Animal care and behaviour: Dogs

Multi-dog households: Enjoying life with more than one dog

by Alison Lever and Wendy Hanson

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Sometimes multi-dog households work very well, other times they leave owners feeling fraught and frazzled. Wendy is a dog behaviour consultant and dog trainer, and has lived with three dogs, now two. Alison lives with three dogs, and has a long-term interest in multi-dog households which arose from a research project. We have looked both at what makes them work, and at preventing and dealing with problems. Here is a summary of our guidelines to help you to enjoy living with more than one dog.

Why have more than one dog? (And why it may not be sensible.)

Owners may have two or more dogs for a number of reasons, for example, they may have found a companion for their first dog, inherited a dog, found a rescue they just couldn't resist, or kept back a pup or two from a litter. Dogs tend to enjoy one another's company, and can communicate with each other in ways that we can't, so finding a companion for an 'only dog' is often a good idea. However, life takes on a new dimension when you have more than one dog, so this is a decision that needs some thought. One plus one can add up to three, because dogs tend to take their cues from one another. So if you have a dogthat is a little on the wild side, it is well worth waiting and investing at least six months in a serious effort to civilise your first dog so that he or she can set a good example to the newcomer. It is wonderful to watch a well-trained dog teach good manners to a newcomer. It is less wonderful to watch a newcomer learn bad habits!

Spacing dogs is important. It's not just that youngsters need a lot of effort invested in their training, at the other end of the dogs' lives you may find that your vet bills get higher, and it is hard to cope with the loss of two dogs, one shortly after the other. Ideally the first dog should be past the wilder years of adolescence. When this happens depends a lot on the dog. Some dogs are quite calm and adult by the time they get to two, while others take much longer to mature. Training, is of course important, especially if you have an energetic dog. Training allows you to channel the dog's energy, and have a nice, calm dog at times when you need one, such as when you have visitors. Bringing in a newcomer may also create problems if your dog is frail and elderly, and finds youngsters very difficult to cope with. If you bring in a pup under these circumstances, the oldster is going to need a lot of consideration and pup-free space and time, and it may be better to wait.

You may have chosen a first dog because of how he or she behaved with humans rather than other dogs. Many dogs get on very well with humans, but are quarrelsome with their own kind for various reasons. Some dogs just like fighting other dogs. If you regularly meet other dogs, you will know whether yours likes to pick fights, in which case bringing in a new dog is asking for trouble. Get your dog assessed to see if there is how far training can improve this behaviour, and whether the dog should really stay as an only dog. An honest assessment can save you a lot of grief. Some dogs don't get on with others of their own kind simply because they have spent a long time on their own, and have forgotten how to communicate with other dogs. It is worth making an effort to socialise such dogs, to see what sorts of dogs they might get on with, or whether they really just don't like other dogs at all. Dogs can be very picky about who they want to talk to, just like people. If you acquired your dog as a tiny pup, and live in an isolated area where you hardly ever meet other dogs, you will need to take it gently. With luck you can find people with calm, well-behaved dogs, who can remind your dog of how to talk to his own species. Training classes can also help with socialising dogs. Outdoor classes are generally best for dogs that have spent a long time away from their own kind.

How many dogs is too many?

The advice that owners most often gave was 'know your limits'. However appealing a potential newcomer may be, ask yourself whether the quality of life of your existing dogs might suffer. What do people you live with feel about another dog? Ask yourself how you are going to cope if you have 'flu, or a twisted ankle. You can ask a friend to walk one or two dogs for you as a favour, but walking three or more dogs is more difficult. Vet bills get higher the more dogs you have, and there's the cost of dog food. You need enough space, because dogs are more likely to fight if they live in crowded conditions. People with four or more dogs are likely to say 'the dogs come first'. Now that's fine if that is what you want, but think ahead, if you also want to have children, you may find that you suddenly have too many dogs.

Two groups of people are especially vulnerable to the temptation of taking on too many dogs. Breeders may keep back pups from a litter for one reason or another, while people involved in rescue may take on more dogs than they can handle, because they feel they are the dogs' last chance. If you have more dogs than is comfortable, it is sensible to make a determined effort to rehome one or more of them. For most people, two dogs are enough, but this very much depends on what the dogs are like, especially whether they are easy-going or have prickly personalities, and it also depends on how much time, energy and other resources you have. Humans are very good at kidding ourselves that a not-sensible decision is a good one, with 'it'll be OK' ... but if you have a small voice that tells you that you shouldn't take on another dog, listen to that voice!

