We brought home a five week old puppy last night. Brindle, stubby-legged, and smoosh-faced, Mia the boxer puppy toddled around our apartment whimpering. A Good Samaritan purchased her in a parking lot but wanted her to be cared for, so he or she brought her to the shelter. When I knelt to meet Mia in her kennel, she groveled and screamed, frightened of me. I decided to take her home for the night for a bit of TLC, since her actual foster family couldn’t take her until the next day.
Barley, our four year old border collie, did not seem happy. He stared at his toys, lip licking and yawning as Mia started to bounce and play bow and paw at things. If she crawled under him to paw at his legs or nip at his belly fur, he moved away with a short deep growl. As she approached his Kong Wobbler, he lifted his lips into a fantastic display of his teeth. This was not going well.
A note: for the purpose of this article, I’m focusing on Barley, not Mia. While Mia was in the midst of a very important developmental period of her life, she was apparently confident and unphased with Barley. Part of teaching him to be calm around her was for her benefit as well. In real life, it’s imperative to balance both dogs and their needs.
Yelling, Snarling, and Other Unwanted Emotional Reactions
Caught off guard by the first growl, I overreacted. I yelled a sharp, loud “Hey!” and glared at Barley. He lay down, lip licking, and put his head on his paws, holding soft eye contact with a furrow in his brows. Mia continued toddling about, unphased by my rudeness.
An important note here: puppies, especially very young ones, are often terrible at reading human and dog body language. An older dog likely would have noticed Barley’s canines and backed off. A 5 week old puppy did not. That’s why management is so important for the safety of young puppies.
I immediately recognized my error, but the fear and emotion made it hard to remedy. I knew that punishing Barley by yelling at him would only make him more uncomfortable with the puppy. This would further hurt our chances of successfully bringing home a puppy later on.
I needed to take a step back from my emotional, reactionary state. Barley’s lip-lifting was concerning enough. We didn’t want it going further and potentially scaring or harming Mia. I also didn’t want Barley to suppress his emotions and let Mia torment him if she made him uncomfortable. We needed a game plan to help Barley and Mia get along for the next 24 hours.
I took Barley for a long walk to think. We had zero intention of keeping Mia, but we do want to bring home a puppy in two to five years. Barley has successfully shared space with puppies as young as four or five months and recently spent a week cohabitating with an eight month old golden retriever. His original owner also had a year old husky, so I assumed he had some puppy experience.
What To Do If Your Adult Dog is Uncomfortable With Puppies
After our walk and a bit of Frisbee, I had a bit of a game plan. I technically had the option to just totally separate the two dogs for the next twelve hours, but I wanted to use this as a learning opportunity for me and Barley.
I often struggle with my emotional response to unexpected setbacks, and Barley clearly needed some good experiences with a puppy. Rather than putting off that experience creation until Barley is six to nine and is even more set in his ways, I wanted to do a bit of training for Barley now. Waiting until we actually purchase or adopt a puppy will just set Barley up for weeks, months, or years of stress because he is unprepared and has no way out.
We had three main goals for the next twelve hours.
- No punishment allowed if your dog doesn’t like puppies– that would only make Barley’s negative opinion of Mia worsen, since he’d learn that Mia = yelling. Barley is a sensitive soul, and yelling definitely freaks him out.
- This is really important for any dog that struggles emotionally with people, dogs, or situations. Aggression is often related to fear or discomfort, and punishing Barley would not make him feel better about Mia. It might make him stop growling, but that’s only because I could convince him that I’m scarier than Mia!
- We needed a safe setup for the next twelve hours. Rather than letting Mia run amok and tackle Barley as she pleased, we needed to keep her safe. At only five weeks old Mia was not reading Barley’s body language that said “get away from me!” To keep her safe and Barley happy, we set her up in the bathroom. This also is a nice, easy-to-clean space for puppy accidents.
- When your dog doesn’t like puppies, you need training. I used a combination of classical conditioning and operant conditioning (brush up on those terms here) in several short training sessions with Barley. I’ll describe that in more detail below.
- A note on safety: Barley is known to bare his teeth, growl, and even snap when other dogs approach his food. He’s never caused injury, but I have little doubt that he would if pushed. I had to be careful to walk the line between reward-based training and keeping him from guarding food from Mia.
