I prefer introductions to be performed outside. It gives everyone some breathing room and space is important. I will perform a yard introduction before using an indoor leash or drag line. The above video is a good example of two reactive dogs meeting. Essentially the principles are:
- Make sure they are not full of energy–take them on a group walk to get their yahoos out first and to get them used to walking next to each other again. Even if they have done it before. Even if it is just for half of a block.
- Have the dogs enter the yard one right after the other (don’t have one dog in the yard and bring out the other one after the dog has had some time to think ‘hey, this yard’s mine’). Ideally, you would meet in an area that neither of the dogs thinks is their territory. Luckily, my dogs have shown no territorial behavior over the yard and we use our own yard for convenience.
- If on a leash, have the dogs meet circularly–not rudely face-to-face.
- Go SLOW.
- If they are too excited, increase distance.
- Keep it SHORT.
- Try to end on a good note.
Here are a couple of things that I consider during a yard introduction:
Should the first greeting be on-leash or off-leash?
I almost always introduce on-leash first. If there is a dog that even after crate-and-rotate that is still leash reactive to it’s housemate (which I have not personally had happen), I may jump straight to off-leash. For dogs that are an unknown quantity or have taken a long time to reach this introduction point, they are almost always on-leash–you have more control and can easily prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.
Below is a photo of two (non-reactive) dogs meeting off-leash for the first time. Lois (the tan dog) was dog-selective and not a tolerant dog. Luckily, she had extremely clear body language.
In the first picture she doesn’t notice Homer (our old dog). When she notices him in the second frame she is alert and interested. Look at how her tail changes and how upright her posture becomes. In the third picture, she is clearly uncomfortable/unsure, leaning away from him and whale-eyeing.
Homer was a champ at greeting her though (he was always very polite). He didn’t go straight for her head, he walked up instead of bombarding her, he briefly sniffed and when Lois walked off with her ears back and her hackles up, he stayed behind and didn’t over-crowd her.
Homer and Lois ended up doing well together. They were able to be integrated.
Here is a similar series of Frankie meeting Homer. They are both dog-tolerant. Polite double sniffing, Homer walks away, Frankie shakes off the stress. You can clearly see that Frankie is the most concerned in this interaction (ears up, body stiff, hair a little raised and her tail is elevated).
Homer and Frankie integrated seamlessly after this. The next picture was taken about a minute after Frankie shook off. Being on your back with a strange dog is an incredibly vulnerable position. Keep this in mind while introducing dogs, as it can help you see who is comfortable and who is not. Rolling can also just be to relieve the stress. The biggest indicator of comfort is how close the rolling dog lets the other dog get to them before getting up.
In the same vein, if you have a dog that is rolling and another dog whose feelings about the interaction are less clear, don’t let the other dog loom over the rolling dog in the first few interactions. That can lead to a bad situation quickly and as you know, I try very hard to prevent those from happening.
How do you go from on-leash to off-leash?
I may do a few of the same interactions (like in the video above) spread out over a couple of days before we drop the leashes while both dogs are in the yard. That’s right–we just drop the leashes. Ideally, this is after both dogs have done their little meet-and-greet circle maneuver for that day and aren’t really interested in each other anymore. Do NOT drop the leashes when the dogs are keyed-up or running toward each other on leash.
Dropping the leashes is the hardest thing for me to do because it is the ‘leap of faith’ (as an atheist you can bet I am not good at those). You cannot control everything in the world. Eventually you will have to drop the leash. Hopefully because of all of the preparation you have put toward the dogs’ relationship it will go well. But it may not. And you should be prepared for that. They may start healthy play. You should be prepared for that, too. Remember dogs are animals, not robots. Best case scenario, the dogs become instant friends and you are left wondering why the hell it took you so long to get them together.
- Keep everything calm (including yourself). Try to simultaneously be laid-back and on-guard (you don’t want your stress/excitement bleeding into the dogs). Every time I do an introduction I have to tamp down on my enthusiasm so that I’m not making excited voices and trying to get them to play. You want to keep everyone under threshold. It’s okay if they end up playing but I wouldn’t recommend letting them have an exciting session.
- Assist the dogs in keeping things respectful. I recommend that both of the handlers walk around in the yard and periodically calling one dog or another to them for a check-in. We will also ask dogs to come to interrupt behavior that one dog is obviously interpreting as rude or for overbearing behavior. A quick interruption of the action is often all that is needed for the dogs to return to normal behavior.
- The handlers should keep walking (just like you should in a dog park!) instead of congregating and talking or standing with the dogs creepily watching them. Dogs tend to loosely follow where humans go so it is nice walk all over the yard to keep the dogs active so they have less time to stress about the dog they are hanging with.
- Both handlers should drop their leashes at the same time. I think it can be setting a dog up for failure having them meet while one is restrained and the other is not. The restrained dog may feel the need to defend themselves (since the option to leave the situation isn’t available to them).
- Keep the layout of the area in mind. We try to keep the dogs off of the porch because they could feel trapped up there, unable to easily walk away. Anything that forces the dogs to be closer than they would like to be right after meeting should be avoided (i.e. crowding near a gate to go through it).
- Think about your dogs’ arousal levels regarding your position and things in the yard. If they get excited to come in while you are by the door because they think they will get to go inside, don’t stand next to the door. Avoid giving treats while both dogs are right by you (to avoid guarding) and obviously don’t have any toys in the yard. Or sticks, if the dog will guard a stick.
- End things early while the dogs are on a good note. It is immensely preferable to ending things late.
Rarely, I will decide to use a muzzle while doing yard introductions. Muzzles are a great tool and safeguard but don’t get lazy and use them as a short-cut instead of careful introductions. Muzzles only stop the actual action of the biting and don’t change the dog’s emotional reaction. If you are going to use a muzzle, you need to make sure the muzzle is properly fitted and not stressing the dog out (i.e. you have counter-conditioned the dog to the muzzle)