How to Introduce a New Dog to Your Family's Pack

An expert dog trainer explains the steps to a happy and successful introduction.

There a few things you'll want to do before you bring a new dog home. Ksenia Raykova/Shutterstock

One of the biggest challenges for dog owners can be how to help all the dogs in a home get along. This is a situation especially important when introducing a new dog as a family member because, just like with people, first impressions can make or break a happy friendship.

We’ve asked Erin Kramer, a Sacramento, Calif.-based professionally certified dog trainer, instructor, and canine behavior modification specialist for her advice. From working with service and therapy dogs, to training police K9s, to training and handling dogs for TV and film, Kramer has a wealth of experience in many different areas of dog training — and that includes how to introduce dogs to a new home where other dogs are already living.

Not only do you use important steps in how to bring home a new dog, but there are additional steps to take for great introductions. As Kramer points out, "How you introduce a dog to their new environment, including people, home, and especially existing pets, can make a huge difference in how well everyone will adjust to the addition of a new family member."

Here is Kramer's advice for making the introduction happy and successful in her words:

two small dogs meeting for the first time
Pay close attention to your dogs' body language. They can become agitated or defensive. Peggy Woods Ryan /Shutterstock

Step 1: Assess communication styles and body language

Prior to bringing home your new pooch, spend a minute to access each dog’s personality traits including how they communicate information, what their play style is like, and their general doggy personalities. If you know your new or existing dog is shy, hyper, or nervous, you can prepare a better introduction by taking that information into account. Dogs use a vast system of body language to communicate feelings, worries, and warnings that we as owners often over look. The better you understand each dog’s body language as communication tools, the better equipped you will be to facilitate a stellar introduction and create lifelong doggy harmony.

Signs your dog is comfortable/social:

  • Relaxed overall appearance including open mouth, neutral tail position, natural ear position
  • Interested in the environment, wanting to sniff and interact
  • Tail wagging in a non-stiff manner
  • Play-bowing
  • Eagerness to play
  • Signs of discomfort:
    Refusal to acknowledge the environment or other dog (avoidance) or hiding
  • Body carried stiffly including erect tail, pinned or perked ears, hackles (hair standing up)
  • Drooling, excessive panting, yawning, showing of teeth, or lip licking
  • Excessive need to roll over onto back or submissive urinate
  • Excessive vocalization can be a sign of discomfort (but can also be excitement)
dogs on walk together
One way to help your dogs bond is to take them on walks together. Palo_ok/Shutterstock

Step 2: Go on a pack walk

Before rushing to introduce both dogs, even if they have initially met away from home, start by taking both dogs out for a relaxing stroll together. Walking accomplishes a number of positive steps including a stress release for a dog coming into a new home, physical and mental stimulation for everyone (dog and human), an opportunity for a potty break to set good habits for the new pooch, and a pack building and trust forming exercise for the dogs. Walking gives the dogs a chance to share space and learn about one another without the stimulation and uncertainty of direct interaction and contact.

Begin the walk with the dogs not close enough to touch. They will be able to see one another and smell without actually making contact. Start off on a nice neutral walk and make sure to go around your neighborhood so the new dog can learn about where they live and how to find their way home should he or she accidentally ever get out. Deciding when to allow the dogs to come together to formally meet and have contact with one another will vary in each situation.

Step 3: Set up a situation for success

When it’s time to allow the dogs to interact with one another, you should already have a clear picture on each dog’s body language communication style and how the dogs are communication with one another in general. Don’t rush! Listen to what each dog is saying and introduce them at the speed that both are comfortable with. Highly social dogs may be instantly ready to become best friends forever! But others may need time to determine that the new dog is not a threat or just time to process the new situation in general.

To set the dogs up for success, remove trigger items when you do have them come together. These items include treats, toys, bones, food bowls, food, and always remove any correction collars that could get tangled in active play. Don’t force the dogs to immediately have a “discussion” about whose bone it is or who gets access to the food when they want. As the dogs get to know one another and as they learn that the humans get the ultimate say over these things, you can introduce valued objects into the relationship.

two dogs tugging on a toy
Growling and barking doesn't necessarily means the dogs are fighting. Denise Allison Coyle /Shutterstock

Step 4: Watch the interaction and step in when necessary

While observing the dogs interacting, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what we canine behaviorists call, “ritualized aggression.” As humans we often assume that all growling, stern barking, or aggression is bad, but that’s simply not the case. As pack animals, dogs have developed an extensive communication system in order to avoid minor offenses escalating into all out fights. So it is important to find a balance in allowing the dogs to sort out one another’s boundaries and communicate comfort levels while also intervening as the authority figure before things get out of control.

Watch for how the dogs react to each other’s information. If one dog is sending clear information that the other is ignoring, it’s time to step in. Common example include when one dog is playing too rough, invading space too much, or rushing an introduction when the other is simply not ready. In many circumstances the dog who is growling is actually the more polite of the two as they are stating, "Hey, you missed my first communication that I don’t like what you’re doing, so would you knock it off so I don’t have to get any tougher?!"

If the other dog ignores this further warning, time to step in an assist him or her in understanding that they need to heed the warning and mind their doggy manners.

dog in a bed
Make sure each dog has their own private area for relaxation and sleep. Surachet Meewaew/Shutterstock

Step 5: Provide space for solo retreats

If your existing dog still isn’t too sure about the new addition, designate a safe space in the house like a dog bed, couch, corner, or room where they can go to be left alone. Help the new dog or puppy understand that the other dog is not to be bothered when they go to their safe space by engaging them in another activity or simply keeping them on leash with you. This sets good habits and gives the older dog the opportunity to opt of out social interaction when they like so they avoid getting annoyed, frustrated, or upset.

Remember that ultimately this is your home and you must be a confident, fair, and consistent leader. Think of your dog as a teenage child: they may try and convince you that they don’t need rules and that they will be happier without them, but in reality rules and a leader figure are key to being well-rounded, happy, and well-behaved. As an added bonus, dogs function better as a pack when there is someone in charge!

Lastly keep in mind that sometimes dogs, like people, just aren’t meant to be the best of friends. If you are unsure about how to proceed contact a dog training professional to help you access what’s going on and make appropriate decisions so that no one is put at risk.

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.