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Monday, July 15, 2013

Dog Duo Dynamics

Sweetheart and Cutie

I spent my 4th of July weekend making sure that no fireworks went off...between dogs, that is! I was engaged to look after both Cutie the Pyrenees and Sweetheart the German Shepherd. Their families are good friends; Cutie's people went with Sweetheart's family to pick her up when she was just a tiny puppy. I'm not sure if Cutie and Sweetheart had met before, but it would definitely be the first time they were tasked with living in the same house. Given that both dogs are quite large, if things did get out of hand, it would be incredibly difficult for me to physically control them, so it was essential that things never reached that point! Fortunately, I was intrigued by the challenge and was excited to have an opportunity to put some of my theoretical dog know-how into practice.

Although not high energy overall, Cutie can be very exuberant, and when something as big as she is gets exuberant, there's always the potential for trouble. Here she is pretending not to look at me during a game of keep-away.

I follow a number of dog blogs and most of these dog blogs deal with fostering dogs. Almost all of the foster families already have dogs of their own, so integrating a foster into the household in a manner that is safe and stress-free for all dogs involved is an important subject. One of the very best guides for introducing dogs comes from the great folks at BAD RAP, outlined in this blogpost. It should be required reading for anyone who is going to add another dog to a household, whether it is a foster dog or an additional pet, or, like me, someone who will be dog-sitting for a long weekend! I'd also like to give a shout-out to DINOS: Dogs in Need of Space for spreading the word that not all dogs want to be friends and should be given the space they need. I also want to share these great illustrated guides to dog body language by Lili Chin. I'm pretty good at reading dog body language, but these illustrations have been helpful for me and should be required viewing for everyone, especially those not familiar with dogs.

Lili Chin,

Lili Chin,

Cutie's raised tail indicates she's excited. Her raised head indicates she is the dominate dog in this pairing. Sweetheart is licking Cutie's muzzle to say that she is friendly but submissive and wants everybody to just be chill.

With this info in hand, it was time to get the dogs together. With the help of my family, the very first thing we did was take Cutie and Sweetheart on a pack walk. This meant walking side-by-side with minimal interaction. What interactions that did take place were nose-to-tail. (Meeting face-to-face is extremely disrespectful in dog language.) Cutie was kept distracted by the fact that I was walking her on a Gentle Leader, a type of head halter, for the first time. When walked on a regular collar, she pulls so strongly that you could practically go waterskiing behind her. She was a different dog altogether with the Gentle Leader and it was an auspicious start!

A good start did not mean that the two dogs immediately got to run free and were best friends ever after. While both dogs, according to their owners, "love everyone," this does not mean that Cutie and Sweetheart would love each other. Just as we don't like all other humans even if we like people in general, even dog-friendly dogs don't love every canine they meet. This goes double for accepting another dog in the house! It was very important, therefore, that I keep an eye on the girls at all times and separate them as much as possible.

Both dogs are wearing leashes so I can swiftly grab and remove one should trouble arise.

Fortunately for me, Cutie's family keeps an X-pen, as wire enclosures are known, in their kitchen in case she needs to be contained. Cutie will make a fuss if you put her in there, but Sweetheart went in it just fine, especially once the bed she sleeps on in her own kitchen was placed inside. This pen became an indispensable tool for managing the dogs because it didn't take long for the behavior dynamic to emerge: big, rambunctious, two-year-old Cutie wanted to play play play all the time and frail, arthritic, eleven-year-old Sweetheart wanted nothing to do with Cutie's rough advances. Early on, after play bows had failed to entice her, Cutie slapped Sweetheart on her poor, wasted hind end (like many German Shepherds, Sweetheart suffers from hip dysplasia) with a big heavy paw and Sweetheart yelped with pain and snapped at Cutie. The snap was not a bite and was a perfectly acceptable piece of communication from one dog to another, but Cutie proved oblivious to Sweetheart's emphatic message and continued to pester her to play. Thus, it was my job to make sure Sweetheart was safe and comfortable and that Cutie gave her the necessary space. When she realized that Cutie couldn't lay a paw on her when she was inside, Sweetheart quickly embraced the benefits of the X-pen and was quite content to be in there, especially for the first few days.

Sweetheart snoozes soundly in the pen while Cutie naps just outside. It took until Day Two for Cutie to relax enough in Sweetheart's presence to sleep on her side (an indication of total relaxation) like this.

