Having multiple dogs is fantastic at times, but not always! Sarah Roper gives shares her training tips for a multi-dog household.
It's easier for our dogs to become rowdy and pushy than to be calm and collected. I have six dogs, but if I didn't put some control games in place, they would be unmanageable.
Training a single dog to deal with frustration is paramount but even more essential for groups of dogs. Why? Because the more dogs you have, the more potential for scraps and arguments between them, not because they don't get on with each other, but more often because they cannot cope with frustration at times of excitement. The most common times/places for fights in multi-dog households are around doorways, mainly where you or visitors come through and the door to the garden. Also, feeding times are an expected time for any disagreements to occur. Excitement and frustration are naturally high; they cannot cope with waiting or being pushed out of the way by another and snap at the nearest thing to them, just like we can snap at our partner when stressed or over-tired.
Another thing most people struggle with multiple dogs is routine everyday tasks such as getting themselves and the dogs ready to go out on a walk without being jumped all over or without the dogs getting very bouncy and pushy, making clipping harnesses and leads a nightmare.
There is nothing worse than feeling 'over dogged'. Life would be easier if they were calmer when visitors arrived, when you start getting their food ready or when you get ready to go out. So how do we change this? We start by training each of the following exercises separately with each dog before working with two dogs and then building from there, depending on how many dogs you have.
First things first - not only does each dog need to know its name, but you must also decide on a collective name. For example, I use 'doggos’, so doggos come, doggos wait, etc. This is when you want all dogs to do the same thing. I wouldn't have my guys return to me quickly when off-lead on a walk if I was calling six names with come or here between each one. I use a verbal group/collective name or a whistle.
Dogs only do what pays. So if you give attention to the pushiest dog, the dog who barges its way to the front, this behaviour pays and will encourage the others to do the same, which in time becomes a nightmare. Make an effort to interact/pay the calmer dogs for being patient, sitting back, and being good. If done by everyone in the household, this practice will make everything else much easier. Patience pays; pushing does not.
Life sucks sometimes
Although it's tempting to give all dogs a treat, if you give one dog a treat…this isn't a great practice. Your dogs must learn that sometimes they miss out, and that's ok! If we always treat them all the same, this can encourage pushy, possessive behaviour on the one occasion they have something that the others don't. Life isn't fair sometimes, and that's how things are.
To help with general management and teaching these games, a useful tool is using your body. Dogs will use their body and posture to block the route of others. This is particularly useful around doorways and getting the dogs out of vehicles, crates etc. Try to refrain from using your hands. Dogs will understand better when you use your body rather than your hands. After all, dogs do not use their paws in this way to communicate with each other.
Group off/leave it
'Back Up', don't go any further or get off that item of furniture. It is particularly useful when they are about to go and chase after a rabbit or they are all huddled in your spot on the sofa. Start with this command individually. I usually start with teaching them to leave a digestive biscuit or similar low-value item on the floor, then rewarding them with something better (never giving them the biscuit or item I am teaching them to leave) and work up to higher-value items from there.
Wait or stay with individual recall/release.
Training the dogs to wait or hang back when you open a door before being given a command or gesture to allow them through, or not as the case may be (you are leaving them in the room while you exit). This should be extended to the doors to go into the garden, doorways, and gateways when leaving the house for a walk, etc. this isn't, as some people may think, 'to show them who is boss'; this is manners and bringing their arousal levels down around critical places that cause excitement. If you are training 'wait', and the dog will be released to go through the door with you or into the garden, regularly ask for a sit or similar when they have gone through the door before letting them go or before progressing onto the next doorway gate/carrying on with your walk. Practising control on both sides of each door or barrier removes the yank on the lead or the hoolie once they are through the door (this is particularly useful for dogs who charge out and into the garden barking).
Consistency is key here, this needs to be EVERY time you walk through the door, so it becomes a habit, second nature to both them and us..
Once you have trained this individually, start with two dogs, one being your most steady dog, the one who is the most reliable with the wait command and another, starting with calling the less reliable dog. In contrast, the more steady dog stays in position, don't forget to return and reward the dog for not coming when you called the other; this is more important than rewarding the dog you called. Build this up gradually, make it easy, and initially stay in the house or garden over short distances.
A similar and beneficial thing to practice from the start with any number of dogs is to label them when giving a treat…say their individual name before giving a treat and ignoring other dogs trying to get in on the action; enough repetition of this stops them jumping all over each other for treats. This prevents the piranha-like jaws from nipping at your fingers while giving treats.
If you are giving attention to one dog, a fuss or stroke, and others try and get in on the action, ignore the other dog and maybe make more of a fuss of the dog you were initially giving attention to. Once the second dog has got the idea that there's no attention on offer for them and walked off to settle or do something else, this is when you stop giving attention to the first dog and call the second over (in other words, you are rewarding the second dog for walking away and not pestering you).
All dogs sit (or down or in a position of your choosing) and wait for food to be placed down. You stand all the way up and give a command to release in your own time. As each dog finishes, they wait by their own bowl until everyone has finished. You then give a release command to allow them to lick each other's dishes. This practice is particularly useful for those dogs who gobble their food in the hope of moving on to the next dogs' food. In most cases, this slows down their eating time because they don't have to wait as long between finishing their own food and licking the other dog's bowls. Gobbling it fast doesn't pay.
In place of musical bowls. All dogs sit (or alternative action), wait, and release them to eat; the difference here is you teach the dogs to go somewhere else (away from the food bowls) once they have finished. This may be to the door or their beds etc., and you give them a tiny morsel of a higher value treat such as a little bit of liver or chicken. If they don't go where they are meant to and instead decide to harass the other dogs and their bowls, they don't get any dessert.
A final point to consider;
Your dogs must get one to one time with you, often enough that they do not pine or panic at the absence of the other dog or dogs.
If your dogs have never been separated, what happens when one of them suddenly dies or needs emergency veterinary care etc., and they are forcibly separated? If they have only ever learned to cope with each other, the one who is left behind will be severely stressed and traumatized. This is a heartbreaking thing to watch, so I ensure I can say with all mine that they would be happy if they ended up being the only dog.