How to Integrate Imperfect Dogs in 8 Steps

Imperfect Dog Integration Compendium

This is a guideline compiled of 8 individual articles I recently wrote to help people understand some of the best ways to introduce dogs that have a little emotional baggage.


Slow and Steady Keeps Everyone Happy and Safe

Most frequently, I use these steps to integrate foster dogs. I do some version of this introduction for every dog that is expected to live harmoniously at my house. For reactive/selective dogs that may not see each other again or would only be around for a day or so, I will typically just crate and rotate–it often isn’t worth the effort of a true integration.

I realize that there are many dogs that can meet other dogs and be BFFs two seconds later. This guide is NOT for those dogs (although some of the principles could still be helpful). This is how I introduce and integrate dog-selective and dog-reactive dogs into the home. My process for seriously dog-aggressive dogs is more intensive. That doesn’t mean that selective and reactive dogs can’t be aggressive. Indeed, they can and often will be in situations that are stressful for them.

Remember: Not every dog will get along with every other dog. And that is okay.

This is where I remind you that dogs are, in fact, animals. They are not robots. Just like people. Do YOU get along with everyone you meet? No. You don’t. I don’t. I guess we are all some degree of human-selective. Sometimes you instantly dislike a person. Sometimes you can tolerate a person but wouldn’t want to hang out with them. Sometimes you initially hate someone but realize over time that they are actually pretty awesome. Sometimes you are forced to babysit your friend’s kids and you can only take it for 2 hours.

Working through reactive/selective dog introductions is NOT for everyone and inherently puts your own animals at risk. Intensive management is key but people are fallible. I always try to make sure there are back up safe-guards so even if I mess up, both dogs should still be safe. Please read the site disclaimer. This is what works for me, but it may not be what works for you.

Never forget that dogs can seriously hurt or kill each other.  No one likes to bring this up and everyone thinks ‘it can’t happen to me’ and they are wrong. I have had trusted, dog-experienced friends go through the horror of having their foster dog kill their resident dog. Because of their experience, I prepare for the absolute worst case scenario in dog-dog introductions. Dogs can be incredibly forgiving and most of the time I feel like a ninny for all of the precautions I am taking. Then something scary will happen–a dog will burst through a crate door, leap over a baby gate, or slip their collar–and I am boneless with relief that at a minimum, I prevented an unpleasant experience for both dogs.

Now that I have spoken about the potentially devastating and heavy reality, take a deep breath, remember how much you love dogs, shake it off, and review my process.

Below are the steps I usually take to introduce reactive/selective dogs, in the order I usually take them:

(You can click on the link to read each article separately)

  1. Crate and Rotate
  2. Short, Positive Training Sessions
  3. Group Walks
  4. Interacting Through the Crate
  5. Interacting Through a Baby Gate/Exercise Pen
  6. Tie Downs, Leashes Indoors, and Drag Lines
  7. Yard Introductions
  8. Sharing the House

Here are some general rules for management of reactive/selective dogs during introductions:

  • To be left home alone, they need a minimum of two solid barriers between them. I usually do three. At least one of the barriers needs to completely block vision. I typically recommend giving each dog their own room and kenneling them inside that room. For the dog I don’t know as well, I always kennel them. My own personal dog I may just keep in a separate bedroom.
  • Make sure the kennel is secure. If you have a reactive dog, often times they are a little on the anxious side. If they aren’t kennel trained, they may really test the kennel and potentially escape it. I know of a dog that broke out of a kennel, chewed through a solid wood door and killed another dog that was loose in the house. A secure kennel is a MUST. I always zip-tie the crap out of mine just in case.
  • For both dogs to be out, two people need to be in the home (typically in the room) and one person needs to be actively managing them.

1. Imperfect Dog Introductions: Crate & Rotate


With reactive/selective dogs, I start out with crating and rotating when I bring them into my house with my resident dogs.

What is crate and rotate?