I also made sure there were consequences for Cutie when she was too rough. Anytime she tried to use the paw on Sweetheart, she was immediately exiled. This meant that if we were out in the yard, I would grab her and march her inside while Sweetheart and I continued to enjoy the fine weather on the lawn. The one time when Cutie attempted to use the paw while inside, SHE was put on a timeout in the X-pen while Sweetheart got to roam the house untethered. While not especially well-disciplined, Cutie is plenty smart, and it didn't take long for her to refrain from using the paw. However, I also strove to make sure Cutie's excitement level didn't rise that high. It's far better to set dogs up for success than to punish them after bad behavior occurs, so I worked hard on getting Cutie to redirect her attention when she started to get excited about Sweetheart. Cutie has poor recall, so that meant I needed some high stakes rewards. I found an unexpected incentive: Sweetheart's kibble.

Cutie is so big that the yellow bowl on the edge of the stove proved to be easily within her reach.

I fed the dogs at the same time but in their own spaces, which meant Sweetheart ate in the X-pen. Sweetheart doesn't eat much anymore, though she certainly was quicker about getting it down when there was another dog around! Still, she usually left a few pieces of kibble in her bowl and Cutie was absolutely entranced by it. It turned out to be the ultimate training reward--as long as I made sure Cutie couldn't get to it without my permission! This meant shutting the bowl in the pantry when not in use after Cutie demonstrated that things placed at the center of the kitchen island were fair game. Typically, the time when Cutie is least willing to come when called is when she is out in the yard, but her desire to run free and play keep-away was no match for her desire to eat those pieces of kibble, specially formulated for senior dogs with bladder issues. Since I was the source of this kibble, she quickly began paying attention to me when I called her! She soon learned to back off and check in with me when I'd say, "Cutie, give her space." If she left Sweetheart to come to me, she was rewarded with a petting session if I didn't have treats on me. I also made sure to play with her so that she could expend some of her ample playful energy and have less to direct at Sweetheart.

Toys were only available under my supervision and even then on a very limited basis. After Cutie and I had a game with the squeaky snake, Sweetheart requested a turn. We'd come a long way in just a short time: Cutie is interested, but not beside herself with excitement that Sweetheart is playing with the toy.

The weather was fine, so the three of us spent a lot of time out in the yard. Cutie's yard is large and has a little patch of woods in the center. Because it is only contained by an electric fence, Sweetheart could not have free run of the yard. This was just as well. I'd walk her all around the yard for bathroom and exploring purposes several times a day and then I'd put her on a long line attached to a tie-out stake. This left Cutie free to run around and sniff and bark and play and burn off her energy while Sweetheart got to bask and roll and sniff the wind. I'd play keep-away with Cutie and then sit down with Sweetheart and brush copious amounts of loose fur out of her coat.

This is how Sweetheart liked to spend her time in the yard...

...and this is how Cutie liked to spend hers!
(Note the giant pile of dog hair I'd worked out of Sweetheart's coat in the background.)

One of the most important parts of managing two dogs in the same space is making sure there is no competition for resources. The girls were fed separately, so there was no competition over food. Toys had the potential to be a trigger, so they were only played with on a limited basis under my close supervision. Sweetheart wasn't very interested in treats, especially when the treat was the kibble she'd rejected at breakfast, so I could easily give Cutie lots of treats for behaving respectfully around Sweetheart without Sweetheart getting jealous. Cutie showed way too much interest in Sweetheart's rope bone, so that was swiftly put away in pantry. What ended up being the hardest resource for the girls to share was me.

I love these two dogs and they love me! Moments before this photo was taken, Sweetheart had covered my face with slobbery kisses. 

There was little competition for my attention while we were outside or when I was in the kitchen. Things got trickier when I sat down on the couch to read. This didn't come up on the first day, of course, but after Cutie had mellowed a bit and Sweetheart felt more secure in her presence, Sweetheart made it known that she'd really like to take a nap on Cutie's squashy round bed in the corner of the family room. Cutie very seldom uses that bed herself, but any time Sweetheart settled on it, Cutie would get excited and use every maneuver she could think of to try to entice Sweetheart to play with her. By this point, when I told Cutie from my position on the couch to leave Sweetheart alone, Cutie was responding to me well enough that she would abandon Sweetheart and come over to me. Seeing that Cutie was about to get attention from me, Sweetheart would haul herself up and come over, too. Cutie never got mad when Sweetheart came running over, claiming to have first dibs on all my affection; she'd just get excited and excitement would turn into invitations to play and the invitations would get increasingly rough. I really wanted Sweetheart to have a chance to take a nap on that bed and be free from the X-pen for a while and I knew that Cutie was capable of calming down quickly if I could keep Sweetheart calm, but it took a while to get it worked out. One evening, after both dogs had been (separately) walked, I escorted Sweetheart to the pillow and then used to a low tone of voice without looking at either dog to keep things from getting out of hand--that, and one other secret ingredient: I sang to them.

