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Training Tips: Introducing Dogs Safely

Sue Kocher, dog trainer at our Care First Animal Hospital at Grace Park location, guest writes an article on introducing dogs safely. 

Not everyone has a dog that loves other dogs, wants to play with them, and has excellent manners. Many of us have dogs that are over-exuberant (read: obnoxious) , nervous (read: snappish), or just plain not terribly interested in other dogs. Poor social skills can be caused by insufficient socialization in puppyhood, or it can be simply the personality of the dog. Often it’s some of both. In any case, dogs don’t absolutely need to play happily with other dogs to be wonderful, clever, affectionate, awesome companions for us.

Ask a dog-savvy friend to help with the dog training process

Nevertheless, there are many situations in which you might need your dog to meet, greet, and have at least a cordial relationship with another dog. Perhaps you are bringing another dog permanently into the family or farm, or you are boarding a dog temporarily. Maybe you want to start regular walks with a friend and her dog, or set up regular canine play times for fun and exercise.

First impressions tend to be remembered—by dogs, as well as by people. Furthermore, every time a dog has a stressful introduction with another dog, it increases the likelihood that future interactions will be even more stressful. Dog owners who regularly push their dogs to “Say Hi” with negative results often end up creating a severely dog-aggressive pet, especially on leash.

Of course, if your dogs is well socialized with dogs of all kinds, and has no history of aggressive behavior, then the introductions will likely go well with little effort. But if either dog tends to be reactive, or you are less than 100% confident of how they will behave, then take the time to ensure a safe and pleasant introduction. Be especially careful not to excuse pushy exuberance or bullying as “just friendly”—such behavior is not appreciated by a dog that is sensitive or fearful, and can result in a serious fight.

To help ensure a calm, happy introduction, my favorite method is to start by walking both dogs, in parallel, on a low-distraction, neutral place. You start with plenty of distance apart, and slowly move closer together, using food rewards copiously. The key is to take it slowly and not allow either dog to go “over threshold” (the mental state in which the dog is so excited he can’t hear or obey you). Be generous with high-quality food rewards—because if the dogs conclude that “that other dog” somehow makes treats happen, that’s great!

General rules:

· Recruit a dog-savvy friend to walk one of the dogs on leash, while you walk the other.

· Use a treat bag with a belt clip, or get an inexpensive carpenter’s apron at your home improvement center. Fill it with copious amounts of really delicious, highly-valued treats, cut into small pieces. Don’t be cheap now—hard biscuits might garner enthusiasm in your kitchen but not outdoors when there is drama going on! Use lean meat, hot dogs, or cheese. Make up another bag for your friend—you will both need treats.

· Keep the leash LOOSE throughout the introduction, as much as possible. You do not want to create tension and panic by stringing up your dog on a tight leash. If your dog is constantly pulling, then you are too close! Move farther apart, without delay, using a food lure.

· Use a Gentle Leader head harness if either dog has a tendency to pull or lunge.

· Breathe! Keep your mood happy and light and do NOT yell, snap your leash, or use any kind of aversives when dogs are already in a stressful situation. (Excited stress is still stress!)

The Introduction

1) Arrange with your friend to meet you with the other dog and a place that has plenty of space to walk on a smooth surface with at least 10 feet of distance between you, and where you will not meet other dogs in close proximity. A closed-off gravel road, or a mall parking lot outside opening hours, will work well.

2) Prepare to walk together, in parallel, with the dogs on the outside. That means that the person on the left will have his dog on his left, and the person on the right will have her dog on her right. How far apart? Just far enough so that the dogs are aware of each other, but are not pulling and struggling.

Dog training starts when they're young

3) Use your food to get your dog’s attention—asking her to sit, give you eye contact, anything she has learned that will earn treats and take her mind off the other dog.

4) Start walking! As you go, ask your dog for eye contact, talk to him, give him treats when his head is near your leg and he’s not pulling. Be generous and keep the rate of reinforcement high. If either dog is pulling inward, add distance.

5) As the dogs adjust to the distance you’ve been working with, you move one step closer and keep walking. Reward every good behavior–which often means rewarding “not being bad”. Reward your dogs for looking at the other dog without reacting.

6) If you can walk for 30-60 minutes, slowly moving closer, that’s ideal. When you can walk 2 feet from your friend and her dog (remember, the dogs are on the outside and people next to each other) and you’re not getting any signs of aggression or pushy insistence on meeting the other dog, it’s time to let them meet.

7) You can now travel to your fenced yard, or any large fenced/walled area, and walk around a bit more.

Two dogs playing together in daycamp

8) Let the dogs sniff. Follow them around so they don’t get tangled, and if all looks friendly, then drop the leashes, step back, and no more treats.

9) Let them play if they want (but no toys or bones that they might fight over). If you see any signs of posturing, attempts at humping or shoulder-grabbing, etc., both humans should pick up the leashes, say “Let’s GO!” in a happy voice, and run a few steps away to play with your dog and give treats.

If you take it slow, reward good behavior copiously, and observe carefully, you will give the dogs a solid foundation for future friendship. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

Dog training classes are held at all four of our Care First Animal Hospital locations. For more information you can click here or give us a call!

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