Essentially, it’s keeping the dogs completely physically separate. Each dog has their own safe space (see reactive dog Matt’s old personal room above). It gives them time to get  completely used to seeing, hearing, and smelling each other.

The length of time we crate and rotate varies with each dog and situation. It can be for just a couple of days, it’s usually a week or two, but sometimes it can be a couple of months. It doesn’t mean that they are only in their crate or that is the only time they see each other.   It just means if I am not actively training them, they don’t have access to each other.

Reactive dogs can become used to seeing a stationary dog during their crate and rotate experience, but often times a moving dog is a whole lot more exciting. I never introduce dogs after only crating and rotating because it can lull you into a little bit of a false sense of security. Your reactive dog can be completely non-reactive with another new dog in the house, but the whole ballgame changes when suddenly that dog is let out of the kennel and can make contact with them (rudely greet, overwhelm, etc).

Additionally, I almost think there is a difficult to find ‘sweet spot’ with regards to how long to crate and rotate. You want the dogs to be used to seeing/smelling/hearing each other but you don’t want them to start to only think of the other dog as a non-interactive fixture. If you crate and rotate for too long without any other interactions between the dogs, it can take longer to integrate them because of the expectation they may have that the new dog doesn’t move.

Mental Toll

It is HARD WORK to successfully, humanely crate and rotate.

For the dogs, it can be difficult to not always be right with their human. It can be extremely difficult or impossible to do with dogs with separation anxiety because the stress level can be high. Depending on how many people are in your household, they may have to spend 50% less time with humans.  To make it easier, make sure your dog thinks of the kennel as a happy place (it’s nice to train them to it before-hand). Play crate games. Enhance their experience by freezing Kongs with goodies and only giving treats and food to them in their crate. Exercise them as much as possible. Cuddle with them and spend as much time with them as you can so they don’t get lonely.

For the human, the hard work is spending enough interactive time with each of the dogs, making sure all the barriers are in place every time you move around the house or let a dog out.  Personally, crate and rotate is hard because I feel way too guilty to do ANYTHING else other than spend time with dogs when they have to be 100% separate. People have to take care of themselves too, otherwise your frustration can get the best of you and your fuse can get shorter and shorter. It’s so much nicer to crate and rotate with two or more people that can be TRUSTED to follow the protocol. Having friends/family over is often difficult, because you have to make sure they are going to be reliable to close the door behind them. When we have company I am on alert for potential management pitfalls and the confusion/disdain that non-dog people have for our ‘chaotic’ household.

Like I said before, the rules for crate and rotate include:

  •  To be left home alone, they need a minimum of twosolid barriers between them. I usually do three. At least one of the barriers needs to completely block vision. I typically recommend giving each dog their own room and kenneling them inside that room. For the dog I don’t know as well, I always kennel them. My own personal dog I may just keep in a separate bedroom.
  • Make sure the kennel is secure. If you have a reactive dog, often times they are a little on the anxious side. If they aren’t kennel trained, they may really test the kennel and potentially escape it. I know of a dog that broke out of a kennel, chewed through a solid wood door and killed another dog that was loose in the house. A secure kennel is a MUST. I always zip-tie the crap out of mine just in case.

2. Imperfect Dog Introductions: Short Training Sessions


2. Short training sessions (3-5 minute sessions at first). Reactivity involves clicking and treating every time a reactive dog sees another dog. The reactive dog is typically on leash (on a head-collar if they accept one), as far away from the other dog as possible so that they can be below threshold, and receiving high value delicious treats. The dog should be mostly focused on you and ready to work, just like in this picture from  Twin Cities Pack Walk.

Adequate space and exact timing are really important–if you aren’t familiar with training reactive dogs I recommend you take a force-free reactive dog class first so that you know what you are reinforcing and how to train properly. The force-free part is important because with punishment (yelling, choke chain, alpha roll, Cesar Milan) training, a fearful, anxious dog is likely to get more fearful and anxious.

