you are eating.
What tips do you have for introducing dogs?
5/6/10 update: Jesse has been adopted!