Conflict in multi-dog households is common, and many people reach out to behavior professionals for help with this issue. Unfortunately, it is often after a very bad fight (or several) has occurred, and one or more dogs, and possibly people, are injured. It is much harder to repair a relationship once it has gone this far south. Keep in mind that most of us humans, if we have enough conflict with those that we live with, will choose to change our situation if we can. Dogs can’t do that. So it is up to us as their caretakers to do our best to set them up for success from the beginning so everyone can feel safe and happy in their own home. Here are our top tips to keep the peace in your multi-dog household:
Some Conflict is Normal:It can be challenging for us humans to recognize that some conflict between our dogs is normal. Have you ever had a disagreement with a family member, a falling out with a friend, or a break-up with a partner? Of course, we all have. It is important to remember that conflicts with those we live with and love will happen. It is no different for our dogs. It is actually safer to assume your dogs will have some conflicts rather than expect they will always tolerate each other perfectly.
However, it is also important to know which conflicts to interrupt and which to allow to play out. If one dog growls at the other over a resource, for instance, it may be o.k. to not intervene if the other dog just heeds the growl and walks away. Punishing the dog who growled is not a good idea, because they are using their communication system. Calling the other dog away may be all you need to do in this scenario. If one dog is constantly bullying the other, however, this does not make for a harmonious household and leads to chronic stress. Letting dogs “work it out on their own” will result in them doing just that. But this might come with horrible injuries to both dogs and what they work out might be that they are no longer compatible living together. So expect to gently and calmly help your dogs if you see conflicts arise.
Manage Hot Spots: It’s important to be able to recognize “hot spots.” Hot spots are scenarios or locations where dogs commonly have conflicts. These are often times when arousal levels are high or there is a resource to guard. Since these are well-known places, we can automatically insert management to prevent conflict. Some typical hot spots include:
Doorways, hallways, and stairways: Entering or exiting together as well as greeting people or running through a small space at the same time can all be tension points.
Play: Dog play is ritualized aggression. When dogs practice over-arousal without taking breaks or self-modulating, it’s easy for emotions to tip into something that’s not play anymore.
Food and bones: It is a lot of pressure to ask two dogs to eat together or chew bones together. And, it’s just not necessary.
Sleeping spaces: Who likes to be woken up unexpectedly by their roommate? Not me. Not my dogs!
Two dogs, one resource: Tossing one tennis ball for two dogs to chase is setting the dogs up for stress. It’s totally unfair.
It is also important to be able to recognize hot spots for your own particular dogs that aren’t on this list. What are your dogs’ hot spots?
Separation of Space is Crucial: So what do we do about those pesky hot spots? When minimizing conflict in a multi-dog household, separation of space is not optional. There are easy management solutions to create separation, such as crates and baby gates. Gates come in a wide-range of sizes and can be modified if necessary. Think an open-floor plan won’t accommodate a gate? My extremely open house has……six gates. No joke. Six gates and zero fighting dogs.
I know it can mess up the flow of a space to add baby gates. But think about it this way: If your dog was shivering on a very cold day, you would probably turn up the heat, put a sweater on him, make sure he is dry, or give him a blankie. You would modify his environment to meet his needs. So it is with gates.
Gates allow you to prevent dogs from greeting people together at the door, create separation of space for mealtimes, and allow for separation of dogs at different life stages who have different needs and desires (think puppy play time vs. old dog nap time).
You Can’t Force Love:People often get more than one dog because they want them to play together or have each other as companions when the humans are absent. But as much as you love both dogs, you can’t force them to love each other anymore than you can force someone to like you. Try not to put your feelings on your dogs but allow them space and time away from each other. And if there have been major conflicts, space from each other and strong management to reduce their stress levels is going to be the only path to preventing more conflict. We force dogs to tolerate relationships they had no part in choosing, and relationship dynamics we would never tolerate ourselves. The least we can do is go at their pace and allow them space.
Treat Each Dog as an Individual: Households with multiple dogs who live in relative peace usually treat their dogs a little bit differently – they do different activities, they get alone time with their humans, and they aren’t expected to hang out together all the time. I always talk to my clients about the difference between harmony and equality. Harmony is what we need in our home space. We don’t need to treat our dogs as equals, giving them each the same everything. But this also brings up the concept of equity. Equity is when each individual’s needs are met by recognizing they are different creatures and addressing their unique needs so that everyone can thrive. Equity brings harmony.
So, in times of conflict, it’s ok to ask an older dog with more training to move away if they will respond more quickly than a new puppy. It’s also o.k. to have one dog crated so the other dog gets some time with the family one-on-one. If these conditions create harmony, it is o.k. that different things are asked of each dog.
At the end of the day, having happy healthy dogs free of chronic stress caused by their living environment is crucial to their welfare. Remember, we invited them into our lives. They didn’t actually ask to move in with us. Going the extra mile to ensure harmony and equity in our homes so that our dogs can live long, safe, happy lives is simply part of our responsibility as their caretakers. If you want to ensure harmony in your own home, you can always reach out to a certified behavior professional to help you. Enjoy your dogs!