Whether you’re adopting a second (or third, or fourth!) dog, or you’re looking to start welcoming foster pups into your pack, you’re likely wondering how you can set both dogs up for happiness and success.

Know your existing dog

Understanding how your existing dog reacts to other dogs is an important first step. Some dogs love every dog they meet. One of our regular foster dogs, Bella, is like this. Bella has helped foster more than 95 dogs (and counting) and she’s always happy to welcome a new pup to the home. Not every dog is a Bella though. Some dogs pick and choose which other dogs they like, some dogs are indifferent, and some dogs would prefer not to have any other dogs in their space.

Have realistic expectations

Sometimes dogs hit it off instantly. Other times it can take weeks for dogs to settle in together. Don’t be discouraged if it isn’t a quick match. Both dogs will do best if you have realistic expectations and try to keep the whole experience as positive as possible for both of them.

Plan ahead for the introduction

Ideally, dogs should have the chance for a slow introduction and even more ideally each dog should have their own handler. You want them to have the chance to sniff each other, see each other and get close to each other while keeping distance under a comfortable threshold for each dog. Just like people riding the subway, everyone has a different amount of space they need to feel comfortable with a stranger. Ideally, dogs should be introduced on neutral territory, in a fairly open space. Unlike humans, dogs don’t like to meet face to face. They like to approach nose to butt and have a good sniff. Forcing them to meet face-to-face increases the odds of tension an aggression.

Dogs also don’t like to meet for very long and intense periods during the first meeting. In general a good rule is a “3 second sniff” for the first meeting. Be prepared to allow the dogs about 3 seconds for a first sniff and then move them along to something else. If things look stressful before the 3 seconds are up then be prepared to move them along by distracting them from one another and coaxing them in a different direction.

This video of a dog introduction shows what an ideal slow introduction looks like. Of course with timing, limited space and the many other realities of life we can’t always manage this kind of introduction — but it’s helpful to know what an ideal set-up can look like so that we can shoot for something as close as possible.

Parallel play

Parallel play is a term borrowed from child psychology. Young kids often make friends by playing beside each other, in proximity, but without directly playing with one another. This strategy can work well with dogs too. Dogs will check each other out from a bit of distance, smelling, watching and listening to each other to get a sense of who the other guy is. As part of an introduction, you might engage the dogs in slightly separate activities near each other. Try doing some recall games with your existing dog or playing a game of fetch while the new pup gets a chance to check things out and sniff all the new smells in the yard or at the park. As long as there aren’t resources that the dogs might compete over, having them engaged in separate activities near each other can help them get more comfortable more quickly. During a recent meet and greet, visitor Beau kept his tail tucked and hid behind his mom. Cholo’s foster family started playing a game of fetch with Cholo, ignoring Beau, and after about 10 minutes Beau joined in, playing along side Cholo, with no pressure for them to play with each other (and now they are best friends),

Understand the dog 

Have a good sense of dog communication. You want to be able to tell if each dog is happy and relaxed or stressed. Signs of stress include licking, whale eye (seeing the whites of their eyes), a hard stare, or ears pinned back. At the first sign of stress you want to calmly redirect the dog to focus their attention elsewhere. Be careful not to panic, but a calm “move along this way” will generally help to diffuse stress.

Stay calm

Like all social animals, dogs are affected by others’ energy — including yours!  Introductions can be stressful, especially when there are high stakes involved (we are always hoping for success!). It’s important to check ourselves, and ensure we keep calm and not overreact. If the introduction starts to go badly, try not to yell or shout — especially in a high pitched voice as this may just sound to your dog like you’re joining in the barking frenzy.  A low, calm and firm voice with a confident stance (standing straight and tall, remembering to breathe) will help let the dogs know that you’ve got things under control and they don’t need to worry.

Control resources

Once you’ve gotten the initial introductions down, the next step is integrating the dogs into your home. One of the most common pitfalls with dog introductions is competition over resources (food, toys, entry into rooms and onto furniture, even you!). Where possible, make sure that you are controlling both dogs’ access to resources.  — gather up toys in advance, ensure that there is no food left out, etc. You want to ensure that you limit potential sources for arguments.

Plan your space

Both dogs will need areas where they can spend time resting. From a neurobiological perspective, dogs (again, much like people) need time and space to regulate energy levels and to return to a calm and relaxed state. Be sure to have spaces where you can physically separate the dogs. When you are not able to actively supervise, ensure that the dogs are separated. Quiet time will be especially important for your new dog who is undergoing major transitions.  Because dogs are pack animals (and survival depends on being near others), proximity to others (including people) can be important for helping them to relax. A safe and secure space where the dog can observe family interactions from a little distance is often the best bet.

Give each dog their own safe space

It’s also important that each dog has their own separate space where they are safe and secure. You might use baby gates, puppy pens, crates or other approaches depending on your set up.  Ultimately, it can be a good idea to work on making their spaces as safe and happy to them as possible, while working towards training them to go immediately to their own space when asked. Using food rewards like stuffed kongs filled with delicious treats, chew toys and activity mats can help pups stay entertained in their spaces during their down time. If each dog has their own safe and secure space you can have them go into it at the very fist sign of arousal, rudeness, etc. Ideally, you want to be able to move them into their spaces without anyone getting worked up about it. To learn more about this, google “teaching your dog place”.

Address issues right away

If the dogs don’t seem to be getting along, be sure to actively manage both good and bad behaviours. If dogs growl at each other, be sure to redirect to another activity and put the dogs in a separate area. You want to stay calm as yelling and harsh corrections can make the situation escalate. If the dogs seem like they have tension between them, your first priority will be keeping them safely and securely separated. Sometimes, despite the best of intentions and the most careful planning, we aren’t able to successfully integrate certain dogs. If you are having a hard time with this don’t hesitate to call in a trainer. Relationships between dogs, like relationships between people, are built through a history of interactions. Positive interactions will create more positive interactions, while negative interactions will create more negative interactions. Your job, as the responsible human in charge, is to do what you can to set them up for success.

Consider your routines

Having a new dog in the house can be stressful for your resident dog. You can limit stress by sticking to your usual routines as much as possible. In fact, sticking to routines is a really important part of helping both dogs to relax. The more predictable we can make their lives, the more quickly they’ll be able to settle. It also helps to plan for some alone time with your existing dog each day. Taking a walk just the two of you, playing a daily game of fetch in the backyard, having a fun training session, or doing something else that you love to do together is important for keeping your current dog as happy as possible. Your new dog will also benefit from focused time just with you. It doesn’t have to be much, but even a few minutes of focused attention and play time with you each day can help your dogs relax and adjust more quickly.

Check out this video from trainer Victoria Stilwell for tips when introducing a new dog into your home.