It’s important to recognize that I didn’t just allow the dogs to “work it out.” That was far too dangerous for Mia and was likely to teach Barley that overt aggression or avoidance was the best strategy for dealing with puppies.
If I were more concerned about Barley, I would have spent more time with them separated, used a leash or muzzle, or even abandoned the training altogether. We also ensured that we set the dogs up for success by keeping them separate 90% of the time that Mia was in our home after the initial unfortunate greeting.
Training an Older Dog to Tolerate a Puppy
Like most training, changing a dog’s opinion about something (which was essentially my goal) is best done in short training sessions. I kept the dogs mostly separate and played calming music to soothe both their nerves.
Over the course of twelve hours, I did several training sessions with Mia and Barley. Each training session was just about 1 minute long and there was generally at least a half hour between sessions. Here they are.
- Approaching. With Mia in the tub, I pulled out my treats and clicker. Barley originally just hung out on the couch, about as far from the bathroom as he could get. I sat on the toilet and waited. Barley eventually poked his head around the corner to the bathroom. As soon as I saw him, I clicked and tossed a treat behind him. He retreated to collect the treat. We repeated this for about 1 minute, or 30 treats. We did this exercise twice.
- Getting closer. When Barley started hanging out near the bathroom and even wagging his tail slightly, I started waiting a bit longer. He had to step into the bathroom in order for me to click and then toss a treat. Again, I tossed the treat behind him so that he got to go take a break. We did this once, because about 45 seconds into this session, he came and sat next to my leg.
- Eye contact. With Barley sitting next to me on the toilet, I started waiting for him to glance towards Mia in the tub. Mia was still wrestling with her toys. Every time his eyes or ears flicked ever-so-slightly towards Mia, I clicked and handed him the treat. We did this for about 1 minute as well.
- I started handing him treats at this point so that he stopped checking the floor for treats. This was preparation for later, when I wanted to hand him treats without Mia getting herself in trouble.
- Sustained eye contact. I upped the criteria by now waiting for Barley to look at Mia for a bit longer before I clicked and gave him a treat.
- Changing the situation. I now placed Mia inside Barley’s wire crate and moved to the living room. This was to help teach Barley that this “Look at Mia” game didn’t just apply when Mia was in the bathroom. We repeated steps 3 and 4 here.
- Note that all of this interaction is under Barley’s control. If he wanted to move away from Mia, he could. This is important!
- Letting Mia out. I then sat on the ground with Barley while Andrew played with Mia. Mia toddled around, loose and terrifying. We repeated the “Look at Mia!” game. Mia occasionally moved towards Barley, in which case Barley got a gigantic “bonus” in pay – several treats in a row. We separated the dogs again and did a few short sessions of this.
- We never forced him to interact and if he growled or moved away, we let him do so.
- Touching. Right before I brought Mia back to work, we did another session. This time, Mia was allowed to move freely. Barley got rapid-fire clicks and treats for looking at Mia and jackpots for letting Mia approach or even touch him. We did three thirty second training sessions like this.
- Due to time constraints, Barley never really got comfortable with Mia out and about, especially not touching him. If Mia stayed in our home for longer, we’d have spent far more time working on steps 6 and 7 to increase Barley’s comfort level around the scary puppy.
The important thing to notice about this approach is the multiple short training sessions, the emphasis on safety and comfort for both dogs, and the rapid-fire reward based training. We didn’t actually get to a place where Barley and Mia could cohabitate in 12 hours. However, we did move from Barley totally avoiding Mia and growling if she approached to Barley calmly watching her approach him and taking treats from me.
Moving Forward When Your Dog Doesn’t Like Puppies
If we had more time, Barley would soon learn that tolerating Mia meant treats (aka, Mia is a good thing) and that he could always escape her if he wanted. We never forced him to interact. If he growled or moved away, we let him do so.
If and when we bring home another dog, we’ll do a similar protocol. We’ll do lots of parallel walks, give the dogs plenty of breaks, and help interrupt tense situations without scaring or punishing the dogs.
In the meantime, it’s abundantly clear to me that I need to find some friends with puppies so that Barley can keep learning to be comfortable around the scary babies!
Do you have any other tips for introducing adult dogs to puppies, particularly when those adult dogs aren’t very comfortable with puppies?