Joni the Chihuahua was two years old, living as a singleton dog, when the news came that her personal space was going to be invaded. A large five year old female Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Sky was coming to stay.
Sky belonged to a relative who was travelling for work, and she needed somewhere to stay. Joni lived in a large house, and her owner worked from home, so it seemed as if there could be a Sky-shaped niche. But how would Joni take to the intruder?
Dogs are pack animals who are not designed to be on their own; they have an inherent need to spend social time as part of their daily lives. While some dogs do fine as singleton animals, with just close relationships with one or more humans, most dogs naturally enjoy a social life with dogs or even other creatures, such as cats or rabbits. Being social is a natural part of being a dog.
The challenge is that some dogs are not used to being sociable, and two random dogs don't always get along well together. Dogs, like humans, have preferences, and some dogs get on well together, others don't. It's hard to predict.
Joni's owner came to me for advice: above all, she wanted the two dogs to be safe together. Sky was around eight times bigger than Joni: if there was a fight of any kind, Joni's life would be at risk.
Before giving any advice, I asked a few questions about the two dogs. What was their background? Had they been owned since puppyhood? What sort of experiences had they been through? And how did they get on with other dogs that they met on the street or in the park?
These questions are critically important. Puppyhood is an important time of life for dogs: between the age of 3 weeks and 14 weeks, puppies' brains are geared to accept new experiences. During this period, puppies are curious rather than fearful. It's essential that they meet new animals and people during this period: it sets them up to be friendly to other creatures and humans when they get older. If puppies are kept in isolation, without contact with animals or people, they grow up to be fearful adults. They are often emotionally scarred, prone to being nervous, and often showing aggression as a way of protecting themselves.
These are the dogs that lunge at other dogs in the park, barking furiously. These are the animals that need to be walked in the early hours of the day, before anyone else is around, to avoid confrontations. They are the creatures who cannot go to doggy daycare, because they get into fights with the other dogs. It is possible, with hard work and patience, to help them to get used to other animals, but if puppies are deprived of proper socialisation between two weeks and fourteen weeks of age, they often remain scared, nervous, aggressive creatures for life. This is one of the main problems with dogs from puppy farms: when reared in concrete pens, with just their siblings around them, they are not given adequate socialisation.
So back to Joni and Sky: it turned out that they had both been well socialised as puppies, and they were both ultra-friendly to any dogs that they met while out and about. This told me that there was a very good chance that they'd get on well together. At the same time, I still had to be absolutely sure that any risk to Joni from the bigger dog was kept to a minimum.
I suggested that her owners should set up an indoor kennel (a wire-mesh crate or cage) to keep Joni in when people weren't around, so that she was safe from the risk of Sky and herself getting into some sort of physical fight.
I also suggested that she avoided feeding the two dogs in the same room close to each other. Many dog-dog conflicts happen over resources like food, so it's safest to remove this risk by avoiding interactions when there was food around.
In the end, there was no need for me to have worried: Joni and Sky got on well from the start. There was never any sign of conflict. It was obvious from the beginning that the two dogs really liked each other, enjoying one another's company.
As time has gone on, their owners has been able to be relaxed, allowing the two animals to live together as friends, with no need for indoor kennels or separate feeding.
Sky steps back and lets Joni eat from her bowl, she brings toys over and throws them at Joni's feet for her to play with, and they often sleep snuggled up together.
The end result has been a win:win. Both dogs are now happier than they ever were before when they lived on their own. It is clear that they have become good doggy friends. They enjoy spending time together, and they have fun when they play.
I'm often asked if it is better to have a single dog, or to have two dogs living together.
It's hard to make rules about such things, but here's my impression.
If you have one dog, you need to be able to give the animal your undiluted attention for a large part of the day: you will have a very close relationship with the animal, but they may become dependent on you.
If you have two dogs, there is a small risk that they may not get on well together. But if, like Joni and Sky, they become good friends, they will be less dependent on you, they will have contented lives together, and you will have a happy canine household.