When you bring home a second dog, you’re probably hoping (or even expecting) that he’ll be fast friends with your first dog. But what do you do if your current dog is actually terrified of your new dog?
I have an anxious Maltese poodle and have recently had to adopt a neglected English bulldog. How do I stop the poodle from being scared? I’ve walked with them and tried everything I found online. She trembles and hides. He is not aggressive and barely notices she’s there. She also doesn’t like treats, so rewarding her with them doesn’t work.
– Sincerely, Desperate for Harmony
In the remainder of Desperate for Harmony’s intake form, they indicated that they’ve already tried many of the front-line suggestions that we’d make for a case like this (and we made before in our article on how to help your dogs accept a new dog):
- Practice parallel walks. In this exercise, two people walk the two dogs. They start out across the street from each other going the same direction. Over the course of several blocks, they move closer and closer together. The dogs keep moving the whole time, and the exercise is cut off after any sign of stress from the dogs.
- Rewarding the dogs for positive interactions. Desperate for Harmony said that her Maltese/Poodle cross won’t eat treats in this situation, which gives us a good idea of why things aren’t improving.
- Giving the dogs space as needed. Desperate for Harmony says the Bulldog is polite and isn’t pressuring the Poodle cross to interact, which certainly helps!
Overall, Desperate for Harmony is definitely on the right track here. It’s only been one week so far, but clearly this isn’t going as planned.
Why Isn’t This Introduction Going Well?
Sarah Stremming said something really smart on a recent episode of Cog-Dog Radio: “Often, when you’re paying a trainer for help, you’re paying them to be a better splitter.”
Splitting is the term for breaking a behavior down into smaller parts. For example, your goal might be a dog who lies down on cue. Some dogs will just “get” the whole shebang right immediately – they lie down, you reward. Easy.
But in some cases, that’s too much for the dog right now. Rather than punishing them for getting it wrong, a good splitter will start by rewarding the dog for paying attention, then for lowering his head a bit, then
For many dogs learning to lie down, this isn’t necessary. It’s a pretty simple behavior. But for others behaviors (like starting to trust and accept another dog who currently terrifies your other dog), splitting is a huge part of success!
My guess is that Desperate for Harmony isn’t seeing success (and her Poodle cross won’t eat) because they’re not splitting the behavior down into small enough fragments.
Ok, great. So how do we fix that?
Let’s Make Things a Bit Easier, And Try Again
If I asked you to jump onto a two-meter box in one leap, you probably couldn’t. Should I punish you for that? No. I should create a training plan to help you build up the strength and skill needed, starting with a one-meter box (or lower if needed).
The same goes for our dogs. Right now, your dogs aren’t getting along. The mere presence of one scares the others.
We’re actually going to follow a training plan that’s more similar to introducing a dog and a cat (click this link for a video about dog/cat intros, or follow this one for a podcast episode on the same subject) than the “normal” protocol for introducing two dogs.
The basic idea is this:
- Give the dogs more space. Rather than trying to have the dogs just feet apart during a training session, let’s put them on opposite sides of a baby gate and put the dogs on opposite ends of the house. Feed the scared dog whenever she looks at the other dog. As the scared dog gets more confident, move them closer together. In the meantime, keep them separate – yes, this means a divided house. If the scared dog seems OK with it, you might be able to walk them together or let them outdoors together. That’s a case-by-case decision.
- Think of our box-jump example. Feeding the dogs right next to each other is like trying that two-meter box jump on day one. We need to start out with our one-meter jumps first! That’s what this distance is doing. The baby gate is kind of like having padding – it’s to make everyone feel safer.
- Use more exciting rewards. If the scared dog isn’t eating, we know one or both of two things are true: the task is too hard, or the food isn’t good enough. Imagine I’m offering to pay you for a job. You’re probably going to turn me down either because you literally are incapable of doing it, or because I’m not offering to pay enough. As the saying goes, everything has a price. If your scared dog won’t eat kibble in a training session, try squeeze cheese or meat flavored baby food or lunch meat or boiled chicken or hot dogs. Try a bunch of different options – you’ll find something!
- You can also conduct training sessions during mealtimes. Trust me, if you make training easy enough and use the right rewards, ALL dogs are food motivated. If they weren’t, they’d be dead (because they’d starve). This is similar to what’s described in our podcast episode on dog/cat intros.
- Keep training sessions shorter. We often get excited or impatient. That’s normal. Try to make everything feel super easy for your scared dog. You want her to be excited to go to her super-easy job where she just gets paid awesome food for no work. End your training sessions after just one minute to keep your dog WANTING to come back for more. You can do many one-minute sessions per day, but don’t do one two-hour session!
- Reduce stress elsewhere as much as possible. If your scared dog is normally pretty stressed out, it’s not a huge surprise that the addition of another dog is just too much! Puzzle toys, exercise, nosework, and training games can all help reduce stress. Some alternative therapies may also help, such as Zyklene supplements or Adaptil – though you can’t expect a supplement or medication to do the work for you!
- Go slow. This process can feel like it’s taking forever. That sucks, I know. We just want them to be friends! But pressuring them is more likely to backfire than anything else. Just keep at it – for days, weeks, or even more. Take tiny steps and be patient. If you need support and help with the process, we’re here for you as online dog trainers!
- Let the scared dog back off when she wants. This is important! It’s much easier to get over a fear if you know you can “opt out” when needed. If the scared dog needs a break, TAKE IT. If she pulls away, whines, pins her ears, widens her eyes, or starts to tuck her tail, back up from the other dog. Trying to force her to “get over it” will just teach her that you’re not a supportive friend here.
You can do this! Do your best to support your scared dog and make sure the other dog is getting what she needs.
In some cases, the dogs might just not be a great fit together. That’s ok. Seriously – if your dogs are terrified of each other, you’re not doing them a service to force them together. Give it a good try and get help before making this decision, but it needs to be mentioned.
And as always, Journey Dog Training is here for you for remote behavioral support if you need.
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her dog Barley.