Choosing a second and subsequent dog

Spacing dogs sensibly means that littermates are generally not a good idea. We both actually have littermates, and have been lucky in that they have got on well and have brought us a great deal of pleasure. However, when they were little, we were run ragged trying to keep up with their needs. For a start, toilet training can be more difficult, because if one littermate pees indoors, the other is likely to do the same. Other people with littermates report the same problem, that the first few years involve a lot of work.

Sometimes dog books tell you that littermates don't bond with the owner. This in fact has not been a problem for us, nor for most people we have asked who have littermates. The big problem is the time and effort needed when the dogs are young, when their training has to be intensive. Dog books may also tell you that littermates will fight. This very much depends on the dogs. Ours have always got on well. Even same-sex littermates can get on well if at least one is easy-going, but yes, there is a higher risk of fights between littermates, especially if they are of the same sex.

In general, the best combinations for two-dog households are dog-bitch, then dog-dog, then bitch-bitch. Dogs and bitches tend not to fight each other, fights between dogs tend to be brief affairs, but owners report that enmity between bitches can be very deep. This means that if you have three dogs, two dogs and a bitch is generally a safer combination than two bitches and a dog. However, this very much depends on the personalities of the dogs, and following this formula is no guarantee that your dogs will get on, nor, for that matter that two bitches can't live together amicably.

So, how do you pick easy-going dogs? In terms of breeds, one breed stands out as exceptionally easy-going, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. This is no guarantee that all individuals from the breed will be nice-natured, but many Cavvie owners have commented on how their dogs like to sleep in a heap, and get on exceptionally well with each other. Most popular breeds, like Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Cocker Spaniels have large gene pools, and a great variety in terms of individual personalities. There can be a big differences in the temperaments of individuals from these breeds, even if they are littermates. If you can find a pup with four grandparents with easy-going temperaments, that pup will probably also be easy-going. An alternative is to take on an easy-going adult rescue dog, which is, in some ways, safer, because it's not always possible to tell how pups will turn out, whereas adults have already developed their personalities.

If you are picking a second dog, it's also worth looking hard at your first dog, to work out the best type of companion. How well behaved is your dog on walks? If he or she gets involved in fights, is there a pattern? Sometimes small dogs find big dogs hard to cope with, and long-legged dogs might find small terriers that run under them a bit scary. Any patterns you see give you clues as to what type of newcomer to shortlist. Then it is well worth taking your dog to meet the possible candidates, preferably on neutral territory. If you choose a rescue adult, a key question is 'what effect would a newcomer have on my dog's behaviour?' Your dog may adore one potential candidate because they enjoy mad races together. However, do you want two dogs racing around your garden, or would you prefer a new dog that has a more calming influence on your first dog? Watch how your dog interacts with possible candidates, draw up your dog's shortlist and compare it with your own, and remember you will be living with the twosome. The newcomer should be a dog that your first dog gets on with, but sometimes it is wiser to go with your dog's second choice!

Introducing newcomers

There are people who argue that dogs don't get jealous. Maybe dogs don't get jealous in the same way as humans, but they can fight for the attention of owners, and can react badly if they suddenly see their owner with a new dog. The gentlest way to introduce a newcomer is for the dogs to meet on neutral territory, preferably out of doors, with a helper handling the new dog. Dogs tend to bond together if they are walked together, so a short, on-leash walk will help the dogs get to know each other. Once the dogs are relaxed, they can be allowed off leash together, and the owner and helper can later swap leads.

Some resident dogs instantly get on with newcomers, other times there may be some friction. You can ease the situation by letting your first dog know that his or her place is safe, for example, if you treat the dogs, treat the first dog first, and give the first dog some continued alone-time with you. New adult dogs are generally on their best behaviour for the first few weeks, and are more likely to start to take liberties once they have sized you up. If you initially make the newcomer earn all privileges, you have more room for manoeuvre than if you start out giving the newcomer lots of privileges and having to take them away. Once the dogs are on the same diet, they will start to smell the same, and that helps with bonding, as does walking the dogs together. In the short term, while everyone is getting to know each other, the newcomer is in second place. In the long term the best behaved dog can be rewarded first, and if you have trained your first dog well, your first dog is likely to get the first reward.

