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Howard County Pets: Adding to the pack -- is 3 a crowd?

Q: Our family has two dogs, and we’re considering adopting a third. How can we ensure they all get along?

A: Canines naturally live in a hierarchy, and humans need to be at the top in order for pets in a multi-dog household to be happy and secure. Our colleague Howard Weinstein at Day-One Dog Training (dayonedogtraining.com) suggests the first step is making sure all your dogs know their basic obedience commands.

“Every dog -- no matter what age -- can and should learn at least seven or eight basic commands,” Weinstein says. “These become alternatives to replace behaviors you don’t want him doing. It’s not fair to ask dogs to do something we haven’t taught them. But once they know those commands, integrate them into daily routines so dogs learn that following our lead earns them what they want from us.”

Behavioral guru Dr. Nicholas Dodman at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine calls this the “No Free Lunch” plan. When dogs get what they want for free, they think they’re in charge. But when they have to “work for a living” -- for example, by sitting before being fed -- then they understand humans control valued resources like food. This basic foundation may make the addition of another pack member less chaotic.

If you find a new dog to adopt, arrange to have the newcomer and your dogs meet on neutral turf -- more than once if possible -- before finalizing the adoption. Bring plenty of tasty treats along. Keep them on leashes initially, so you can observe how they get along and safely disengage them if things don’t go well. Otherwise, let them sniff and play, and give lots of rewards for positive, calm, happy behavior.

A new addition may disrupt the existing relationship between the first two dogs. Make sure your new pet also knows his obedience commands, and supervise the dogs’ interactions for a while. Don’t interfere too much if they’re getting along. Most dogs work things out without much human intervention. You can help the new dog find his place and reassure your old dogs by enforcing the same old rules as before.

Briefly, the trick is figuring out the dogs’ natural pack order of dominance, then supporting that order rather than disrupting it, which simply means giving slightly favorable treatment to the top dog, such as feeding and greeting that dog first. Don’t hesitate to call a veterinary behaviorist or experienced positive-reinforcement trainer for help. Remember: It’s easier to fix problems sooner rather than later. Good luck!

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