Navigating life with a reactive dog, especially when it's just the two of you, has its fair share of challenges. Each day is a mix of love, responsibility, and, at times, a sense of isolation that only another pet parent can understand. The thought of integrating my dog Greta into a home with another dog seemed daunting, particularly with a bite history under her belt. Despite her progress over the years, it was a hurdle I was afraid we’d never overcome. But life has a way of surprising us, and the journey from apprehension to a harmonious multi-pet household has been nothing short of remarkable.
Now, take that challenge and double it. I wasn't just dealing with my reactive rescue, Greta. My partner’s dog, Harry, also had his own set of reactive behaviors despite a nurturing puppyhood. Our mission? To blend our lives and our dogs into a harmonious family.
Building a shared life with two reactive dogs may seem impossible. With a lot of hard work and a little manifestation, we’ve been making unbelievable progress. Here’s how.
Greta’s journey with me started under the stark fluorescence of animal control, her anxiety and defensive reactions becoming clear soon after she settled into her new home. On the other hand, Harry, an energetic herding dog with protective instincts, presented a different kind of reactivity. His bark, worse than his bite, posed a potential trigger for Greta.
My partner and I bonded over our shared experiences as parents of reactive dogs, even joking about buying a home with a wing for each pup. Despite the humor, in the back of our minds we knew we’d have to somehow devise a friendship plan for our two pets.
The integration plan
I was lucky enough to find an incredible trainer during the pandemic lockdown who helped me tackle Greta’s anxiety issues. When my partner and I decided to take the next step and introduce the two dogs, I was adamant that we get his help again to prevent any potential issues.
Our strategy to blend Greta and Harry into one pack was meticulously crafted by our trainer, focusing on gradual exposure and positive associations.
Step one: enclosed exposure
The first step involved Harry exploring my space while Greta watched from the patio. This 'through the window' approach let them observe each other without direct confrontation, allowing curiosity to overcome fear in a controlled environment.
Step two: tandem walks
After a few weeks, we progressed to tandem walks. At first, these walks were across the street from each other, ensuring enough distance to prevent reactive outbursts. Each calm observation was rewarded with treats, reinforcing positive behavior.
Gradually, we decreased the distance between them, allowing them to walk closer. This approach was pivotal; it allowed them to be near each other without the pressure of face-to-face interaction, a crucial step for reactive dogs.
Step three: the sniff and strut
The most significant milestone was transitioning to butt-sniffing while still moving. This key dog interaction, done during the walk, provided a natural way for them to communicate and get accustomed to each other’s scent and presence. It was a careful dance of maintaining momentum while allowing brief moments of interaction.
Throughout these stages, we constantly rewarded calm behavior and gradually built up their tolerance and trust. The ultimate goal was not immediate friendship but rather mutual acceptance and coexistence. We were building their 'trust bank,' ensuring that their shared experiences were positive and stress-free.
The concept of counter-conditioning has been helpful in so many respects. It's defined as “a technique employed in animal training and the treatment of phobias and similar conditions in humans, in which behavior incompatible with a habitual undesirable pattern is induced.” If that’s a bit clinical, here’s a real-world example. When Greta encounters something that makes her anxious, I say “yes” and give her a treat.
These interactions started with low stakes, for example, those very distanced walks with Harry. When she’d glance over at Harry, she’d hear “yes” and know that a treat was coming her way.
With many repetitions, the behavioral changes set in. Instead of reacting out of anxiety when she saw Harry across the street, she’d just turn and look up at me for a treat. So, undesirable behavior (reacting) became replaced with desirable one (looking up at me).
Making deposits to the trust bank
The concept of a 'trust bank' between two reactive dogs revolves around gradually building positive or neutral experiences to establish trust and familiarity. Each positive interaction between the dogs acts as a 'deposit' into this trust bank, reinforcing their ability to coexist peacefully. Neutral encounters, where neither dog reacts negatively to the other, also contribute positively to the bank.
The key is to create enough positive associations, so the trust bank is sufficiently 'full.' This way, when inevitable slip-ups or setbacks occur, the built-up trust helps prevent these incidents from escalating into major conflicts.
The goal is to have a reserve of positive experiences that outweigh the negative, ensuring that occasional reactive incidents don't significantly damage their relationship.
Crate and rotate
If by chance you have two reactive dogs who simply cannot cohabitate for one reason or another, the crate and rotate strategy is a way to manage your living situation. This method involves keeping one dog in a crate or separate room while the other has free roam of the house. After a set period, they switch places.
The strategy ensures both dogs have equal and stress-free access to the home, exercise, and family interaction while maintaining a safe environment. It's a structured way to manage reactive dogs, preventing conflicts and ensuring each dog's well-being without direct interaction.
As our process slowly began to work, each phase of the integration felt like an exciting breakthrough. The first time Greta and Harry calmly walked side by side with one another without issue, it felt like we had won the doggie lottery.
There have been small setbacks, of course – like when we transitioned to indoor playdates and Greta would start to bully Harry by standing over him stiffly like the little control freak she can be. But with each controlled interaction and each successful co-walk, our hope and excitement grows.
The journey has been so successful and has taught us patience, empathy, and how to better read each of our dogs.
Professional guidance and medication
The combination of professional training and medication has played a pivotal role in our process. Our trainer’s expertise in reactive dogs provided us with tailored strategies, while medication has helped manage their anxiety.
They are each on a combination of pills that work to increase their threshold and decrease their fears. I’d say both are crucial if your dog struggles with reactivity – they truly go hand in hand and one wouldn’t work as well without the other.
Current outcomes and future plans
As we approach our move-in date, the transformation in Greta and Harry’s relationship is honestly unbelievable. They may never be cuddling together on the couch, and that's okay. Their newfound ability to share a space, to coexist without chaos, is a testament to the process. The plan now is to maintain this harmony, continue building their trust bank, and to be prepared for occasional hiccups along the way.
Tips for readers
For those navigating the challenging waters of integrating reactive dogs, my advice is rooted in our experience. Embrace the slow and steady approach. Invest in professional help. Consider medication if recommended.
And above all, believe in the possibility of change. The journey with reactive dogs is as much about transforming ourselves as it is about transforming them. Our pets are incredible beings – they’re smarter than we give them credit for and live to please us. If you are patient, loving, and committed to working with them, they can make astonishing transformations.
Lizz Caputo is the Manager of Content Strategy at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.