Introducing a Puppy and an Adult Dog: Take it Slow

Marge’s guest puppy Tinker Belle

Remember “Lessons for My Puppy,” my collaboration with Marge Rogers? She made some videos that I loved so much that I wrote blog posts to go with them.

Marge is still out there working with dogs and making great videos, and I’m featuring another one today. Although there is a lesson for a puppy in this video, and also a lesson for the adult dog, the biggest lesson here is for puppy owners. (Isn’t that usually the case, when you come to think of it?) In the video she shows how she gradually introduced Tinker, a fox terrier puppy she was boarding, to her own dog, young male Portuguese Water Dog Zip.

How many of you, when adding a new dog to your household, follow the “stick ’em together, stay close by, and pray” method? I have certainly done that in the past, though I don’t recommend it. I was more prudent and conservative by the time I got Clara, but even then, my situation was so unplanned and complex that I basically made digital decisions: this dog can hopefully be with the puppy, and these dogs definitely can’t.

Clara and Zani
Thank goodness for Zani!

When Clara came into my household, I kept her permanently separated from Cricket, my small, elderly and frail rat terrier. Clara could easily have knocked over Cricket with her wagging tail alone. I also kept Clara separated from Summer for a good while. Summer has a history of moderate dog aggression and I wasn’t sure she would grant Clara a “puppy license.” But I immediately turned Zani loose with Clara, since Zani is incredibly friendly, likes puppies, and was well matched in size. Zani lived up to my expectations and became Clara’s buddy and babysitter.

But what I didn’t do was any controlled introductions and gradual exposures. If and when I get another puppy, I certainly will do that. All the dogs in a household, both the residents and the newbie, can benefit from good planning and making acquaintance with each other gradually with good associations.

A common and effective method that pro trainers often use when introducing a puppy into their household is classical conditioning of the adult dogs: whenever the puppy is brought into proximity, fabulous food rains down on the adult dog. This can help build pleasant associations and prevent jealousy, since puppies can be obnoxious and can take up a lot of the owner’s time. That method was not necessary in Marge’s case.  Her dog Zip is naturally friendly and gregarious and was likely to enjoy the pup; he just needed some time to calm down and learn to be gentle.

This is not really a how-to post. All of our individual situations are different, and it would take much more than a standard-size blog post to cover even the basics of doing introductions.

What I want people to see is the visual of the dog and the pup getting to know each other safely and gradually, through a barrier and with good associations.

The Timing

Tinker play bowing to a wagging Zip

One of the things I love most about Marge’s approach is that she didn’t have any sort of time schedule mapped out for “releasing” Zip and Tinker to play together. In fact, it would be great if we could even stop thinking about it in those terms. At the time the video was filmed, the puppy Tinker was a baby, and at an age where a scary experience could potentially have negative residual effects for the rest of her life. Zip, although a friendly dog as Marge points out, had zero experience playing with a puppy now that he was a (very) young adult. He was much larger than Tinker and had a history of exuberant play with dogs around his size (i.e., not tiny and breakable) as a youngster. So before even considering putting them together, Marge had to be sure of two things: Tinker wasn’t scared of Zip, and Zip wouldn’t be too rough for Tinker.

I love the visuals in this movie. It’s something that we rarely see, and it is so incredibly valuable. You can watch as Tinker gets acclimated to Zip with the fence of the exercise pen between them. Marge reinforced Zip for calm behavior in Tinker’s presence, and built good associations with Tinker for being near Zip. After a few days, Marge allowed them together, but kept Zip on leash as a safety precaution. Tinker was comfortable enough to climb on him!

Tinker was there for a week. If she and Zip hadn’t indicated that they were getting comfortable with each other, Marge would simply have kept them separated, using the ex-pen and other means. And if Tinker had indicated that even the ex-pen barrier put Zip too close for comfort, Marge would have kept them separated even further. The paramount concern with a puppy this age is providing positive experiences.

When Not To Do The Ex-Pen Setup

Putting the two dogs adjacent with a fence in between was a good method for this friendly adult dog and confident puppy. But there are many situations in which it would not be appropriate. Here are three of them.

  • If you have a grumpy, snarly mature dog, the last thing in the world you want to do is park him next to a puppy with only a wire fence between them.
  • You also wouldn’t do this if you had a large breed, exuberant puppy (who would enjoy bouncing on that fence) and a tiny, fearful, or frail adult.
  • And you wouldn’t do it with any two stranger dogs unsupervised, no matter how well they were apparently matched.

But take a look at how well it worked out for Zip and Tinker.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Patience and Barriers

Whatever method you use to integrate a new dog into your household, patience and barriers are your friends. Even if you are a gregarious person, you probably don’t want to spend 24/7 with an acquaintance you met yesterday. Most dogs probably don’t either. Take the introductions slow and easy. For instance, I didn’t let my dog Summer interact directly with the new puppy Clara until Clara was about 5 or 6 months old. That was more than 2 months. Some people wait a lot longer than that, depending on the situation.

If I had it to do over, I would probably do some classical conditioning with Summer: associate the appearance of the puppy with great food falling from the sky. I didn’t have it together to do that at the time. But when I did finally let them into the same space, I supervised closely and kept the sessions short. Summer in particular needs her “down time” so I made sure she had it. Clara needed to learn, without getting hurt, that Summer would probably never want to play with her and that it was not wise to pester her.

Back to Marge and Zip. As it happened, Zip never did get to play with Tinker off-leash during that week. He was too clumsy and goofy (did you see the paw to her head?). He did learn a lot though, including a softer approach and play style. Marge may have an “uncle dog” in the making! (That’s a term for a good-natured male dog who is good with puppies and good in general at putting other dogs at ease.) But she knew better than to rush things. This is another situation where “slow is fast” though. Zip earned off-leash time in two days with the next puppy who came to visit!

