Article by Foster Dogs blogger and foster mom Samantha Cheirif
When I started fostering, I said that I wasn’t going to adopt any of my foster dogs. Almost 4 years into fostering I’ve only adopted three dogs, so I’m not doing too badly. When I wrote this article in 2016, I just had my first, Penelope Pig. I knew that having a dog would limit the foster dogs that I could take in (and especially having my dog) but when the time came we just had to admit that Penelope had already adopted us, and that was that. We’d just have to work around her.
Author’s note: Penny is fearful of dogs, and sometimes that manifests itself as aggression. She never goes after another dog that doesn’t come at her first, and she has never bitten another dog. If you have a dog that acts aggressively, don’t try to bring another dog home until you get the go-ahead from your trainer. Also, at the time of this blog post, we were using a prong collar on Penny. Since then we have learned more about other tools and no longer use the prong. We recommend a head halti or transitional slip/head collar.
We have had many foster dogs with Penny, and we are careful to cater to her needs. When she was our foster we noticed that while she liked other dogs, she got easily overwhelmed. So we started with puppies, which she immediately loved. We worked our way up to small dogs, then medium size dogs, then submissive dogs her size. She was doing wonderfully, and after a little growly scuffle here or there, we had successfully fostered about 2 dozen other dogs in the past year. In the middle of a snowstorm in February of 2016, I went to the Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter to pick out our next foster pup. I went with a dog in mind- her name was Charlotte, and I had fallen in love with her Sophie Gamand #PitbullFlowerPower portrait.
She had been in the shelter for 14 months due to some bad kennel behavior, but once she was out of her kennel she was very sweet and loving. She was social with other dogs and she was slightly smaller than Penny, and after meeting her for 4 minutes, I was sold. When we arrived, my boyfriend Eric brought Penny out and we walked the two dogs in parallel. They weren’t super interested in each other, which we took as a good sign.
Usually after we walked them around the block a few times, we'd head inside and let the dogs sniff each other on leash. When we brought them in we tried to let them sniff each other through a baby gate, just in case. Penny went bananas. I mean…full on crazypants. She was snarling, growling, trying to get to her. Charlotte was nervous, panting, and wild-eyed. We put Charlotte in her crate and let Penny off leash to sniff her. Penny went right up to the crate and began barking and growling, eliciting growls from Charlotte. This was worse. We tried Penny in the crate and Charlotte out of it- even worse still. I was near tears, and we were all getting nervous. We put both dogs in their crates and put a cardboard box in between so they couldn’t see each other.
We tried a new tactic. We took both dogs out of their crates on leash and began having Penny do commands while Charlotte sat on the ground near her. We didn’t know it, but we had stumbled upon a good practice that trainers will actually tell you to do: train one dog in front of the other. We moved Penny closer and closer, and things were going well. Then we made a mistake- we thought they’d be ok to sniff each other. Penny began to aggress again, and we put them away. For the rest of the night, they rotated one in and one out of the crates. I called one of the trainers who worked with the rescue, Jason Cohen (Canine Cohen Dog Training and Behavior Modification), in a panic and begged him to come over the next day.
I felt like a total failure. I tell you all of this in detail so that you understand in full how bad the situation felt. None of this was Penny’s fault- we have no idea what she endured in her past, but we know it wasn’t good. It was my fault as her owner for not setting her up to succeed in a situation of my making. But we weren’t ready to admit defeat.
The next day, Jason from Canine Cohen came over and taught us how to actually start the process of getting the two dogs to coexist. Our ultimate goal was to get them to coexist to the point where they could both be out on leash in the apartment with 2 people home. Jason explained that part of Penny’s fear was that she felt she had to defend herself against this dog, and to counteract this we had to show her—and Charlotte—that we were in charge, and they should look to us when they feel scared. The way to do this is to make both dogs understand that we will advocate for them, we will protect them, and that the other dog will listen to us also, and so we started to train one in front of the other constantly. We practiced the “place” cue (which I believe to be one of the most vital commands to solving nearly every in-home behavior problem). We put Charlotte in “place” on one bed and Penny in another, across the room from each other. Then they practiced their sits, stays, downs, etc. We took them on a walk where Jason helped us control them so that Penny could sniff Charlotte, and even Charlotte got a sniff in. He even helped us put them in place on a bench and take a picture of them together. They were on opposite ends of the bench, not looking at each other, but it gave me hope.