Dogs can react very differently to the arrival of a new pup. They may act like an ideal substitute parent, giving gentle corrections that are understood by the pup, or become irritable and tetchy, or flee the new pup, or want to play all day, like the pup's favourite fun uncle. It's the owner's decision to bring a new pup into the house. It's quite natural that some dogs say with their body language that they would rather have nothing to do with a pup until the owner has civilised the little brat! The older dog may not have the energy to keep up, or may not have spent time with young pups for a long time. Think of how you might feel if if somebody suddenly left a lively small child in your house without asking your opinion. Even if you enjoy the company of small children, you may want some peace and quiet now and then.

Watch the dog and pup together, and take your cue from them. If the dog finds the pup too much, or just wants to play wild games with the little one, that is your cue to find other adult dogs who can help teach your pup good manners. If you walk regularly with people who have well-mannered, calm, older dogs, ask if you can walk with them. Few people can refuse such a request, in fact pups tend to arouse a lot of interest in dog walking circles. It's also worthwhile finding playmates for the pup among people you meet on dog walks, so the little one can run off some energy, and learn how to socialise with other youngsters.

Older dogs do need to be able to escape the pup's attentions should they want to. This is true however well the two get on, and especially true if you have a very pushy youngster and an older dog who simply doesn't want to know. It's not just unfair on the older dog to trap him or her with the pup, it's teaching the pup to be rude to adults, which puts the pup at risk when you go out on walks. It also helps to give the pup nap time in a separate room. This both gives the older dog some alone-time with you, and helps the pup learn to spend time alone.

Whether the newcomer is an adult or a youngster, feeding the dogs together will initially involve giving each a lot of space, and ensuring that each dog respects the rule 'all dogs have a right to eat their dinner in peace'. This means supervision, and a firm reprimand if any dog breaks the rule. The lessons learnt in the early days tend to stick in the newcomer's mind, and help the dogs to feel safe and happy in each other's company.

Walking the dogs together is also important, initially with a helper walking the newcomer if there is any friction between the two dogs. It may be because it's a natural 'pack activity' for whatever reason, it works. After just ten minutes walking together, dogs seem to tune into each other, and work more as a group. Your first dog will know the walks better, and this will boost his or her confidence. You can ask both dogs to sit and stay, or do a downstay, and reward the first to comply. This gets them focusing on you, and doing the same thing. So long as your first dog is well trained, you are telling the newcomer 'look, if you are good like your companion, you get something nice'.


The effort you put into training your first dog pays enormous dividends when you bring in newcomers. Newcomers tend to defer to older dogs who are already in residence when they arrive, and they tend to follow their example. If your first dog comes when called, behaves well on walks, and greets visitors politely, this sets a good example for newcomers. It means that you have to put less effort into later training, because your first dog is doing a lot of the work for you. However, if you find that your first dog is teaching the newcomer some bad habits, that means number one dog needs some remedial education!

Training dogs that live together means both individual sessions and sessions together as a group. Each dog benefits from alone time with you, so you can focus on strengths and weaknesses, and from group sessions where they learn to co-operate together. When you have two or more dogs in the same place, they need to know whether commands are meant for just one dog, or for all the dogs. Some owners preface individual commands with the dog's name. The name means that you get the dog's attention, then you can give the command. If you use food rewards, the dog to reward first is the best behaved dog.

Training is basically getting dogs to understand and obey the rules they need to learn for life together to be enjoyable. So if they mob visitors, but are fine on walks, the first priority is individual and group training in greeting people politely. It helps both to look at specific situations, like walking alongside roads with heavy traffic, and at the training needs of each particular dog. A youngster newcomer may be pushy, and try to shove senior dogs out of the way to get to you, or get to the door when it is time to go out. Such a youngster will benefit from learning to wait until you give a signal for a cuddle or to have a lead put
on. Sits and stays can be built into 'sit and stay until it is your turn'. Alternatively, your first dog may be a bit wild, and you may have a diffident newcomer who is happy to wait his or her turn. In that case the first dog needs to learn some self control through sits and stays. If they are both a bit crazy, then surprise quicksits and downstays on walks can help them to focus on you.

