A little while ago I asked our Instagram followers what questions they had or what topics they would like me to cover, and the concept of sharing came up quite a few times. How to get dogs in existing multi-dog households to share food or toys, but also how to help an only-dog in a family prepare to introduce another dog.
This is the dream for many dog owners but it's not always possible and that's ok
Now dogs who are considered to ‘not share well’, can also be given the label of ‘resource guarders’. But I don’t like labels, they never help any person or any dog. Dogs who ‘don’t share well’ often struggle with a few concepts, but for many, it is actually a struggle with disengagement. Disengagement is the inability to disengage (shocker) from something they perceive as important.
Now important to one dog won’t be important to another, and things can be important for good reasons and for bad reasons. This can lead to struggles with disengagement presenting in many different ways. For example, a dog who struggles to disengage from his favourite ball may not be able to give it back to their owner, they might play ‘keep away’ instead of dropping it, or they may simply carry it around everywhere they go because they simple can’t disengage from it. It is important to them. Another example may be a dog that is nervous around other dogs but still continues to take itself closer and closer to the dog that is making it nervous. You can stand there and watch as they move closer and closer, get more and more anxious, and you think ‘why don’t they just walk away instead of getting closer?’ Both dogs are struggling with the same concept - disengagement.
With our girls, we do a lot of work on disengagement. They all struggle a little bit with this but they show it in very different ways. If Pickle sees something running - rabbit, mouse, deer, her blinkers are on, noise cancelling headphones engaged and nothing else matters. She can’t disengage. When playing fetch with Betty, when she gets too excited, she struggles to drop her toy. She struggles to disengage from it. Daphne on the other hand actually struggles to disengage from either myself or my husband. When we are out on a walk, her focus can be so intense on us that she has walked into a pole before. She struggles to disengage from us. Different presentations but ultimately the same struggle which we work on with various games and the difference in the last 12 months has been amazing.
The girls' boundaries are their 'safe' zone where they can eat, rest or sleep without being bothered by the others
For owners with multiple dogs, or those looking to introduce another dog, ask yourself - what does ‘sharing’ look like to you? Dogs eating out of the same bowl? Playing with the same toys? Sharing the same bed? And my second question would be, why do they have to do that? Really what you want is a happy household without conflict, and in multi-dog households the success of this is about each dog being able to have their own space and not be expected to share everything.
We have chosen to set our household up to avoid potential conflicts, to help the girls make good decisions, especially when they are in a highly aroused mental state when their ability to make those good choices will be more difficult (like when they are playing). In our house, the girls either have their food on their boundary with us present or if we aren’t present they are separated by baby gates or doors. Betty happily lets Pickle come and steal some of her food, but if Betty was to try this with Pickle's food, Pickle would snap at her. Not a fair deal. If we let them just eat together Pickle would be the size of a house because she would vacuum her own food down then go and finish Betty’s. Food is also a huge trigger for Daphne. Both Daphne and Pickle are a result of their very rough beginnings when they were still with their litter mates, but both have come so far!
The girls each have their own boundary in the kitchen so that when we cue them to their bed, they each run to their designated bed. Going to their bed is a highly rewarding activity as they get rewards there, and the last thing we want is for them to be fighting over the bed that is closest to us or closest to the food. We also have designated toys for each of them. We do this because we often will play fetch with all three of them at the one time, and by having their own distinct toys, they only run after their own toy. Playing is really exciting and their arousal levels go up very quickly which means sometimes not great choices can happen. Think about when you’ve seen other dogs playing, the longer they play, the more physical it gets. They might get a bit more snappy. In some cases it can end in a fight or one of them ‘telling off’ the other and play abruptly stops. It’s not because they don’t like each other, it’s simply because their arousal levels were too high and it stopped being fun.
Ultimately I think we need to be realistic. Every dog relationship is different. Not all dogs like each other, even within the same house, and that’s ok. We can’t teach them to like each other, and we certainly don’t want to force them to act like best friends because this will just result in confrontations. Set them up to win by giving them their own space, their own food and toys, and focus on teaching them the skills they need to be able to disengage and cohabitate peacefully.
If you have any questions on this topic make sure to send me a message on Instagram or Facebook as I am always happy to help.
Until next time, enjoy your journey to becoming a mindful pet owner.