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Happy Together: How to Train Successfully in a Multi-Dog Household

Originally published: 11/01/2010

Two (or three or more) times the fun!

If you have more than one dog (or more than one clicker-savvy pet) in your household, you may find it challenging to manage training at times. There are strategies that can help make it easier to train in a multi-dog household, though.

NOTE: In this article, any dog that is actively being trained is referred to as a "working" dog, and any dog that is not being trained at the moment is referred to as a "non-working" dog.

group of dogs waiting for a walk

Multiple dogs, multiple handlers

The easiest way to get around the challenges of training multiple dogs is to have as many handlers as there are animals. Each dog gets individualized attention and training proceeds like a training class, with multiple dog and trainer "teams." Each team works on its own task and at its own pace. Some clicker trainers worry that in this situation dogs won't know which click to listen for, but in practice dogs generally learn quite quickly which click is for them.

Management tools for non-working dogs

A relatively easy solution for when there are more dogs than trainers is to manage the situation by physically separating the dogs. There are a few different ways to accomplish this.

Doors

Just about every home has at least one interior door. Put yourself and the working dog on one side of that door, and the other dog (or dogs) on the other side. Every few minutes rotate which dog is training in the room with you. Some non-working dogs might become over-anxious while waiting for their "turn" to train. To help mitigate this problem, place food toys or a MannersMinder® in the room with the non-working dogs.

Crates

If a dog has been trained to enjoy being in a crate, that dog can be crated when not working. Assuming the dogs have solid "go to crate" and "wait to exit crate" behaviors, it's easy to send one dog into the crate while you work with the other, and then switch dogs. Give the dog in the crate a stuffed food toy, or drop treats into the crate periodically as you train the other dog. Note that forcing a dog into a crate is not a good idea. Make sure to teach your dog to be comfortable in the crate, to enter it willingly, and to wait in it until released before you try to use the crate as a training management tool.

Baby gates/X-pens

You can also separate non-working dogs by putting them on the other side of a baby gate or inside an x-pen while you and the working dog train. If you have many dogs, it may be easier for you and the working dog to be inside the x-pen while the non-working dogs remain outside. Regardless of the exact arrangement, as you train the working dog, toss treats to the non-working dogs occasionally.

Tethers

Another option is to tether the non-working dogs. If all the dogs being trained are relative novices, this is often the easiest solution. Simply clip a leash or tether to the collars or harnesses of each of the non-working dogs and attach the leashes or tethers to the knob of a locked door or another relatively immovable object. Place a comfortable mat of some kind (a dog bed, a towel, etc.) right next to the base of the tether so the non-working dog has a pleasant surface on which to relax. As you train the working dog, drop treats on the non-working dog’s mat periodically.

As you train the working dog, drop treats on the non-working dog’s mat periodically.

Stationing

Stationing is a term used by people in the exotic animal field that refers to teaching an animal to go to, and stay on, a home base of some sort. For dogs, mats make great "stations." Here's one method for teaching a dog to station on a mat (there are many others).

1. Choose and lay out a suitable mat.

Select a mat that is made of a comfortable and, ideally, non-slippery, material. It should be large enough for your dog to lie on with some room to spare. Place the mat so that there is space for your pet to step on and off in different directions.

2. Get your clicker and treats.

Position yourself a short distance away from the mat. Count out five treats and get your clicker ready.

3. Watch your dog closely for any behavior directed at the mat.

It's not reasonable to expect your dog to move spontaneously onto a mat without any prior training, so begin the training by watching for any behavior directed at the mat. Your dog might glance at the mat, turn his head toward the mat, or even take a step toward the mat. Click and treat (C/T) any mat-directed behavior until you feed all five of the treats you counted out. Then take a short break.

It's important to click and treat frequently (a.k.a. "keep the rate of reinforcement high") when shaping, so be sure to reward even subtle mat-directed behavior at first.

4. Do more training sessions, gradually raising criteria.

Continue with short sessions of about five C/Ts each, gradually requiring more and more overt mat-related behavior from your dog as the sessions progress. When your pet begins to walk over to the mat, start tossing the treats away from the mat after you click. This repositions your pet far enough from the mat to walk over again during the next repeat.

