First Impressions Matter
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
You may recall me mentioning VagaBond in a previous blog post. I adopted him from a shelter in Westchester County, NY in October 2020 and have been getting to know all about him over these last few months.
Bond is about 2 years old and has a happy energy about him. Due to Covid, his opportunities to meet other dogs have been somewhat constrained, thus it has taken a while to learn some of the nuances of his dog/dog social skills.
I did have a few doggie visitors at my home during the fall and winter, and he met a few dogs during walks. By coincidence, most of those dogs were considerably larger than him, both males and females, and he did well with everyone, both on and off leash. Plus, he gets along very well with my other dog, WildeBean, who is 50% smaller than him.
Still fairly early into his adoption, he came along for a visit at a family member's house. He was excited to be entering a new home, and two dogs already at the house were very excited about our arrival. Energy levels were soaring. My mistake was letting him go in as he pleased and without me orchestrating a calmer and more controlled introduction. And though none of the dogs is aggressive, their first impressions of one another were drawn in a super-energized atmosphere where it's easy for things to go awry.
I learned that day that Bond is sensitive to high-energy situations when meeting other dogs. If a dog comes on really strong, racing up into his face and bursting with energy, his energy will mimic that dog and it's WAAAAY too easy for tensions to rise. This seems to be worse if the dog is small-ish and male.
Imagine a stranger racing up to you with no sensitivity about your personal space, with full energy and enthusiasm, hugging and kissing you as if you're a long-lost best friend. Personally, that would be an extremely aversive situation for an introvert like me, and would create a very unpleasant first impression. For another person who possesses excellent social etiquette and a calm demeanor, the situation is more easily diffused. The same could be said for dogs, with the outcome of such meetings highly dependent on the individual's social style and finesse.
Many years ago, it was common for me to have five or more dogs of my own at the same time. They had excellent social skills with other dogs and were accustomed to many dogs coming and going in my home. I recall a miniature poodle named Samson who used to board with me. Upon arrival, he was like Superman crashing through the door and then bulleting through the throng of dogs inside. On a scale of 1-10, his energy level was a 12. With another group of dogs, this behavior could've been a problem, but my guys (most of whom towered over him) handled him with bemused aplomb.
I've learned over the last few months that Bond isn't the most socially fluent dog when presented with another dog that's full of energy and a bit "clumsy" in their social etiquette. I now know to orchestrate initial meetings more carefully in order to create a positive first impression, and so we're paving the way for a pleasant and long-lasting relationship between the dogs.
Last week, I had the perfect opportunity to work on this. A lovely pair of shih-tzu mixes were coming to stay with me for a while. I know them well because they've been here many times before, and WildeBean loves them. I also know from past experience that they arrive as a team of super-energized guests, and that the male can be a bit posture-y sometimes with other male dogs.
Here's what I did to orchestrate positive first impressions:
The guests had the yard to themselves at first so they could say hello, zip around, and get rid of some excess energy.
Next, I let WildeBean out so they could re-acquaint happily. (Bond was crated inside.)
When they came inside, I put up a gate between the living room and hallway and let the guests settle down for a bit.
When I let Bond out of his crate, he was on the opposite side of the gate and I was armed with treats. Each time the boys sniffed briefly, I'd toss a treat a few feet behind him. (The guest dogs are fussy and not interested in treats when they first arrive.)
After repeating this a number of times, both dogs were more relaxed and the gate was moved away.
Here's a video link showing this intro.
Once the dogs were all loose together, I continued to monitor their behavior, praising calmly for nice interactions, and gently interrupting if their play was getting too energized. Over time, they were able to play together for longer periods without things escalating to tension. They had the time to get to know one another better, to understand their vocalizations and play styles. I made a point to praise and treat when they self-regulated and took breaks from play on their own!
By putting in some time upfront to orchestrate positive interactions, the boys developed a playful relationship together. This video shows a play bout that went very well. By this point, Bond had learned that Bailey's vocalizations aren't actually threatening, and he had adapted to Bailey's specific play moves. You can see this by Bond's relaxed body language.
Please take this information to heart if you have a dog that tends to be an overly enthusiastic greeter. Though you may describe him as "very friendly", another dog may be offended by an in-your-face greeting, and there's a chance your dog could be reprimanded harshly by the other dog.
Spending a bit of time upfront to ensure a pleasant first meeting, and thus a positive first impression, also is essential when a guest dog arrives at your home, or when a new dog is being introduced to the household. Don't leave this to chance and just hope for the best. A poor first impression can sometimes be hard to undo. If you need guidance with dog-to-dog introductions, I'm happy to help!
Stay warm and healthy!!
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120