Manners training is very important, but dogs also benefit from doing fun activities together, and even from just watching another dog have fun. You can play retrieve or tug and drop games with one dog as an observer, and a helper holding the spectator. You can also play 'find the titbit, lining the dogs up in a stay while you hide titbits which they find on a 'sniff' command. The more they can play together, the more likely they are to enjoy one another's company.

Preventing and dealing with fights.

What owners see as fights between dogs may be just play, simple reprimands, spats, or very serious fights. Playfights are generally not a problem so long as they don't get out of hand, in fact if your dogs can playfight, and through playing learn how to control their aggression and take turns, they are more likely to get on. You can tell the difference between playfights and real fights, because of the dogs' body language. There are playbows, and usually chases and even boxing. Sometimes one dog leads, sometimes the other, and each dog goes back for more fun. If one dog is trying to get away, rather than coming back for more, it's not play, but bullying!

Dogs can be like small children when they playfight, in that they can get overtired and start to fight seriously, so you need to stop them at the first sign this is happening, and preferably know them well enough to stop them well before they get to this stage. However involved they are in their play, they should take notice of you immediately, and if they don't, then rationing playfights is a good idea. It's also safer to have a 'no playfighting indoors' rule, especially if you have three or more dogs. There's less intensity to outdoor playfights, they allow the dogs to run off more energy, and playfights out of doors are less likely to escalate.

A simple reprimand usually happens when a young, socially inept dog breaks the rules, and is told off by a senior dog. There may be noise and flashing teeth, but no harm is done. The offender accepts the reprimand, and minds his manners. This is healthy. Socially inept means for example, a younger dog mounting an older one. If the youngster does not accept the reprimand, this is your cue to step in and scold the youngster, so that both dogs look to you for leadership, and the older dog does not feel obliged to fight to prove his point. There are people who claim that non-mating mounting is always a sign of dominance, but in fact it is often a sign of immaturity, bad manners and overexcitement. Dogs may also reprimand pups who take liberties with them. If you are worried that reprimands may be too harsh, have someone more experienced come and watch the dogs interact, and advise you.

The main way to prevent real fights is to choose your dogs carefully, picking easy-going dogs, rather than grumpy, cantankerous individuals! The more dogs you have, the greater the risk that fights can become serious, especially if they have too little space. You have less time to train each dog, and if they get involved in a group fight, it becomes more difficult to break up. Training gives you far more control, for example allowing you to deter a dog you see eyeing up another by calling the troublemaker to you. You also need a vet check if a dog is unusually irritable, otherwise this may escalate into serious attacks due to an undiagnosed medical problem.

Spats are common between males, and are usually brief and noisy. They are often over before you have a chance to work out what is going on. The dogs must understand that Fighting Is Not Allowed, so this is your cue to give any dog involved a severe scolding. It's a case of 'I don't care who started it', because dogs can injure each other, even in brief spats, and they can injure any human whose hands, feet, or even face get in the way, with serious consequences.

This leads to the vexed question of canine hierarchies, about which a lot has been written by people who see, or don't see dogs in a multi-dog household as forming a 'pack'. Some people argue that owners should respect hierarchies that the dogs themselves form. They argue that this reduces conflict, because it means that one dog knows it should defer to another. Bruce Fogle, in his very popular 'The Dog's Mind', even argues that if a bully attacks a 'submissive' dog, owners should not support the 'submissive' dog, because it can increase conflict, but should instead pet a 'dominant' dog first. He gives an example of this having 'worked'.

Now this view goes against the 'Fighting is Not Allowed' rule, in that it appears to condone an attack by a bully. Any sane owner wants a peaceful household, so if one dog threatens or attacks another, that dog should be reprimanded, and have some extra training in self-control.

