My wife and I love having our two Belgian Shepherds in our lives. We have occasionally had three dogs for short periods. You would think that adding a third dog would add about 30 per cent more work, fun, and chaos into our lives. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
Beyond two dogs in a household, adding more seems to increase the complexity exponentially. How do you manage multi-dog households? To answer that question, I turned to a good friend of mine who has not three but six dogs in her home!
Amanda Brothers is a dog trainer, wife, and dog mom with a lot of love for dogs and one of the nicest smiles I’ve ever seen. Amanda runs Sidekick Dog Training near Seattle, Washington. She and her husband Larry share their lives with her six dogs, all of whom were re-homed from various situations. Foggy was a shelter dog. Sasha, Poe, and Wren were acquired from private non-profit rescue groups. Tess, their youngest, was re-homed as a puppy from a home not able to keep a growing Great Dane. And Lucky, well, Lucky was lucky. Lucky is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans who has found a home with Amanda and Larry.
Why So Many?
As you might guess, Amanda has a big heart. She and Larry don’t have a huge home but somehow they fit themselves and their six dogs into a 1,500 square foot home with a minimum of chaos. As a professional dog trainer, having a diverse group of dogs, both in terms of age and breed, makes for a great resource for Amanda. From her older chihuahua, Sasha, to her young mixed breed, Wren, they all have something different to teach.
Amanda admits that having six dogs takes up a fair amount of her time. But training using positive methods and behavioural science has given her a tremendous advantage. What could be a very complicated situation has been made manageable by good foundational training for each dog and an understanding of what each dog needs. Amanda credits dog trainer and behaviourist Patricia McConnell’s DVD “Feeling Outnumbered?” with giving her some great insights to managing her multi-dog home.
Big Jobs Made Smaller
There are lots of challenges with that many dogs in the house. Amanda says that one of the biggest challenges is when people arrive at her home. Whether company is expected or not, her dogs are keen to alert her that someone has arrived. Having cookies ready to reward polite behaviour is critical to success, Amanda tells me. Once there is a knock at the door, it’s relatively easy to organize a variety of “sits” from her dogs and reward them with cookies for greeting politely. In cases where the guests may be too exciting for the group, Amanda makes things safe for everyone by steering the smaller or more excitable dogs to crates or other “safe” areas until introductions can be made calmly.
Another challenge in multi-dog households is delivering highly valued items like food, treats, or interesting toys. It’s difficult to leave chew bones or toys out in a multi-dog home because these may become items of contention. To minimize arguments, Amanda takes care to deliver these high-value items only when dogs can be separated to crates or kept behind doors or baby gates so they can enjoy themselves without being challenged.
To prevent problems, Amanda also recommends that owners be careful about how they deliver rewards. Delivering a food treat where two mouths can get to it is never a good idea. Rewarding patience and self-restraint is another important strategy. Rewarding the dogs who wait and don’t “grab” at things not only teaches good manners, but makes it much easier to pass out goodies in a group. Amanda makes a special effort to practice training patience and waiting with each of her dogs individually.
Managing exercise and activity can also be a challenge. Amanda stresses that it is critical to meet the needs of each individual dog for both physical and mental activity. While this may vary from dog to dog, it’s important for owners to know what each dog will need and make sure they make time for those activities. With such a large group of dogs, Amanda finds that local off-leash dog parks are most useful at off hours a few times each week to provide physical exercise and minimize the potential for problems with stranger dogs. Amanda cautions that owners should not have more dogs than they can adequately provide for in terms of activity and attention.
Organizing Your Household
Amanda follows the simple strategy of “Train it or Manage it” to keep things organized in her home. Teaching basic manners behaviours like “Sit”, “Stay”, “Down”, and “Leave It” can make life a lot easier. Amanda also teaches each of her dogs to give her their attention in response to their names, making communication that much easier as well.
Using tools can help with management as well. All of Amanda’s dogs are taught to be comfortable in crates and behind gates. The ability to easily separate the dogs can simplify complicated situations and prevent problems. The dogs are always rewarded for handling different situations calmly.
Having a good plan is important. Knowing what manners you need to teach your dogs and what management options will work for you can go a long way toward preventing problems and making life easier for both you and the dogs. It will be important to train your dogs individually before expecting them to respond when they are in a group. Establishing good individual behaviour in your dogs will result in better group dynamics and better control when you need to communicate with your dogs.
Taking the Plunge
If you are considering adding dogs to your home, there are a few considerations. First, be sure you understand what your local municipality requires. Some areas have limitations on how many dogs a home may keep while others may require additional licensing and fees for dogs beyond a certain number.
Consider your existing dogs when looking for additional dogs. Age and personality of your current dogs should be important factors. Try to choose dogs that will balance your current situation. If you have high-activity dogs, you may want to consider lower-activity breeds. If you have older dogs, you might want to think carefully about what adding puppies or young dogs would do to dynamics in the household.
Finally, consider consulting a dog training or behaviour specialist. If you currently work with a trainer, you may want to ask some advice from a professional who might be able to provide some insight about adding a dog. An objective assessment of your home environment and about your options may help prevent problems before they start.
For some dog owners, if two dogs is good, more is better. For others, the perfect number may be one. If you are considering taking the plunge and expanding your home with more dogs, talk to other owners who have multi-dog households and make use of the many resources available such as books, DVDs, professional trainers and behaviourists, and internet discussion groups to prepare yourself before taking that big step.
Whether it’s one or two or six, providing a safe and happy life for your dogs doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated if you have a plan and are capable of managing the needs of the dogs. We love dogs but love is not always enough. It takes planning and effort to provide for our dogs. If you’re like my friend Amanda, you know what that means and make the effort every day to make life pretty terrific for both you and your dogs.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
“Amanda and the Gang” Photo courtesy of Julie Clegg of Bailey and Banjo, 2011
“Good Dogs! Photo courtesy of Larry Brothers, 2011
“Comfy Crew” Photo courtesy of Larry Brothers, 2011