How to introduce a new dog into your home
This is the best wrong way I know. Before taking advice from the internet, get help from a professional animal behavior specialist.
It’s the holiday season and my feed is full of people welcoming new dogs into families. Some of these are adopted or rescue animals, which is awesome. Sprinkled throughout these posts and pictures though, are stories of unrest, of new dogs not meshing, not blending in seamlessly, which is not awesome.
Rather than spend another 20 minutes crafting a swype-o-laden post on another group chat somewhere, I thought I’d write this here instead.
I’m not a professional dog trainer. I’m just a guy who likes dogs and happens to have introduced a bunch of them to my animals in my house, so use your judgment. If you’re experiencing behaviors that you don’t feel like reading a blog post will help you fix, then find a dog trainer who specializes in whatever behavior you’re seeing.
There are professionals who can help…seek them out.
Your mileage may vary.
First, here is a little background with some assumptions sprinkled in
My wife and I have been fostering dogs through Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue since 2010. We’ve had about two dozen dogs stay with us anywhere from 2 hours to 2 years. Those dogs have ranged from puppies to elderly, and from stable to reactive. Thankfully we’ve always had support and training available to me from the rescue.
Every situation is different, and a post to cover all the potential variables could fill volumes. For brevity and clarity, I had to make a few assumptions.
- You understand that dogs are pack animals and, to be totally clear, they are not humans, so don’t treat them like humans.
- I can only speak to what I know, so I’m going to assume there are two adult humans, a single dog permanent dog, two permanent cats and no kids in the home.
- I’m also going to assume you’re adopting an adult dog who has a history that you know nothing about. That means that this dog might be rock-solid, good with kids, other dogs, and cats. Or it might not.
- What else….Both of those adult humans work full time which means that the dogs will be unattended for up to 10 hours a day.
- And finally, to reduce the use of ambiguous pronouns, your new dog’s name is Nelly (New Nelly) and your current dog’s name is Zeke (or Old Zeke) for the purposes of this conversation.
I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting, but like Wooderson says, “We’ll worry about that later.”
OK, Let’s Get Down to Brass Tacks
Here’s the process I use. Again, this works for me with most dogs. When I have an issue, more often than not it’s because I broke my own rules. Here are the steps, with a brief description of each below. It’s the best wrong way I know.
- Controlled introductions
- The new dog is always tethered to you
- Train your dog
- All good things in life come from you (but only after they’re earned)
- Control Food and Doors
- Exercise your dog
- Do the 2-Week Shut Down
Let’s expand on those a bit.
Look back at those assumptions and remember that you don’t know anything about Nelly, so don’t take any chances. Few things scare me more than people introducing dogs nose-to-nose at the end of two leashes as they charge at each other, followed by one shoving it’s muzzle into the other one’s crotch and taking a good whiff.
Old Zeke might be OK with that. Nelly might be OK with that. But they might not, and to me, it’s not worth the risk.
So what do you do instead? Great question.
A pack walk with one handler per dog is a great place to start for a couple of reasons.
- First, it’s hard for either dog to obsess about anything when they’re both doing a job like taking a focused walk.
- Second, they both know the other one is there, and they get to know each other’s smell just fine from a few feet away.
After a brief walk, bring Nelly to your fenced in yard (crap, Assumption number … whatever, “You have a fenced-in yard.”) then the house, but the whole time you are watching body language, both Nelly’s and Old Zeke’s, and she stays tethered to you the whole time, which brings me to point #2.
The new dog is always tethered to you
How’s that for a smooth transition?
I can hear the groaning….“Tethered? Like always? What is this, Russia for dogs?”
The short answer is, “Yes, any time Nelly is not crated, it’s literally tied to you at the hip.”
There is a method to the madness.
Left to their own devices, dogs can make terrible decisions. Tethering starts to build Nelly’s trust in you to make all the decisions so she doesn’t have to. And what better way to bond with her than forcing her to follow you literally everywhere?
What time is breakfast? Follow me.
What time do I go outside? Follow me.
You get the idea.
Train your dog
Sit. Stay. Release.
Train those three things least 3 times a day. Start with 2-5 minute training sessions and build to 10-15 minutes over time.
Sit is pretty straightforward.
Stay is a pretty simple concept, but a controversial command, believe it or not. Some say “stay” is implied, until the next command. I use “stay.”