We began implementing Jason’s strategy in earnest. We both work full time, so we had our dog walker split our walk time between the two dogs. One had to be crated at all times. If I was home alone, I tethered one dog to a piece of furniture and worked with the other one across the room. I was clicker training them, click and rewarding with a treat for laying down and being calm in place, and also every time Penny looked at Charlotte without growling she got a treat. Over the course of a week, we moved their beds closer and closer. We practiced training every single day, every opportunity. We removed the cardboard box from between the crates. We got to the point that we could have both dogs on leash on opposite ends of our (very large) couch and they were both relaxed. We considered that a victory.
After ten days, I was working with both girls and I had them in their places right next to each other. I was rewarding them for for laying down calmly. Penny looked right at Charlotte and she got a treat. Then she stayed in that position, looking at her calmly. She got a treat. Charlotte turned her head to look at Penny. They stared at each other. They got treats. I took my phone out and held it up to take a video, shaking slightly. Then Charlotte licked Penny’s face. The video lasted 4 seconds because I stopped to click reward and separate them, but it gave me confidence.
After that, something seemed to click in Penny that Charlotte wasn’t scary. I began moving them closer and closer, until they were able to lay next to each other on the same bed. They were NOT ready to play and be loose in the apartment, but that was a huge step.
A few days after that, they graduated to being free in the apartment with leashes on. The following day, my boyfriend yelled for me to come quickly. I ran into the room and saw that Penny was play-bowing to Charlotte! My heart in my throat, I did absolutely nothing, too scared to even grab my phone to take a video. Charlotte jumped back at her, and then got spooked and ran right into her crate. I don’t blame her—this dog was crazy! Just one week ago, Penny was trying to eat her, and now she wants to play?! I wouldn’t trust her either! But Charlotte did learn to trust Penny over the next few days. We were careful to always supervise, and break it up when it got to be too much for Charlotte. After another few days later, and they were allowed totally off-leash together.
Over the next few weeks, they became best of friends and played non-stop. They tugged on toys, played keep-away, drank out of the same water bowl, and napped in the same bed. Note: despite her fearfulness and her emaciated state when we got her, Penny has no resource guarding issues thankfully.
The change was truly unbelievable. These dogs went from the worst fear-aggression I’d seen in Penny, to the best of friends; they were evenly-matched play partners in size and energy. Charlotte and Penny spent hours playing with each other, grooming each other, walking nicely on leash together.
We even considered keeping Charlotte. I was head-over-heels for the silly little bucket-head. But just as we were reaching peak madness of considering adopting, an amazing family appeared. They understood her quirks and what she would need to succeed, and were prepared to give her the most amazing life. We did a meet and greet, and within a few days we said goodbye to our sweet little girl.
While we miss her very much, we are so proud to have been a stop on her journey to her forever home.
More than anything, I am proud of Penny. I pushed her limits very much by bringing Charlotte home. I pushed my boyfriend, who was very concerned (rightly so). I pushed myself, in what I knew about dogs and training. It’s definitely not a situation that everyone can handle, but I’m so glad that we worked through it. I learned how to handle the situation for next time, and how to help other fosters by giving advice (and by writing this blog post).
Now, 2.5 years and 70+ dogs later, I can confidently say that these steps are so important in ensuring a successful dog introduction. We use these steps (which can be summarized as 1. Parallel walk outside 2. Parallel tricks outside 3. Parallel "place" or tricks inside until calm 4. Supervised time inside with leashes dragging) every time we bring a new foster home. It takes a little time, but it's so worth it!
Note: The original version of this blog post was published on our website in March 2016