Introducing a Puppy and an Adult Dog: Take it Slow

Remember “Lessons for My Puppy,” my collaboration with Marge Rogers? She made some videos that I loved so much that I wrote blog posts to go with them.

Marge is still out there working with dogs and making great videos, and I’m featuring another one today. Although there is a lesson for a puppy in this video, and also a lesson for the adult dog, the biggest lesson here is for puppy owners. (Isn’t that usually the case, when you come to think of it?) In the video she shows how she gradually introduced Tinker, a fox terrier puppy she was boarding, to her own dog, young male Portuguese Water Dog Zip.

How many of you, when adding a new dog to your household, follow the “stick ’em together, stay close by, and pray” method? I have certainly done that in the past, though I don’t recommend it. I was more prudent and conservative by the time I got Clara, but even then, my situation was so unplanned and complex that I basically made digital decisions: this dog can hopefully be with the puppy, and these dogs definitely can’t.

Clara and Zani

When Clara came into my household, I kept her permanently separated from Cricket, my small, elderly and frail rat terrier. Clara could easily have knocked over Cricket with her wagging tail alone. I also kept Clara separated from Summer for a good while. Summer has a history of moderate dog aggression and I wasn’t sure she would grant Clara a “puppy license.” But I immediately turned Zani loose with Clara, since Zani is incredibly friendly, likes puppies, and was well matched in size. Zani lived up to my expectations and became Clara’s buddy and babysitter.

But what I didn’t do was any controlled introductions and gradual exposures. If and when I get another puppy, I certainly will do that. All the dogs in a household, both the residents and the newbie, can benefit from good planning and making acquaintance with each other gradually with good associations.

A common and effective method that pro trainers often use when introducing a puppy into their household is classical conditioning of the adult dogs: whenever the puppy is brought into proximity, fabulous food rains down on the adult dog. This can help build pleasant associations and prevent jealousy, since puppies can be obnoxious and can take up a lot of the owner’s time. That method was not necessary in Marge’s case.  Her dog Zip is naturally friendly and gregarious and was likely to enjoy the pup; he just needed some time to calm down and learn to be gentle.

This is not really a how-to post. All of our individual situations are different, and it would take much more than a standard-size blog post to cover even the basics of doing introductions.

What I want people to see is the visual of the dog and the pup getting to know each other safely and gradually, through a barrier and with good associations.

The Timing

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One of the things I love most about Marge’s approach is that she didn’t have any sort of time schedule mapped out for “releasing” Zip and Tinker to play together. In fact, it would be great if we could even stop thinking about it in those terms. At the time the video was filmed, the puppy Tinker was a baby, and at an age where a scary experience could potentially have negative residual effects for the rest of her life. Zip, although a friendly dog as Marge points out, had zero experience playing with a puppy now that he was a (very) young adult. He was much larger than Tinker and had a history of exuberant play with dogs around his size (i.e., not tiny and breakable) as a youngster. So before even considering putting them together, Marge had to be sure of two things: Tinker wasn’t scared of Zip, and Zip wouldn’t be too rough for Tinker.

I love the visuals in this movie. It’s something that we rarely see, and it is so incredibly valuable. You can watch as Tinker gets acclimated to Zip with the fence of the exercise pen between them. Marge reinforced Zip for being calm in Tinker’s presence, and built good associations with Tinker for being near Zip. After a few days, Marge allowed them together, but kept Zip on leash as a safety precaution. Tinker was comfortable enough to climb on him!

Tinker was there for a week. If she and Zip hadn’t indicated that they were getting comfortable with each other, Marge would simply have kept them separated, using the ex-pen and other means. And if Tinker had indicated that even the ex-pen barrier put Zip too close for comfort, Marge would have kept them separated even further. The paramount concern with a puppy this age is providing positive experiences.

When Not To Do The Ex-Pen Setup

Putting the two dogs adjacent with a fence in between was a good method for this friendly adult dog and confident puppy. But there are many situations in which it wouldnot be appropriate. Here are three of them.

  • If you have a grumpy, snarly mature dog, the last thing in the world you want to do is park him next to a puppy with only a wire fence between them.
  • You also wouldn’t do this if you had a large breed, exuberant puppy (who would enjoy bouncing on that fence) and a tiny, fearful, or frail adult.
  • And you wouldn’t do it with any two stranger dogs unsupervised, no matter how well they were apparently matched.

But take a look at how well it worked out for Zip and Tinker.

Patience and Barriers

Whatever method you use to integrate a new dog into your household, patience and barriers are your friends. Even if you are a gregarious person, you probably don’t want to spend 24/7 with an acquaintance you met yesterday. Most dogs probably don’t either. Take the introductions slow and easy. For instance, I didn’t let my dog Summer interact directly with the new puppy Clara until Clara was about 5 or 6 months old. That was more than 2 months. Some people wait a lot longer than that, depending on the situation.

If I had it to do over, I would probably do some classical conditioning with Summer: associate the appearance of the puppy with great food falling from the sky. I didn’t have it together to do that at the time. But when I did finally let them into the same space, I supervised closely and kept the sessions short. Summer in particular needs her “down time” so I made sure she had it. Clara needed to learn, without getting hurt, that Summer would probably never want to play with her and that it was not wise to pester her.

Back to Marge and Zip. As it happened, Zip never did get to play with Tinker off-leash during that week. He was too clumsy and goofy (did you see the paw to her head?). He did learn a lot though, including a softer approach and play style. Marge may have an “uncle dog” in the making! (That’s a term for a good-natured male dog who is good with puppies and good in general at putting other dogs at ease.) But she knew better than to rush things. This is another situation where “slow is fast” though. Zip earned off-leash time in two days with the next puppy who came to visit!

Being gentle with a puppy is not something a human can directly teach a dog, but Marge facilitated it with carefully controlled exposures and lots of breaks in the play. I know she is counting her blessings that between her efforts and the fact that Zip is friendly and socially savvy, he is learning gentleness through direct experience with the puppies themselves.

You can view Zip’s lovely interactions with his next puppy guest here: Off Leash Puppy Play.

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About Eileen Anderson

About eileenanddogs: Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. See more at http://eileenanddogs.com.
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