Fogle also raises a lot of questions. Firstly, is a dog that threatens or attacks another 'dominant'? In our experience, no, the attacker isn't usually the 'top dog'. Furthermore, favouring a dog threatening or attacking, in our experience, has always increased conflict. Fogle wrote his book some twenty years ago. Today, the generally accepted view is that the wannabe is more likely to instigate an attack than is the top dog. It's also clear that owners can create 'brattish' dogs which pick fights, simply by favouring one dog over the rest, for example a small dog allowed to sleep in a bedroom, while other dogs are excluded. Dogs can feel bolder if they get special attention from owners, and become more obnoxious because they feel they have back-up. Dogs do have a sense of fairness, and the excluded dogs may feel disgruntled. So if you strongly favour one dog over the rest, you are making fights more likely.

Rewarding a bully effectively means rewarding bad behaviour, which is not really sensible. The most sensible rule is simply 'Fighting is Not Allowed', which means that any dog that attacks another is scolded. This rule may leave you with an obedient 'top dog' who refuses to respond to provocations, and a bully to whom you need to teach some manners. It is much, much easier for you to do this, through extra training than to leave the dogs to fight it out. Letting dogs work out their own hierarchy through fights means abdicating control. If you have a top dog who stands back and lets you sort out the brat who won't accept a reprimand, that gives you control.

What emerges from surveying owners is that not all groups of dogs show a clear hierarchy. Some dogs are happy to share resources, rather than saying " 'smine, you can't have it". Other dogs may be happy to give way to one another. When you bring together dogs with different personalities, they may each value different resources. One may especially like chew toys, for example, while another especially likes being near you. The dog that especially likes chew toys will tend to get the chews, with the others, not so bothered saying 'OK, if you really want it, have it'.

It's true, there are people who see their dogs as forming a pack with a clear hierarchy which helps reduce conflict. If this is how you view your dogs, and it is backed by observation, fine, if it works, don't fix it! But that doesn't mean that every group of dogs that owners choose to put together will get on in this way. People who see hierarchies as important for promoting peace tend to advise against keeping littermates, on the grounds that they that they are more likely to fight because neither is clearly dominant. Yes, it is true that littermates may squabble because each wants they same thing and neither wants to back down. However, in both our cases, our littermates have different personalities, so the problem has not arisen.

Dogs vary a lot in terms of how peaceful or quarrelsome they are. Some owners say that their dogs are peaceful with no clear hierarchy, while others say they tend to squabble despite having a clear hierarchy, and this means that owners have to intervene more to prevent fights. In general, the more quarrelsome your dogs, the more care you will need to prevent fights. A key difference between the dogs we choose to live with and dogs in a wolf pack is that our dogs haven't chosen one another's company and have less chance to escape from one another. That can make conflict potentially more serious if owners abdicate control.

The most common triggers for fighting are access to food, chew toys, the owner, and the front door when it is time to go out for a walk. Dogs need enough space to eat in peace. How much space they need depends on the dogs. Some dogs can eat happily around three feet away from each other, while others need to be in separate rooms. Mealtimes should always be supervised if dogs eat in the same room, because otherwise a fast eater may try to muscle in and scoff another dog's dinner. If you offer titbits, it needs to be clear to the dogs who gets what, or you can trigger squabbles. Rawhide chews are often triggers for fighting. Dogs seem to especially value ones that are freshly chewed and slimy! Peaceful, give-and-take dogs can share such chews, other dogs can't. Some owners simply don't give their dogs these chews, while other owners give the dogs chews in separate rooms.

Fights over access to the owner are common between 'velcro' dogs, dogs that like to be on the owner's lap, or by his or her feet. Training is the best way to keep order, for example, putting the dogs in a downstay if they tend to mob you in an overexcited way when you come through the door. You also have more control if you only allow dogs on your lap, or beside you on the sofa with permission. You may find that a 'velcro dog' growls at companions only when on your lap, in which case the solution is clear, ejection! Sometimes dogs squabble when they are about to go out, especially if one is left behind. Training helps, putting the dogs in a sit before you open the front door. It can also help to put any dog that has to be left behind in a separate room first, with a chew, or some other compensation for being excluded from the walk.

Dogs can get seriously overexcited if they are all barking at a strange dog. This can lead to one dog attacking another simply 'because', not because they dislike one another, but because they are too keyed up. This is more likely to happen if you have little or no front garden, and your dogs see strange dogs passing close by in the street, or if they don't get on with the dogs next door. Training again helps, as can arranging the furniture so your dogs don't have easy access to the window. (See the article 'Designing and Using a Dog Garden' for tips on garden design to prevent this.)