Sweetheart had the best nap ever on Cutie's pillow.

I sing to my own dog quite a lot, both for fun and as a way of calming her. I've made up a number of dog-specific lyrics to songs while others I sing as they were written. I'd sung to Sweetheart for an hour on the 4th of July as a way to soothe her and give her something else to listen to other than the explosions, covering everything from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to the national anthem to half-remembered songs from "Les Miserables" to Depeche Mode. I don't know how much it helps the dogs, but it helps me feel calmer and happier and like I can do something to help, and since dogs respond enormously to our energy, it's absolutely beneficial from that point of view for me to sing to a nervous dog. It's no accident, in my opinion, that when I launched into my favorite lullaby, slow and low and minor key, Cutie stepped away from Sweetheart on her bed, and by the time I'd reached the end of the second verse, had plunked herself down in her regular spot in the kitchen against the back of the family room couch. By the time I'd sung it through twice, both dogs had heaved their settling-in sighs and I was free to read my book in peace. It was so magical that I delayed getting ready for bed just to prolong that wonderful, peaceful energy, feeling very good about my dog-handling skills, indeed!

An un-penned Sweetheart naps in the sun.

I never left the dogs loose and alone together for more than just a moment, and then only when they were both lying down, but the day after our success in the family room, I was able to grant Sweetheart more freedom. She used this to sleep in the sun by the kitchen door and to spend a little more time on Cutie's fabulous bed. I still had to closely supervise interactions in the family room and Cutie was unable to pass up carefully sniffing Sweetheart every single time she was near her, but a tentative balance was achieved. Cutie, of course, would have preferred to have a relationship that involved more play and Sweetheart might have been willing to play if Cutie would just dial it back a bit, but I was happy that everything was under control and no one got hurt!

The girls.

It was a tiring but rewarding job to bring the two dogs together. It was meaningful to their owners, too: Sweetheart and Cutie's predecessor had been good friends and everyone was hoping that this pair would get along, too. As humans, we tend to hope that our dogs will form joyful bonds and will want to spend all their awake time playing and all their asleep time snuggling, but two dogs hanging out and ignoring each other is also a desirable outcome. It would have been lovely if Cutie could have played very gently with Sweetheart, but the reality is that Sweetheart is very old and frail and that Cutie is very young and energetic and doesn't have the social skills to bridge that gap. I was therefore very pleased any time the two of them were sleeping soundly in their respective spaces or engaged in their own pursuits outdoors. Very best of all was when I was able to sit on the lawn while petting Sweetheart with my left hand and Cutie with my right as each dog sniffed the wind and watched the world go by. I'm extremely gratified that the blogs that I follow gave me the knowledge to set up a (relatively) peaceful coexistence between two large dogs with very different energy levels during the long holiday weekend.

Two dogs enjoying the outdoors while ignoring each other.

My favorite dog blogs included Love and a Six-Foot Leash; Peace, Love and Fostering; BAD RAP barn blog; Two Pitties in the City; Our Waldo BungieA Heartbeat at My Feet; Pitlandia; Oh, Corbin; Mr. & Mrs. & Nola Kisses; I am Bouncer; I am Robin; I am WinnieDefining Lexi (these last three are no longer updated because the dogs have been adopted, but they contain lots of fun posts and good info); and Notes From a Dog Walker. Most of these blogs have Facebook pages, too! (Bouncer, Robin, and Winnie were all BAD RAP foster dogs and Lexi was a Handsome Dan's rescue foster.) If you love dogs in general, pit bulls in particular, and are interested in the triumphs and travails of rescuing and fostering dogs, I recommend checking out them all.

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  1. hi, love your blog site, esp the purple, the colors and top pic are amazing, and it's so obvious how much you love the dogs, keep up the good work! Wish I could erase your migraines. big flamingo hugs to you! (this is dee, the flamingolady from our etsy createability team).

  2. Hey, I couldn’t find an email address. Would it be possible for you to email me so that I can ask you a question?