Dog intros can bite. Five ways to get it right.


In which Jill shares tips for making good dogs better, and how to save your cake.

Border collies are supposed to be easy to train. Years ago, I thought I was doing a pretty good job with Pinky, my rescued border collie, who would obey my commands before they even left my mouth. She’d learned to “play dead” in 12 minutes. “Smartest dog I’ve ever had,” I’d tell my friends.

So when Pinky jumped up on the kitchen counter and grabbed a freshly-baked birthday cake, I was more than disappointed. I was hungry! And shocked at her blatant bad manners.

I never claimed to be a dog trainer. I rely on trusted partners for advice on complicated behavior issues like separation anxiety, chronic barking, and marking in the house. If you’re in pet rescue, it’s not practical to bring a trainer along every time you introduce a dog to its new family. Initial dog introductions can make or break an adoption.

When we think of intros, we immediately think of dog-to-dog meetings. Dog intros involve more than just dog-to-dog meetings. They mean you’re exposing the dog to a strange and often-intimidating new world.

Here are 5 techniques to remember when you’re integrating a dog into its new pack:

1. Know your neutral territory.

We’ve all heard that dogs should be introduced to one another on “neutral territory.” This is common knowledge in the rescue world, but new adopters still get it wrong.

Your car is not neutral territory. Neither is your front yard. There might be objects and smells your existing dog feels the need to protect. Similarly, I don’t advise bringing your family dog to the shelter to meet your new dog unless the shelter offers supervised meet-and-greets. The smells and sounds of the shelter can stress a dog out, making him anxious during the meeting.

Neutral territory could be an open space or an area, a quiet cul de sac a few blocks away from your place, an area of a public park with low traffic—preferably a quiet space outdoors where the dog doesn’t feel confined or distracted.

2. Don’t bring her straight home!

To be as relaxed as possible, a dog should be tired before you bring her home. Burning off physical energy allows the dog to relax mentally, too. So when she enters her new house, she’ll react more calmly to unfamiliar stimuli.

This means giving the dog a leash walk immediately after you break her out of the shelter. Depending on her size, 15- to 30-minutes usually does the trick, though more active dogs might need more. The walk should be away from your home. I take my new dogs to an empty field that’s divided by a wide trail. Depending on foot traffic, I often put the dog on a long line, giving her an opportunity to walk, run, sniff, and pee. You can see a shelter dog decompress before your eyes!

There are wrong ways to exercise a dog after you adopt them.  My foster dog Sally is a good example. She was adopted from a high-kill shelter by a family with a small child. They took Sally straight from the shelter to a dog park, probably misinterpreting the neutral territory edict.  Sally was amped-up from the chaos of the shelter and, being overly excited, she nipped a child. The family loaded Sally into their car and drove her right back to the shelter, where she was made “Rescue-Only” and labeled a biter. Despite the fact that she’s a gorgeous 2 year-old hound dog, the “biter” label stuck and she was red-listed.

I actually give the dogs we help to a single friend for a night or two before taking them to their foster or forever homes. This friend has no other pets, so the dog can relax immediately and start to feel safe.  

3. Match for age, and let the dog meet the kid.

Know your kid, and don’t adopt a dog whose temperament you question. A high-energy child, a nervous or overstimulated dog, and an unsure handler can be a recipe for disaster.

Also understand the dog’s personality well enough to know whether he can handle a kid your child’s age. Mastiffs and coonhounds are famous for being great with children. But every dog, like every child, is an individual with its own quirks and preferences. Take these intros slowly.

To that end, you should allow your dog to approach your kiddo carefully and safely. I’m sure Sally didn’t appreciate an unknown toddler hurling toward her at an unfamiliar park. The dog should be leashed and supervised, and allowed to approach the child slowly. The child should be instructed not to make sudden movements or to yell loudly to frighten the dog, but instead speak softly and encourage the dog. Both kids and dogs should be made to feel safe. The introduction should be relaxed and happy.

4. Leave the food and toys at home.

Many new adopters mistakenly assume that a ball, a squeaky toy, or a treat will ingratiate them to their new dog. In reality, food or toys can encourage resource guarding, even if the dog doesn’t usually exhibit this behavior. A kid offering a squeaky toy sends mixed messages to an already-apprehensive dog. Which one is prey? Better not to find out. Train the dog to accept treats and toys politely once he’s established as part of your pack.

5. Relax.

Now that I’ve made you nervous with all these dos and don’ts, I’ll add the most important advice of all: relax. Most dogs are tuned in to human energy, so if you’re on edge, your dog will be too.

"People interfere too much," says dog behaviorist and founder of Soul Mutt Foundation, Gary Cassera. "They get dogs excited, so they don't go through the socialization process naturally--like a dog. Let the dogs do what they do and be a supportive shadow, not the main show." 

And a "pet peeve" of mine: avoid baby talk. This isn’t the time to free your inner Khloe Kardashian. Affection will be more meaningful once the dog knows who’s in charge. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s you.

Of course, there are other good pointers for integrating a new dog. Establishing a daily routine, crate training, and the house training “triangle” are all good training tips for making sure everyone gets along. But if you embrace the five tips above, the others should be a piece of cake!

Resources: Check out Gary's website, The Dog's Side, for other socialization tips.

Outta the Cage