Your dog gets to set the pace, so it's okay if it takes a few sessions before your dog actually begins to walk over to the mat.

Train in short sessions of about five clicks each and for no more than five or ten minutes at a time before you take a longer break. Your dog gets to set the pace, so it's okay if it takes a few sessions before your dog actually begins to walk over to the mat.

Pick the mat up off the floor between training sessions to eliminate opportunities for your dog to interact with the mat without earning a C/T.

Here's a typical progression you may see while shaping your dog to go to a mat:

Dog looks in general direction of mat

Dog looks directly at mat

Who are you talking to anyway?

When you give a cue in a multi-dog household, make it obvious to the dogs if the cue is intended for one dog or for everyone. In cases where a cue is for one dog only (for example, when you want to send a dog to his station), indicate the dog you want by making eye contact with that dog or by saying the dog's name. Click and treat only for a correct response from the dog you addressed.

To address a cue to everyone, simply call out the cue, or precede the cue with "doggies" or "everyone" (or whatever word you like). Click and treat each dog that responds appropriately. Clicking just the first dog that responds and then treating each of the dogs in turn works in certain cases as well. Dogs tend to figure out quickly when you are cueing them individually and when you are cueing them as a group.

Dog takes one step toward mat

Dog takes more steps toward mat

Dog steps onto mat with one paw

Dog steps onto mat with more paws

Dog sits on mat

Dog lies down on mat

5. Add a cue.

Once you get to the point where your dog will go over and lie down on the mat as soon as the mat is placed on the floor, you can begin to add a cue for the behavior (you can also wait until later, but this timing tends to work well). Pick a phrase such as "go to your mat," and begin saying it as your dog walks toward the mat. Click and treat as usual for correct behavior.

There are several different ways to add a cue for a “go to mat” behavior. One easy way is to say the cue when your dog is more than halfway to the mat, so that you are almost certain your dog will go to the mat and lie down on it. Gradually back up how early you say the cue until you say it before the dog actually starts moving toward the mat.

If you really want good stimulus control and you are at the point where you are saying the cue before your dog goes to the mat, do not C/T when the dog goes to the mat unless you have cued the behavior.

6. Build duration.

Whether you have added a cue or not, once the dog is going to and lying down on the mat reliably, begin to train for duration by withholding the click for an extra fraction of a second after the dog's belly hits the mat. After you click, be sure to toss the treat away from the mat, so the dog has to walk over to and lie down on the mat again. Gradually increase the length of time you wait before you C/T until the dog will remain on the mat until you C/T even when you wait several minutes. You can also teach your dog a release cue by saying a release word (such as "release") just before you C/T. The sequence then becomes:

You cue "go to your mat" (if you are using a verbal cue)

Dog goes over to mat and lies down

You wait however long

You cue "release" and then immediately C/T

7. Add distractions.

It takes time to build a stationing behavior that is solid even in the face of distractions. Laura VanArendonk Baugh gives a lovely example of how to teach behavior in the presence of distractions in her recent article Help, We’re Being Invaded! How to Train Polite Greetings. Bear in mind that a major distraction your stationed dog will have to deal with in your multi-dog household is another dog being trained.

A major distraction your stationed dog will have to deal with in your multi-dog household is another dog being trained.

Training time should be fun for everyone

Whatever method you use to keep the non-working dogs out of the way as you train the working dog, it is important to ensure that everyone is having fun. One easy way to do this is to share the bounty of treats.

Each time you click the working dog, quickly give a treat to the working dog and then immediately toss a treat to the non-working dog(s). If the non-working dogs are in another room with a MannersMinder and the remote works through your door, push the remote button after each click to dispense a treat in the other room, or set the MannersMinder to dispense treats at random intervals. Since dogs quickly figure out that being in the non-working position means getting treats with no effort, you’ll find that they really love being in the non-working role.

Promote harmony

When you are handing out treats but no clicks are involved, it is a good idea to either establish a regular treat-giving order (so Fido always gets his treat before Spot gets hers), or to use each dog’s name before giving each dog a treat (say "Fido," and then hand Fido his treat, and then say "Spot" and hand Spot her treat). Regardless of yourroutine, be sure to give treats only to dogs that have been polite about waiting their turns.