Being gentle with a puppy is not something a human can directly teach a dog, but Marge facilitated it with carefully controlled exposures and lots of breaks in the play. I know she is counting her blessings that between her efforts and the fact that Zip is friendly and socially savvy, he is learning gentleness through direct experience with the puppies themselves.

You can view Zip’s lovely interactions with his next puppy guest here: Off Leash Puppy Play.

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

9 thoughts on “Introducing a Puppy and an Adult Dog: Take it Slow

  1. As you mentioned, there are several variations for different situations. However, both you and Marge do have some good advice here. One addition, especially with younger pups, are the limited sessions. If you were to watch a very socially skilled adult who knows pups and likes to teach, starting out with a new pup, you’d be able to just sit back and watch. Depending on the pup’s response, the initial sessions might be as brief as 10 seconds, with a minute between them. Sometimes the pup ends one by squealing or backing away, or the adult may decide it’s too long and just walk away for a bit. Over repeated sessions, the play times slowly get longer, with the recovery times less. The repeated sequence of play/recover might begin with only 5-10 repetitions before a longer rest, then gradually increase.

    I just assessed a new year-old dog, Steel, against a 7 week old GSD to see if he’d be okay with young pups, and he did just what I described. It continued for several minutes, with a bunch of puppy squeals at times, but those were more signals than fear, and you could see the pup coming back on his own each time. After a bit, this young adult decided more rest was needed and walked away, with a happy looking pup laying under the bench watching several adults play. This was the pup’s 2nd time there, and he soon got up the courage to dart out and around the playing adults, who just gave him room and ignored him unless they were teaching. The pup would run around for a few minutes, then back under the bench to watch and rest. Again, brief sessions of activity, followed by recovery. If the teacher doesn’t know this, we gently guide him to keep the pup from getting overwhelmed.

    You can never predict, but only carefully observe and interpret. Steel had been chained, beaten and starved only a few weeks earlier. But, he apparently spent some younger time with other dogs including pups and learned social skills that persisted. We never assume from one behavior that another exists, and there are dogs fine with bouncing pups but not with any scared dogs.

    On the pup side, I did have one Husky here who was simply too much for his teacher, and she quite literally had to go and call her big brother to handle him. On the adult side, some are just not interested, and may actually be afraid as they don’t know how to manage a pup, and may cause injury. Others may be very friendly and eager but just charge ahead without thinking, and here you’ve described how to handle that case.

    And, for the majority of friendly home dogs who lack puppy experience, I think you targeted them pretty well here.

    1. Thanks, Gerry! Good different examples. Helps make the point that there is definitely no “one size fits all” approach.

      1. Another issue I’ve seen several times involved two pups who grew up together and played just fine. But the people didn’t socialize them further until over a year of age, then couldn’t understand why a bunch of other dogs who got along fine were getting into fights with these two. Most times those dogs quickly learn and adapt, but some cases get rather nasty and the people leave and don’t return.

        The point, that socialization with a dog you live with is only the start. And that learning to meet new dogs is an extra skill that comes from experience.

  2. Thank you so much for this! I’m bookmarking it to come back to at a later date, because I expect we’ll need it.

    In some cases, Nala is just like Marge’s previous dog with the fabulous social skills. I love watching her on the trail when we encounter a dog who is smaller than she is and a little bit worried about approaching such a big dog. She lays down and waits, lets them sniff her all over, and doesn’t stand up to reciprocate until they’re finished. She came to me like that–I don’t know why she’s so good at sensing a dog may worry about her large size and putting them at ease. She’s also quite patient and appropriate with teenage dogs around her size, playing cheerfully, and offering clear, slowly escalating and appropriate warnings to rude boys who try to hump her.

    But it’s quite another thing when she meets a large breed puppy. She gets really excited and bops at them with her paws, which is just not terrific. I haven’t been sure what to do about it, but now I can at least start to make a plan for some day when we get a puppy. And seeing Zip’s nice puppy play makes me hopeful!

    1. We folks with small dogs never forget dogs like that. I remember taking 12-lb Cricket to a dog club event and we ended up in the potty area at the same time as a woman with a young Golden. 8-10 months old, and that dog was so sweet that she did exactly as you describe Nala doing. She gently wagged her tail and lay down very quietly while Cricket walked all around her checking her out. Then after Cricket was through she got up with very soft body language and gave Cricket a very polite little sniff. It was just one of the sweetest things I’d ever seen.

      Sounds like maybe you watched the second video, the one with the PWD puppy. I love the end of that, where they are both on their backs just wiggling. Talk about nice body language!

  3. How timely. I am in the process of introducing a puppy to Jarah. I kept them apart for about a week, and then had a dog trainer come and help me with assessing the risk and introducing the two. It’s going better than I expected. I closely monitor interactions inside – never take my eyes off the two of them (also the puppy isn’t trustworthy around stuff). Outside, it’s more relaxed. More space for both of them, more distractions, etc. I am slowly building their time together. It feels more comfortable and safer to me. The trainer will return (after 2 weeks) and provide more advice and analysis from observing the progress.

    I’m happy to report that there has been some play between the dogs — all of it outside. This goes beyond my goal of mutual respect and coexistance.

    FYI – There is also a book called “the art of introducing dogs” that has solid advice and has been helpful for me.

    1. Thank you for sharing how careful you are being. And while (as you know) it doesn’t always pay off in terms of dogs playing and getting to be buddies–that’s so cool that you’ve got some play. I hope they can come to enjoy each other. Thanks for the book recommendation. Running right off to get that.

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