At the end of last year, Cameron, Lola and I drove north to visit Shana Laursen of Greyhound Friends for Life at her remarkable, 1,000-acre facility in Auburn, Calif., where she cares for both Greyhound and mixed-breed rescues. We had been looking for small, male Terrier to “complete” our family of three female dogs, and saw a photo of a little brindled stray, a Jack Russell Terrier mix, being fostered by Shana, and we were admittedly smitten. We wondered as we made the trip to see our prospective new dog: would he disrupt the delicate balance among our three dogs? What a pleasant surprise when this small, oh-so-sweet, plucky boy pranced center-stage with confidence, like he’d been among us all his life, completing our family so perfectly. All was definitely right in their world—they were once again a pack of four.
Have you noticed that we’re not alone in this scenario? Your friends at the dog park now have two, three or perhaps more dogs, often in a variety of types and sizes. These modern-day packs share a home, people and time together.
Historically, multi-dog households are nothing new. Working dogs have long helped with chores (herding, hunting, hauling, guarding), while “pet” dogs pulled indoor duty, cuddling with younger humans and keeping the pantry varmint-free. For the most part, harmony prevailed. Recently, our four-dog family suffered a loss, and we were down to three, all females. Then we adopted Charlie. As the youngest, and a latecomer with a relatively unknown provenance, he could easily have been a boat-rocker.
Imagine our relief when we discovered that it was quite the reverse. Everything got calmer, tension was defused, the two sibling sisters stopped bickering. There were no fights over bones or other prized trophies, such as everyone’s favorite plush turtle; they even made room on the couch for the new boy. What gives? All our fears of jealousy, rivalry and snarling mayhem gave way to a “go team” attitude. The pack was back!
Curious, I questioned Bark behaviorists to see if this blissful state of multi-dog living had been studied. Could it be that four (or more) really is better than one, two or three?
Karen London noted that even though she wasn’t aware of any research on “the number of dogs and decreased tensions/difficulties,” she has observed that “in households with big groups (five, six, seven), there is sometimes less competition over resources and some increased social flow compared with households of two or three dogs.”
Patricia McConnell, seconded that, and added, “Sometimes more is good. There does indeed seem to be a kind of social inhibition once you get a certain number of dogs together ... but, again, what that number is depends on many things, including the personalities of the dogs.” Both cautioned that it doesn’t always work out so smoothly. McConnell says, “I have had clients who had two or three dogs who got along great until they got ‘that new dog,’ and then everything went south.” As London pointed out, “It’s all different if even one dog in the group is seriously aggressive toward other dogs.”
Barbara Smuts observed that “there seem to be at least three different ways in which a particular dog can enhance multi-dog dynamics: with a calm but very strong and firm leadership; a gentle but decisive intervention when tensions mount; or a ‘good energy,’ cheering everyone up.” She also noted that what I might want to pay attention to in my pack are tendencies to “reconcile” or “console” after a tense episode.
“In recent studies of one captive wolf pack and a group of dogs, individuals showed strong tendencies to make-up after a conflict, and I’ve noticed this in my pack, even when the conflict is very minor and occurs during play,” Smuts explained. “One of the two contestants will approach and nudge the muzzle of the other or lick the mouth. It can be very quick and subtle, but if you watch for it, you may see it happening. In addition, in the dog study, if the two animals involved in the conflict did not reconcile quickly, a third party not involved in the conflict frequently approached the ‘victim’ or ‘loser’ in a friendly way soon afterwards, as if trying to console. Both reconciliation and consolation are well-documented in nonhuman primates, and it’s not surprising that they occur in canines as well. In primates it’s been shown that reconciliation reduces anxiety.”
As for my team, I think that young, frisky Charlie added just the right combination of playfulness and silliness, cheering up everyone, acting as consoling peacemaker and soothing family dynamics.
I would love to hear about your multi-dog household, and what you’ve observed. Share your experiences with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or simply add your comments. We have already heard from many of you, would love to hear your stories too.