Short training sessions regarding reactivity are super important–but don’t forget extremely basic obedience either. Here is a tiny list of obedience items I try to teach every dog in my house:

  • Come: This is the most important one. It is INVALUABLE to have a dog has a reliable recall. Of course, if they are outside and running away for you, you can ask them to come and they can avoid being lost. But more importantly, if things get out of hand during an introduction or a dog gets through a barrier, ‘come’ can avert potential disaster.
  • Loose-leash walking is fantastic because it makes you more likely to take your dog on a walk because they aren’t dragging you everywhere. It helps reduce their anxiety level on walks, and keeps their trachea from harm secondary to pulling on the leash. It keeps your dog safe because you are in control.
  • Mat training: Having a safe space your dog can go to to relax–no mater where you are–can help relax your dog and allow them to feel comfortable in a variety of settings. Above is a video of me training the foundations of mat work to one of our old fosters, Lois, from Save-a-Bull Rescue.



3. Imperfect Dog Introductions: Group Walks


Group walks are a great way for dogs to get used to the excitement of seeing a dog. They entail a lot more than just going on a dog walk together, though. The basic tenants of group walks are:

  • This is a WORKING walk. That means everyone involved should be actively paying attention and training.
  • The most reactive dog starts off in front so they aren’t constantly stimulated by the view of the other dogs. Depending on their training level, the dogs in the back may pull on the leash to try and get closer to the lead dog. For a normal dog, this is often no problem. For a reactive dog, straining on the leash can make them more and more anxious.
  • Give lots of SPACE! You don’t want your reactive dog to be over-threshold. The goal is to have them react as little as possible. In  the above photograph, the dog in the foreground is stressed and a little too close to the dogs walking behind him (his face looks tense and his ears are back, focusing on the three dogs in the back). He is obviously stressed but is still heeling and not out of control.  At this point in the walk he was still looking up at me when asked and responding appropriately. You are going to have a hard time finding a distance for most reactive dogs where they won’t (at least initially) feel a little stressed. Do your best but don’t worry too much if your dog is still a little too intense when you are 90 feet away. A little bit of stress is necessary to learn and practice helps.  Over the course of the walk you can often get closer and closer.
  • Communication. If the front dog has to stop to sniff something, let the people behind know so they don’t keep getting closer and closer.
  • Don’t let the dogs interact. You can get close enough for them to sniff each other’s rears, but as a general rule the dogs should just be getting used to walking at the same time and not worried about actually meeting.


  • Switch it up. If your dog seems comfortable with the other dog when they are in front of them, try walking to the side or behind. Different vantage points are often exciting all over again.
  • Limit outside concerns. If you know there is a neighbor dog that rushes the fence and barks–take a different route. If you see a dog (or a kid or a bike or anything else the reactive dog might be too interested in) coming your way, change directions. If you absolutely cannot get away, throw a handful of high value treats on the ground to interest the dog before they can focus on the distraction.


Over time, you may be able to walk a reactive dog with a dog they are very comfortable with (In the above picture, the two dogs on the left live in the same household. The German Shepherd is dog-reactive and not comfortable with the black dog). Be careful. Dogs can re-direct when they are overstimulated. That means that they can turn and bite their trusted friend (or you). Make sure you are in control and can keep the dogs under threshold. If you can’t–don’t walk them together. You don’t want to ruin a good relationship.

The above picture is the result of about 3 years of consistent (but not intensive) training. It took that long for the shepherd to remain focused and attentive on her handler with the strange little black dog (LBD) so close. She was not crated and rotated with the LBD and no effort was made to integrate her with the LBD, who was a friend’s dog and an infrequent visitor.


4. Imperfect Dog Introductions: Interacting through the Crate


 Interacting through the crate–this option is NOT for every dog. Some dogs guard their crates or are too anxious in their crate so it would actually be a horrible idea.

For the dogs that the crate isn’t a big deal for, it is can be an excellent tool. If you are the only person home, you can still get in some good togetherness time for the dogs without putting any of them in danger.