Training behaviors that several dogs will do together

Training dogs one at a time is a great way to teach them to do behaviors on cue when they are on their own. Some behaviors will be called for when other dogs are around, though. Polite leash walking, also called loose-leash walking, is an excellent example. Even if you train each of your dogs to walk beautifully on leash when alone, you may find that when you try to walk two or more of your dogs together you wind up pulled in all directions.

To prevent this problem, it's important to "proof" behaviors that will be done in a group so that each of your dogs learns to do the behaviors properly even in the company of your other dogs. As with all other training, you can achieve this goal by raising criteria gradually. Here's an outline of one way to train polite leash walking for multiple dogs.

Teaching loose-leash walking

1. Teach each dog individually how to walk politely on leash.

Dogs are not born knowing how to walk on leash. A good first step is to teach a dog that staying close to you earns clicks and treats. One way to maximize the odds that the dog will stay close to you is to start in an environment like a bathroom, which is so small that the dog has nowhere else to go, and click and treat the dog whenever the leash is in a loose J-shape. From there, gradually progress to larger rooms, and then practice around your entire home. Once the behavior is solid indoors, begin to practice in the back and front yards, and, finally, on the sidewalk and in other environments where there are many distractions. It can be helpful to set up fake distractions for your dog indoors to prepare for the transition to the more exciting outdoors.

Practice until you can go many yards without a click or treat while the leash stays in a nice J-shape, first in relatively boring environments, and then in more exciting environments. Each time you change environments, go back to clicking and treating for a J-shaped leash while you are standing still, and build back up from there. If you find your dog cannot stay by your side, you're probably raising criteria too quickly.

2. Begin working with two dogs at once.

Once at least two of your dogs have learned to walk politely on leash individually—even in exciting environments—you can start walking them together. Have a different handler for each dog, at least initially, if possible. As always, it's important to make things easier in other ways now that you have added a big distraction (the other dog) to the environment, so start out in a relatively boring place and click and treat for a J-shaped leash while you are standing still, and then after a single step, and so on.

Practice until both dogs are able to walk politely, first simply in each other's presence and then while walking side by side while each handler clicks and treats. Graduate to having just one handler hold both dogs, and build up again until the dogs can walk together nicely for extended periods in a boring environment. Then go back to two handlers, this time in a more exciting environment, clicking and treating for relatively easy behavior at first. Gradually raise criteria until a single handler can walk both dogs together outdoors while the leashes stay in a J-shape.

3. If you have more than two dogs, work every possible combination of dogs separately before you walk them all together.

Repeat step 2 with every possible combination of dogs. For example, if you have three dogs (let's call them Fido, Spot, and Rover), practice with Fido and Spot, then with Fido and Rover, and finally with Spot and Rover, until each pair of dogs walks well together. Only then should you try to walk all three dogs at once. When you do advance to walking all three dogs at once, it's best to start with three handlers, and then work each possible pair with one handler while a second handler walks the third. Only then put all three leashes in the hand of a single handler. The same principle applies if you have four, five, or more dogs: work each pair, then each trio, etc.

Not just for polite leash walking!

The principles described above can be used for any situation involving multiple dogs, including greeting visitors at the door, staying on mats during meal times, and waiting for permission to go through doors, to name just a few. When training these kinds of behaviors, remember to increase criteria gradually, and make everything else easier each time the environment gets harder or a new dog gets added in.

Consistency is the key to success

The key to having a happy multi-dog household is teaching all of the dogs a routine.

The key to having a happy multi-dog household is teaching all of the dogs a routine. Whether that routine involves taking turns being stationed while other dogs are trained, waiting politely to be given a treat, or going on walks individually in a certain order, the more consistent the routine, the more smoothly the household tends to run. This principle applies to households with more than one type of pet, as well as to households with multiple dogs.

Whatever your routine, and however many pets you train, have fun training!

About the author
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Irith Bloom, Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) Certified Training Partner (CTP), Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer, and Certified Pet Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA), has been training animals since the 1980s. She is the owner of The Sophisticated Dog, LLC in Los Angeles, as well as a volunteer for National English Shepherd Rescue.