Your dogs are more likely to sleep peacefully if you give them a good run before you leave them, rather than just walking them round the block. Dogs used to a routine tend to sleep until it is time for their owner to come back, when they start to get restless, so a routine helps to give you a peaceful household.

While most fights seem to happen when owners are present, dogs do sometimes fight when they are left alone, especially if they get wound up seeing strange dogs close by, so block their view if they can see dogs from the street, and supervise them in the garden. Space is important. Each dog needs to be able to have his or her own space, whether on a chair or in a basket, and if you have small rooms, it may be better to leave them in separate rooms. Some owners always leave their dogs in the same room because otherwise they fret, while others always put the dogs in separate rooms. Which is better depends on the dogs. If you feel there is any risk that they may fight if left alone together, then go by your feeling - it's better to be safe than sorry. It's also important to listen to whoever sold or gave you the dogs. If they advise separating the dogs in your absence, then that is wise. There are a few dogs who get on fine with the owner present but who can get involved in serious fights if left unattended.

So what can you do if your dogs do fight? Take care not to put your hands, arms, or feet where they are likely to be bitten, and use whatever you can to bring the dogs to their senses. Outdoors, a hose trained on dogs can work fast, or a bucket of water. Indoors, you can pour a saucepan of water on the dogs, or use a squeegee bottle with water. Yes, you'll have to mop it up afterwards, but the shock effect of water tends to work better than shouting, which tends not to get through once a fight has started. Often fights are over before you can react, but sometimes a dog will get a grip on another and not want to let go. One owner mentioned using a kitchen wooden spoon pushed into the side of the mouth to persuade the dog to open up, and another mentioned squirting shaving cream into the mouth. In general, think of your own safety, and use whatever you can that doesn't put you at risk.

Once the dogs are calm, tell them immediately after a fight that you are very, very annoyed with them, so they think twice about making you cross again. A verbal scolding can be very effective. In the longer term, think hard about why the fight happened. A vet check is usually a good idea, just in case one of the dogs has a serious medical problem that affects control of aggression. Another possibility is that you may simply have two dogs that just don't get on, despite your best efforts. In that case it may be wiser to rehome one of them, perhaps with the help of breed rescue, if the dog is a pure-bred or a cross-bred that strongly resembles one of the breeds.

Most owners who choose their dogs wisely, train them well, and give them enough exercise enjoy peaceful households, with just very occasional spats, or none at all. Prevention is always better than cure, and this is especially true if you want to enjoy a peaceful household with more than one dog.

Saying goodbye

There comes a time when we have to say goodbye to canine companions. Knowing that your dog's time with you is limited can be very hard, but most dogs appreciate sweet talk and compliments, even when they are very frail.

Goodbyes can affect both humans and dogs in different ways. It is easier to accept the passing of a companion who has lived a full life and just faded away, and species can pine when we lose a companion in the fullness of life, a friend we have been actively involved with. Dogs may show no apparent reaction to the loss of a companion, or they may become subdued, and go off their food. It can help to go walking in places you have never been before, to explore new territory together. Dogs that are reluctant to eat may be more willing if you take kibble on walks.

Dogs' lives are short compared to ours, but they give us a great deal. In some ways a group of dogs living together with their owner can be more magical than a wild wolf pack.The dogs are free to play together and co-operate. Harmony is easier to achieve because they don't have to compete for food or a mate. You are the one who makes this magic possible, by bringing together the right dogs, and helping them learn to form a team with you as their leader.


Very many thanks to all the people who answered the questionnaires, and who have helped with this study in other ways. Special thanks to the Australian Cattle Dog owners, Berit Aherne, Sue Axtell, Diane Blackman, Janet Boss, John Burchard, Melanie Chang, Shelly Couvrette, Dorothy Dunning, Margie English, Sally Hennessey, George Hobson, Heather Houlahan, Bob Maida, Donald McCaig, Barry McDonald, Melinda Shore and Jenn Standring.

The ideas and suggestions here do not necessarily reflect their views, but we are very grateful for their help and insights.

© copyright Alison Lever and Wendy Hanson 2011