Living in a Multi-Dog Household

A Full House
By Barbara Smuts PhD, December 2012
Illustration by Lauri Luck
Illustration by Lauri Luck
Illustration by Lauri Luck

My multi-dog household includes three unrelated, rescued mutts with golden fur and bushy tails, each weighing around 50 pounds: one female (Bahati, 13), and two males (Tex, 7, and Bentley, 2). On a typical morning, Bentley and Tex play in the living room, biting at one another’s hind legs. Tex flops onto the rug, Bentley bites at Tex’s neck and Tex flails his legs in defense. Their play rouses Bahati, who has been napping. She trots into the living room and plunges between them.

Bahati stands tall, holding her ears as wolves do when courting: the inside of the earflaps face out to the side and the backs nearly touch over the top of her head. Ever eager to flirt, Bentley positions his ears the same way and cautiously places his chin over her neck. She leaps away, then starts to scamper with him; it almost looks like they’re dancing. When Tex moves toward them, Bahati rears up to wrap her front paws around his neck in a bear hug. Watching them with a silly grin, I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.

In addition to my delight in the dogs’ antics, I like having a multi-dog household (three or more dogs) for other reasons. I have three playmates instead of one, and three dogs to comfort me when I’m down. With three, I’m more likely to have a snuggly companion on the couch or bed, and I love being welcomed home by three madly wagging tails. With three dogs, I have more friends, more silliness, more beauty, more life.

Living in a multi-dog household is also better for my dogs. For one thing, I’m not solely responsible for their entertainment. They wear each other out when they play in a way that’s impossible for me to replicate. They’re never alone, and I feel less guilty about the parts of my life that don’t include them. Although they still adopt the “I’ll die if you don’t take me with you” look when I leave the house, their so-called suffering is belied by the toys I see scattered around when I return.

Despite the many benefits of multidog homes, however, there are also costs, and they’re not all financial. Wiping 12 muddy paws or trimming 54 toenails is exponentially more tiresome than dealing with four paws or 18 nails. Walking three leashed dogs can be complicated, especially when our leashes get tangled with those attached to several dogs from another household. If we don’t want to unclip the dogs, the only way out is to perform what my friends call “the leash dance,” in which each person holds his or her leashes high overhead while twirling until the two sets disentangle — a most interesting way to meet one’s neighbors! And, of course, training three or more dogs is harder than training one or even two, especially when it involves behaviors they tend to do in unison, like barking at the UPS man or rushing to the door when the bell rings. For many people, such training requires more time and patience than they have.

Domestic Disharmony
Dogs don’t always get along, of course. I’m lucky in that generally, hostilities in my house are largely limited to growling in defense of the best spot on the bed. Sometimes the tactic works, but often, the other dog jumps up on the bed anyway, blithely ignoring the warning. Moments later, I usually find them resting together, sides touching.

Although a lot of “aggression” between familiar dogs is ritualized and harmless (see “Fighting without Biting,” May 2011), it sometimes escalates, especially when a new dog is involved. While researchers have not systematically observed multiple pet dogs living together, a few studies have examined data from canine behaviorists who had been consulted for help with intrahousehold aggression. Unfortunately, these studies do not involve a comparison group of households whose dogs do get along, which makes many of their findings hard to interpret. Nevertheless, they tend to agree on a few patterns: aggression is often instigated by a newly matured dog or by a new household member against an older dog, and is more frequent within same-sex pairs, particularly when both dogs are female (more on this in a future article).

Aside from avoiding the most common triggers — the presence of food or toys; proximity to the owner; high-arousal situations, such as greetings or preparations to leave; and being together in a confined space, such as a narrow hallway — other treatment recommendations include medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and following a “nothing in life is free” program.

Canine behaviorists also sometimes encourage people to consistently favor one dog over the others (e.g., the older or higher-ranking dog) by giving him or her resources and attention first. In her DVD, Dog-Dog Aggression, Patricia McConnell argues against this because, in her experience, it doesn’t work. She suggests other methods of decreasing intra-household aggression, including training dogs to be in close proximity to one another while waiting in turn for a resource. The DVD includes a wonderful example involving McConnell’s own dogs. She asks three Border Collies and a Great Pyrenees to line up, then kneels in front of them holding a pan in which meat has been roasted. By name, she calls one dog forward to lick the pan, then asks that dog to stop licking and back up when it is the next dog’s turn. Her dogs’ body language indicates how much self-control they must exert to succeed in this situation, but succeed they do. The lesson? When dogs learn that they get what they want by politely waiting their turn, they are less likely to bully each other (or you!) as a way to gain resources.

In any event, when intra-household aggression is a serious problem, consult a certified canine behaviorist with a background in this type of situation. In addition, it can be very helpful to learn as much as possible about canine communication to better understand dogs’ interactions. For example, being tuned in to postures and facial expressions that often precede aggression — such as a dog standing very still with his muzzle tightly closed — can allow us to intervene before an attack is launched. (For more on dog-dog communication, see resources at below.)

Pleasures of the Pack
Based on my own experience, I hypothesize that relationships between a household’s humans and dogs, as well as relationships among the humans, influence how dogs get along. People who model peaceful, generous and courteous behavior create a household culture that dogs, who are highly attuned to social etiquette, recognize. Puppies growing up in such households are especially likely to adopt that culture.

