February Ask a Trainer: Starting off on the right paw

Photo-9_2This month Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, writes about integrating a new dog with other pets.

This month, One Tail asked me to talk about how to integrate a new dog into a household with other pets. The answer, as with so many questions about behavior, is “it depends”—on the species, the individual animals, their individual learning histories, and on the environment from day to day. Smart management should always be part of the picture, as should training simple behaviors so you can direct or redirect. But here are six tips that apply across all possible scenarios.

1. Ask the animals. One thing you should have on board before adopting a dog, whether or not you have other pets, is a working knowledge of canine body language. That’s how you’ll know how your dog is feeling about a given situation and be able to predict how he is likely to respond. Intervention at the most subtle signs of stress is key to heading off trouble, in a multi-animal household and elsewhere. Here’s an article I wrote elsewhere about how to learn about canine communication. Other animals have their “languages,” too. You’ll want learn about them before introducing those animals to a new dog. (I’m not a cat expert, but here’s a resource I would trust from Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant.)

2. Health first. Make sure all resident animals are healthy before setting them up to meet a new addition. Get everybody a vet check before bringing your new dog home. Sick animals, or animals in pain, might not be in the mood to make a new friend.

3. After health, safety first. Don’t leave any animal’s safety to chance. Use physical barriers for initial introductions, and remove them gradually as the animals seem comfortable in each other’s presence. This may mean a baby gate or rotating crate time, or it may even mean complete visual blockage for a few days. Be proactive: terrible first impressions can set a relationship off on the wrong foot.

4. Ensure escape routes. When you are ready to bring two animals into the same space, have a backup plan (e.g., let your dog drag a leash) and ensure that each animal has an easy way to leave the interaction if he wants to (e.g., use a dog gate with a cat-size door in it). Consider the animal when planning your setup; for cats,escape can be vertical as well as horizontal.

5. Create positive associations. With everyone feeling safe thanks to your wise management, teach each animal that the other’s presence predicts good stuff. Predicts is the key word: the other animal must seem to make the good stuff happen. Feed one meals just when the other comes into sight, or train one (using positive reinforcement) while the other gets delicious food for watching. Food is really useful in this process, but other valued resources can be too. For instance, if your cat really, really loves a good butt scratch, have the dog appear just prior to each scratching. Look for a happy conditioned emotional response: e.g., when the presence of the cat causes the dog to wiggle joyfully in anticipation of a treat, you’re ready to up the ante (for the dog, anyway). Conditioning is a fairly simple process, but nuances can make or break it—you may want to enlist the help of a professional trainer if you’re not seeing results.

6. Don’t get greedy. Some animals will need more time than others. Let their responses, not an external timetable, guide you. Advance just one aspect of your plan at a time. Gradually decrease distance and fade barriers as everyone looks happy. It’s better to put in the work up front than to rush through important steps and risk pushing the animals into a conflict that could sour their relations for the long run.