Q&A: How do I help my newly adopted dog know when my resident dog wants to be left alone?


I recently adopted a dog who mostly gets along with my resident dog, but when the two pets get together and play, the other pet will send a signal that he doesn’t want to play any longer and my new dog isn’t getting the message. He continues trying to play and my other dog will snap at him. I don’t want to surrender my new dog, but how can I get him to know when enough is enough?

- Anthony


Hi Anthony –

Most people have had the experience of being at a social gathering and feeling cornered by another guest who insists on continuing a conversation regardless of what you say verbally and with your body language. When you are finally able to extricate yourself (maybe with an excuse that you need to use the restroom, or “Oh, I see someone I know. Have to run over to say hello. But, it was lovely chatting with you!”), you can walk (or run!) away thinking: How did they not pick up on my cues that I just didn’t want to talk anymore? Likewise, some dogs tend to be less savvy about properly reading and reacting to other dog’s social cues. This can be due to their core personality, prior experiences, and current situations. For example, if there is just one other dog in the house for them to play with, they may keep trying to engage, regardless of the other dog’s clear signals that they just aren’t in the mood.

It sounds like the resident dog in this situation is being perfectly reasonable and controlled in his efforts to ask your new dog to back off. While growling and snapping can be disconcerting, they should be seen for what they are, warnings. The resident dog sounds to be trying his best to make it clear to your new dog that he just doesn’t want to play. Unfortunately, if your new dog doesn’t learn to heed these warnings, the situation could certainly escalate.

With that said, both management and training are in order to help these two live harmoniously. Firstly, management is about helping to set your dog up for success by preventing the practice of unwanted behaviors. In this case, I would suggest having your newly adopted dog on a 6 foot leash at all times when someone is there to supervise him. The leash can be used to prevent him from harassing the resident dog by holding it or tethering him to a stable object. Be sure he has a great chew toy to play with (as should the resident dog), so that he has something to occupy his time with in an appropriate manner. This indoor on leash supervision is not mean to be used throughout his life with you, simply until he has had time to learn appropriate manners. When you need to leave the dogs at home, be sure to have them safely separated.

In addition, teaching your new pet to respond promptly to even just one of the foundation behaviors for good manners is crucial. One of my favorites is Hand Targeting. This is where you teach your dog to touch their nose to the palm of your hand. Hand targeting is a superb way to redirect your dog in many situations. For example, if you see him heading over to your resident dog, you can ask him to hand target to move him back to you.

Hand targeting is super easy to teach. Simply plan on sessions during your new dog’s mealtimes and when he is separate from your resident dog (so it is easier for you both to focus). Present your open palm about 6 inches from his muzzle. He is likely to touch it out of curiosity. Say “yes” and give him a piece of his food. Repeat about 10-20 times. At this point, you should be seeing him touching your palm with his nose with real intent as he is likely to have a ‘lightbulb’ moment that doing so is what gets you to say “yes,” which means what he did at that exact moment is right, and will earn him a piece of food. Now stand up and see if you can take a step or two away from him and present your palm. He should follow you and touch your hand again. Say “yes” and offer a piece of his food. Over the course of a week or so, practice in more areas of your home and move gradually farther away. You can even toss a piece of food across the room, wait for him to eat it and then have him hand target back to you, and have him hand target back and forth between two or more people. With practice around gradually increasing distances and distractions, your newly adopted dog will master this skill.

Now you have management to prevent Bain from pestering your resident dog and a skill that will allow you to redirect your new pet away from your resident dog when necessary. Additionally, you need to make sure that he has plenty of appropriate opportunities to release his energy and need for play in appropriate ways. Try to plan for some walks with each dog separately and some with them together. Even if you are in an area that is safe for them to be off leash, have them on leashes since, again, this is a way to manage them and prevent your new pet from being pushy with your resident dog on walks.

Every dog has a unique personality and preferences. With that said, no two dogs are sure to be the best of friends. However, in most cases you can set up the household in such a way that they can learn to respect each other’s boundaries and preferences and to live in harmony.