More often than not, multiple dogs do get along. In addition to the benefits mentioned previously, having several dogs is just plain more fun. One of my favorite activities involves walking my dogs off-leash in wild areas far from roads. Each dog understands that when I say, for example, “Bahati, lead!” I will follow the dog who has been singled out, so long as he or she doesn’t move toward anything dangerous. All my dogs love being the leader, yet will relinquish that role when it’s the next dog’s turn — or mine. It’s fascinating to see where each dog chooses to go; their noses lead us to places I might never find. Also, I can relax because I’m not making all the decisions; it’s fun to be a follower for a change. Finally, letting the dogs be in charge helps balance power in the human-dog relationship. None of my dogs has mutinied, which I think effectively demonstrates that we don’t always have to be “the decider” to have well-behaved dogs.

Based on what scientists know about people, dogs and their mutual histories, these outings in some ways mimic the original relationship between human hunter-gatherers and canines. Hunters traveled with multiple dogs, some of whom tracked and chased game while others protected women and children when they were out foraging. Since dogs can smell and hear better than we can, as well as see better in the dark, it made sense for our ancestors to sometimes defer to canine judgments about where to go (or not go). Most of the time, neither we nor our dogs can live this way, but we get a taste of the wild by going on long outings and allowing our dogs to lead.

Hanging out with multiple dogs after everyone has exercised and eaten is my favorite way to spend the evening. During these times, I notice subtle behaviors that warm my heart. For instance, when Bahati approaches Tex while he is lying down, Tex sometimes extends a paw to pet her on the head or neck instead of performing the usual nose-to nose greeting. I also love it when, after resting for a while, they simultaneously feel compelled to zip around the house and up and down the stairs as fast as they can go. Just as suddenly, they return to their senses, stop running and go back to lazing around, smiling and panting. Who can remain in a bad mood after watching such an explosion of joy?

Another plus to living with multiple dogs is the opportunity to observe relationship dynamics. Groups of dogs are systems, which means that if any part changes, everything else changes as well. Through such observations, I’ve learned that dogs take their relationships with one another seriously. Bahati and Tex are old friends whose interest in playing together gradually decreased over the years. But after young Bentley arrived, they not only played with him, but also spent more time playing with one another. Bentley’s youthful, evercheerful disposition improved everyone’s life, including mine.

Several years ago, I lived with three female dogs; at one point, they were joined by Osa, a middle-aged male who needed a temporary home. Safi, the undisputed lead dog in my group, had known Osa well five years earlier, and they began playing almost immediately.

However, Safi was by then older and weaker than Osa, and she objected to some of his rough play moves. After clearly communicating this several times, she lost patience and moved to discipline him. Instead of submitting, Osa grabbed Safi’s neck and briefly forced her to the ground. Less than a minute later, Safi approached Osa to reconcile (more about this behavior follows), but he ignored her. From that moment on, Safi gave Osa the cold shoulder, refusing to interact with him in any way. The other two females, who had merely witnessed the event, also ceased engaging with Osa, even though both had played with him before. To my amazement, all three females ostracized Osa during the rest of his stay, a full seven weeks. I was reminded of situations in human families in which people refuse to speak to one another for years.

I urge people who live with several dogs to pay attention to their interactions. One thing to look for is reconciliation behavior. Research shows that shortly after a two-way conflict within their group, dogs and wolves tend to approach the former opponent to do something nice, like touch muzzles or invite play. Dogs and wolves are especially likely to reconcile when they place a high value on a relationship, and “making up” can be a window into their feelings. For example, Tex sometimes gets grumpy when playing with Bahati or Bentley, but within a few seconds, he nearly always offers a muzzle lick. The same study documenting reconciliation in dogs also showed that if the combative parties fail to reconcile shortly afterward, a third dog, uninvolved in the event, is likely to approach the “victim” of the squabble in a friendly manner, perhaps to offer comfort.

Notice, also, the way dogs who live in the same household behave when they meet another dog. Many times, I have seen them close ranks when an unfamiliar dog exhibits the slightest unfriendly move toward one of their own. If that behavior escalates to a real threat or fight, a dog may intervene directly to defend a housemate. Such defense is particularly striking when a dog supports someone she doesn’t especially like when they’re at home.

Moments like this remind me that my motley crew of mutts really are packmates at heart. Because we’re humans, we focus on our dogs’ relationships with us. But the most amazing thing about dogs is their capacity to become integrated into both human and canine society. In the past, dogs usually lived in multi-dog, multi-human groups. Multi-dog households are, in a sense, their birthright. No matter how much we love our dogs, to be fulfilled, we need other people, and no matter how much dogs love us, they need other dogs to experience and express all of who they are.

Barbara Smuts, PhD holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a doctorate in behavioral biology from Stanford Medical School. A professor of psychology, she teaches courses in animal behavior at the University of Michigan. She has studied social behavior in several wild animals, including olive baboons and chimpanzees (East Africa) and bottlenose dolphins (coastal Western Australia). More recently, she has been studying social relationships among domestic dogs and is working on a book on this subject.