Treat these interactions as training opportunities. You can see the dogs in the photo above are working on “sit” and other basic obedience commands.

Don’t allow any cage-fighting and increase distance if you have to. Sometimes having the dogs meet while one is in a kennel will give you a good idea how they would initially react when meeting.

It has the additional bonus of keeping overly exuberant dogs from leaping on top of dogs that may be intolerant of such rude behavior or from running amok during group training situations.


Make sure you are reading the kenneled dog’s body language. Above is our current foster, Jonah, showing that he is pretty anxious and would not like to be introduced to anyone at this time. How do I know that? Look at his posture. he’s tense and hunched over. His eyes are wide and his pupils are large (although it is dark in the room, which can confound things). His ears are back and his brow is furrowed. He’s obviously not comfortable so it wouldn’t be a good time to introduce more stress into his life.

You want to make sure that crate interactions are a positive experience for every dog involved, but especially the dog in the kennel. The kennel is supposed to be their safe space. Don’t ruin that for them with a kennel interaction gone south.

5. Imperfect Dog Introductions: Interacting Through a Baby gate/Exercise Pen

Interacting through a baby gate/exercise pen–realize that these are NOT secure. Dogs can knock them over or jump over them.

That doesn’t mean they can’t be great tools when used under supervision, though. If you know your dog physically can’t make it over the barrier or if they are well-trained you may not need to have them on leash. The unknown/reactive dog should be on leash and it should be treated as training time.



In the case of dog-selective dogs that might not appreciate an overly enthusiastic friend stepping on them, an exercise pen can provide  a physical barrier but still have all dogs feeling comfortable and part of the family.

You may not have to have the dogs on leash but you should be in the same room, supervising them. Exercise pens (even when hooked into the wall) can easily be knocked over and are not considered a secure barrier.

6. Imperfect Dog Introductions: Tie Downs, Leashes Indoors, and Drag Lines


First, a brief description:A tie down is a tether that is attached from the dog to a solid surface (preferably a wall). Pictured above


An indoor leash is being held by someone (similar to umbilical training but I prefer not to have the leash tied around me and don’t use this exclusively for house training. Pictured above.


A drag line is essentially a short (3-5 foot) leash that you leave connected to the potentially questionable dog. Pictured above. It is used when you are getting closer to and actively working for full integration and is often one of the final steps.  Although they can be used to gently interrupt behavior (ex. step on the leash when they are getting over excited and running around, pick it up and lead them away when a situation arises that could get them into trouble). Drag lines are also about damage control. They are easy to pick up in the case of a fight and help give you control of the situation. KEEP IN MIND, if you think there is going to be a fight, YOU SHOULDN’T BE USING DRAG LINES–your dogs aren’t ready for it yet.


Before we graduate to having the dogs interact off-leash, we use tie-downs and leashes indoors to control their interactions. Having dogs hang out in the same room, relaxing or focusing on something other than each other, while on a sturdy tie-down can really smooth out the integration process. I recommend having the other dog also on leash, unless they are reliably trained. Just because they are on a tie-down or leash doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention to them. You still need to be monitoring, making sure they aren’t getting tangled and aren’t feeling trapped.

There are a few things I make sure to watch for when using tethers indoors.

  • Is the collar secure? Is the anchor secure? You don’t want a shoddy collar or a dog that can pull a chair to result in management failure.
  • Can they hang themselves? I’m not joking, I ask this every single time and never leave my dogs tethered and unsupervised. Dogs can fall off of couches or get caught around something, so you want to make sure they are safe.
  • Does the leash/tie-down make them anxious or reactive in the house? If so, you are obviously going to skip this step because it isn’t going to help anyone.
  • Are the dogs getting caught together in the tether?
  • Does the dog on the tie-down feel the need to protect themselves/their space
  • Hard stares and still, potentially threatening behavior–if you see this, it’s time to re-evaluate your integration plan and take steps to build positive associations.

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