Release is what I use for “go ahead and do what you want to do!” Usually, there’s a pretty clear target like a food bowl, a doorway, or a toy. If you don’t like “release”, then pick a word that means the same thing, but isn’t part of your daily vocabulary.
All good things in life come from you (but only after they’re earned)
Of all the mistakes people make with new dogs, this one is the most often missed, and leads to the most unwanted behavior. Conversely, if you have a dog that has behavior issues, this way of correcting most of them.
“Nelly, want this bone?” I will give it to you, but only after you Sit, Stay, Release.
“Nelly, want to get a pat on the head?” I will pet you, but only after you Sit, Stay, Release.
“Nelly, want dinner?” I will let you eat, but only after you Sit, Stay, Release.
“Nelly, want to go outside?” I will let you out the door, but only after you Sit, Stay, Release.
The same goes for Old Zeke.
I can hear more groaning… “Zeke’s fine. It’s Nelly being that’s a pain!”
Yes, even Old Zeke has to follow the new rules. Dogs learn more than you can fathom by just watching. They don’t have words, so body language, facial expressions, and actions are how they get most of their information.
If there is one set of rules for Zeke, and another for Nelly, you will have problems.
No dog gets anything just for drawing breath. Everything must be earned.
Control Food and Doors
is is an extension of rule #4 applied to the two most critical areas of control; food and doors (and some high-value toys/treats).
With food, put it into the dog bowl on the counter. Have Nelly Sit and Stay, then set the food bowl down. Only after she gives you good eye contact do you command her to Release.
If she breaks, if she even looks down at the food, pick the food up with one hand and point to your nose with the other. (Remember what I said about dogs learning by actions? Pointing at your nose brings her attention to your face, rather than obsessing over the bowl of food.)
Then reset and try again. And again. And again and again and again, until she gets it. The first time doing this could take 20 minutes. Patience is a virtue.
With doors, have her Sit and Stay, then open the door. Only after you have walked through the door first, and then she gives you good eye contact do you command her to Release (or even better, “Heel” but that’s another post). If she breaks, close the door on her, reset, and try again.
This is an extreme exercise in patience, however, if you control food and doors with this level of discipline, many ancillary behavior issues tend to fix themselves.
Exercise your dog
Dogs need jobs. Training is good for their mind, but most breeds need physical work to do to take energy off. A walk is a good place to start, but an old friend put it to me this way.
“If you had to, you could get up at 6 am and walk straight through until 10 pm and never really be physically worn out. Uncomfortable, yes, but not exhausted.
And you only have two legs. Your dog has 4 legs. Do the math.”
A daily walk is a bare minimum for a dog. What constitutes a good walk is a whole other post (“heel” position, loose leash, focus on you, etc.) but in short, every dog needs to walk, and a lot of dogs need more than just a walk. They need to do actual work.
To take energy off of high-energy dogs, I use a doggy backpack with two 8-oz cans of tomato paste, depending on the dog. Start small with short walks and build from there.
Another fantastic tool to take energy off of a dog while enforcing training is a Flirt Pole. (Get your mind out of the gutter.)
Think Dog-Sized-Cat-Toy. It’s a stick (usually PVC Pipe) with a rope and a toy tied to the end. The one I use is 5 feet of PVC with 5 feet of rope and a toy at the end; You stand in the middle swinging the flirt pole back-and-forth, and the dog has to run 20 feet each time.
The same rules apply as for Food and Doors, use Sit, Stay, Release.
Start small (2-3 minutes tops) to avoid Nelly hurting herself, and build from there.
Do the 2-Week Shut Down
Nelly should be crated most of her waking hours. Come with me on this… (and again, tethered to you when not crated).
She doesn’t know you, Old Zeke, the cats, whether this place is safe, whether or not you’re mean.
Everything is new for her and that can be scary. Used properly, a crate can be a safe haven in a sea of brand-new-everything. Much like the partner-walk and the tethering, it gives Nelly a chance to learn about everyone, every animal and everything in the house, but do so in a totally safe place. Remember how I said that dogs tend to make bad decisions? The shut down makes it so they don’t have to make any decisions while they learn how this new place works.
Also, 2-weeks is a rule of thumb. Some dogs acclimate faster. Some have a lot of stress to shake and it takes longer.
Check out this handout from Marshmallow Foundation for more info.
It’s not a cure-all, and it’s not foolproof, but it works for me most of the time.
It is the best wrong way to introduce a new dog to your home.
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