Recently, one of our own here in the blogosphere had a tiff between her two dogs resulting in an emergency trip to the vet & some serious looking stitches. As these events always do, it prompted me to examine our multi-dog household, to make sure I am paying close attention to the dogs' body language and to be prepared for the inevitability that someday my own dogs will get into it with each other.
We live in a pretty harmonious household, for having 3 rambunctious dogs with very distinct personalities. The number of times there has been anything more serious than a "get away from my bone" growl can be counted on one hand. While I am extremely thankful that my dogs have shown an ability to share appropriately and willingly, I have to ask myself, why? What are we doing that works? How can I identify this and share with other dog guardians who may be struggling with some pack harmony issues?
As much as I would like to be a fountain of wisdom when it comes to multi-dog households, the reality is this: We got lucky.
Sure each time we added another dog to our family, either the new dog or our existing dog was a puppy under a year old. Yes, when we added Hurley, the Hubster deliberately picked a boy so there wouldn't be too much female competition going on. Absolutely, we practice food, toy and attention sharing. These strategies can certainly help achieve household harmony in a multi-dog home.
However, the true reason why our dogs get along so well is because of the harmony between their personalities and the way they interact as a pack.
Take Sadie. Every multi-dog home should have a Sadie. She's the ultimate passive dog, ever the peace-maker. When play gets too intense, she's the first to bark at the other two to calm down. She's the easy target for a food-stealin' dog like Hurley and even though we try to prevent him from stealing her food, when he does get to it, she lets him with a wag of her tail and a "please can I have more" look at Mom or Dad. I imagine we might have had more problems with Hurley's rude behavior around food if he only had Maggie to steal from but with two sisters to chose from, Hurley always chooses to be rude to Sadie. Because he knows she will let him.
I used to feel sorry for Sadie. At the bottom of the social hierarchy in our household, she's the last to grab a treat or toy and the first to get it stolen away from her. But as Hurley matures and I hear about the multi-dog issues other homes experience from time to time, I'm so glad that she's here to play peacemaker. To help us train Hurley without confrontation. Her ability to always be passive, to always be the good one, enables us to focus on Hurley's challenges without also having to worry that those challenges are creating issues between our dogs. While she does get bummed when Hurley licks her bowl for her, anyone in the house receiving attention, treats, food and/or love makes her happy. This is her best trait and why I love her to death. While other dogs might get jealous of a housemate receiving something they value, Sadie just thumps her tail in passive happiness and waits contently for her turn. She is genuinely happy that Maggie is getting a butt scratch or that Hurley is getting belly rubs.
Sadie does draw the line at sharing new bones or special chews with the Hurley Badger. He's still young enough that he periodically tests her resolve not to share by approaching her when she's still in the throes of a good chew. Without looking in his direction, she lifts a lip and lets loose a low, slow & rumbly growl. Hurley circles her, testing her growl line in each direction but ultimately respecting that he cannot cross that line. We watch closely when it's chew time but I want Sadie to be allowed to draw the line with Hurley herself. Since he is still pretty young, it will only serve to teach him that there are boundaries he needs to respect and that those boundaries are not only set by Mom & Dad but also by other dogs. I try to let them work it out themselves so long as it's still at that mild growl stage. To date, I've only had to remove the chewies once when Hurley was pushing it too much and I felt Sadie needed my help with the situation.
Hurley's not the passive dog that Sadie is. He has shown some body language in specific instances that shows he is uncomfortable with some forms of sharing. Mostly when he interprets food as found and not given to him. We don't play "go find it" or use treat-dispensing toys where the food falls out of the toy and scatters in multiple directions for this reason (definitely his trigger!). While he may not be the passive one, we've found that he is respectful when the girls draw the line. He respects Sadie's growl line. He only twice has attempted to raid Maggie's food bowl (and her corrections were enough to send him back to Sadie's bowl). While he's not passive like Sadie, he will back down from a challenge and he's got a virtual textbook of calming signals he throws out around more confident or dominant dogs.
And then there's Maggie. She's the one who has viciously attacked unsuspecting dogs on multiple occasions (that's not an exaggeration, she was absolutely vicious), who has struggled with leash aggression and who has proven to be an inhospitable host when we take care of other dogs. We have to watch her very closely around other dogs as we know she has the ability to attack and won't hesitate, given the right circumstances. There have been multiple times, when we have dog sat, that she has started to start something with one of the visiting dogs. Since we're tuned in to this possibility, we've never allowed a situation to occur where she could get too out of hand. Yet she's never shown that Mr Hyde part of herself towards the other dogs in our family. She's exceedingly patient with Hurley, even when he's being Rude Dog. She's a very effective and efficient communicator when it comes to letting him know when he's gone too far and she's always done so without it ever escalating to aggression.
We call Maggie the Fair Police at our house. If someone gets an extra walk or treat, you can just tell that she knows. Either she throws us dirty looks, gets a little demanding with her snout as it relates to our attention or treats or does her happy "i must be going on this walk" dance a little too enthusiastically followed by the most outrageous sad, pissed off dog face when someone else gets the harness clipped on. Even though she knows that whatever it is has not been distributed fairly, here's how she is awesome about it: She lets the Hubster or I know about it. She never, ever takes her frustration about fairness out on one of our other dogs.
Somehow these 3 dogs have learned how to be patient, how to share, how to coexist peacefully, even though two of them aren't exactly nice polite dogs all the time. And for the most part, they've worked it out amongst themselves.
Maggie & Sadie have been known to swap bowls in the middle of a meal. Maggie & Hurley used to share bones, chewing on them at the same time, when he was a smaller puppy. We recently had a musical antler night where they took turns chewing on each other's antler. We know we are extremely lucky and we also know it might not always be this way.
Are you one of the lucky ones to achieve effortless harmony amongst your dogs? Or have you had to work hard to encourage appropriate sharing? What rules work best in your house to keep the peace?