Want to Train One of Your Dogs? Your Other Dogs Matter, Too.

Sometimes the “problem” dog in a household isn’t the problem at all.

By: sonstroem
A dog’s reaction to another dog in the house may cause aggressive behavior. By: sonstroem

I get numerous calls from people who have several dogs and almost always think only one of them needs training. I hear comments such as:

  • “I only need to train the one who’s biting.”
  • “I have another dog, but he’s already trained and he’s perfect.”
  • “We’ve had the other one so long; we don’t want to train her now.”
  • “The new dog needs to stop attacking the old one” (or vice versa).

The most interesting thing I find is that often the “other” dog is the one causing the problems.

Because I really can’t make an accurate assessment unless I see all of the dogs together, I usually tell my clients I’d like to see both (or all) of the dogs when they come in for their consult.

Reactionary Aggression

One client presented 2 young adult Australian Shepherds who were male and female littermates.

The family wanted training because the female had lunged and bitten several people on walks at the local dog hiking area. The male dog was shy and reserved, so the family thought he seemed easy to train.

He was actually the nervous one and was triggering the reactivity in the female. His constant and fearful scanning was drawing the female’s attention to joggers passing by. When he gained confidence and impulse control through training, the situation resolved itself because he wasn’t triggering the female any longer.

In another scenario, I had Henry, a pushy and territorial male, and Rusty, a nervous and reserved female. They had fights that were almost impossible to prevent. Rusty would give Henry all the space he wanted, but if something scared her and Henry was blocking the route to her comfort zone, a clash was unavoidable.

Henry was the aggressor, but Rusty’s lack of control when she was scared was actually the problem.

In both of these cases, it would seem that the more aggressive dog was the one who needed training; however, it was actually the other dog who was causing the problem.

In my experience, families are always more successful if they consider both dogs from the beginning — but time and time again, clients say they only want me to help them “fix” the one they think is the problem.

Years ago, I had an experience that showed me how bonded family pets can be. I visited a friend and while sitting in his backyard, I remember asking him, “Didn’t you have 4 dogs?” He proceeded to holler, “Lola, Lola!” and the 3 dogs went tearing around the yard looking for her.

Then he told me she had died 8 months earlier — the other dogs still looked for her when he called her name. It’s a sad story, but it illustrates how multiple dogs rely on one another.

Train both dogs, not just one. By: The U.S. Army
Train both dogs, not just one, for the best results. By: The U.S. Army

Here are few reasons the other dog makes a difference:

1. Split Focus

If you didn’t have the other dog, you wouldn’t have a problem. You would have spent your entire time on the problematic one.

No matter how you interact or how expert of a trainer you are, if there is more than one dog present, the other dog is taking some of your time and effort.

2. Dogs Distract Each Other

In order to effectively train, we need to be 100% available to give proper feedback for good and bad behavior.

Because my training methods are reward-based, it is especially important for me to make sure that each dog receives enough coaching to learn the right behavior and receives the proper reinforcement for the good behavior.

If one dog is stealing treats or taking more of the training time, the other is missing out. The most effective solution is to start by training each of them separately for a while.

3. Overly Bonded to Each Other

Usually families with more than one dog have them together all the time. Both dogs spend more time together than the humans spend individually with either of them, so more often than not they look to the other dog first.

Try to give every dog alone time by physically separating them part of the day.

The bottom line is that if there are any other dogs, other pets or other people in your household, they all have to be a part of the training program for it to be successful.