Let me start off by saying, my dog Sadie is a pretty well-trained dog. I am a trainer, so Sadie and I are always working together. She walks well on leash, she avoids problem behaviors, and we’ve got a pretty strong method of communication. I reward her frequently for behaviors I find desirable, and there is also a tone that I use to let her know “Ma’am, please discontinue the behavior you are performing right now and redirect it to something I find desirable so I can reward you”. We’ve got it down pat… right?
Now I introduce to you: Zoey and Napa! These are my friend’s two dogs (and therefore, I consider them my nieces). They are also well-trained dogs that live together, but have different routines than Sadie. Not tremendously different, but it’s a different house, so their schedules aren’t identical to ours. My friend left to travel for work, so I have the fortune of watching three dogs. Small apartment, no yard, 3 medium sized dogs. Sounds fun, right? (Actually, I find this very fun!)
Although introducing two dogs into our daily schedule naturally incorporates slight chaos (i.e. Now I need to find extra harnesses, leashes, and when the heck is she going to pee? Do we really need to kick up the grass after we poop? Woah, Sadie slow down, she’s trying to sniff.), Sadie sees this an extremely opportune time to “let her hair down”. She finds that this trip is actually a time to let loose– a girl’s night out– and exhibit all of her “free bird” characteristics. Out of nowhere, she started incorporating very undesirable behaviors. She was pulling on leash, barking at strangers, not following cues, and quite frankly, I found all of this annoying and frustrating. It was time to put my training cap on and think about this.
Why was all this happening? I can speculate—she’s probably just really excited and isn’t thinking about what I need/want her to do. Sadie not reacting to my cues isn’t because she was a bad dog—she was just distracted. I can relate to that—when my best friends come to town, the last things I want to do are the things I’m required to do to be a good wife/daughter/sister, etc– Laundry just doesn’t have the same flare when my friends are around. But somehow, introducing Sadie’s best friends triggered a “free-for-all” feeling. Anarchy. Anything goes. Let’s run and see how much we can get away with. Needless to say, this wasn’t going to work for me. So what do I do? I go back to the very basics of training.
I introduce calmness. Much like any animal or human, you can’t focus as well when you’re really excited. (Imagine taking the SAT on Christmas morning.) Instead of yelling “Who wants to go for a walk??!!?? Sadie!!! Zoey?!! Napa??!!”, I quietly and calmly put the harnesses on, open the door, and begin the walk. This greatly reduces the excitability before we go on the walk and then they’re more focused when I ask them all to sit nicely as a neighbor walks by. There is plenty of opportunity for uninhibited (but always safe) playtime later—like when we’re inside and there isn’t the threat of me getting wound up like a yo-yo in three leashes.
I also introduce small opportunities where I can ask for a behavior and actually receive it. My favorite is asking for a “sit” right before the meal. If I’m feeling really good, I’ll even ask for a “stay” before they all dive into the meals. Feeding them all at the same time in separate spaces also provides a moment of peace without the risk of dogs stealing each other’s food. And the real bonus—they’re learning to listen to me even in the presence of each other.
Finally, and one of my favorites, I try to prevent the opportunities where I know undesirable behavior can begin. For example, we have a large glass door where you can often see small critters run across my porch. Consequently, I often have three medium sized dogs staring out that door whining. I guess I could individually train all three dogs to stay away from the door (doubtful in the time I have) or not to whine at squirrels (even more doubtful), but what is most easy is shutting the blinds on the door. There. It didn’t take me more than two seconds, and I removed the undesirable behavior completely. Yes, training the dogs to stop the undesirable behavior can be extremely successful too. But since I knew this behavior was going to occur for only a short time while Sadie had her friends around, it was even easier to just remove the possibility of it even occurring.
So a long story short, there are ways to handle chaos. It might not always be easy, but thinking about ways to solve the chaos is a lot easier than living with it for two weeks. Even with small spaces, lots of bodies, and different routines, harmonious living can exist if you take small steps. Now there’s only one issue left… negotiating sleeping arrangements… but discussing that is a whole other blog entirely…
Are you regularly struggling with multiple dogs? Lucky for me, this was only a vacation. But if you have more paws in the house and you need some help in handling them all, check out the following books:
Feeling Outnumbered? – How to Manage & Enjoy a Multi-Dog Household, 2nd Edition by Patricia McConnell and Karen London
How Many Dogs – Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household by Debby McMullen