How to Train Several Dogs in One Household

Training multiple dogs
As a teenager, I went to my local German Shepherd Dog training club. I had two German Shepherds at this time and I wanted to train/work them together. The training instructors would never let me. I used to protest that I walked them together each day, I wanted them both to walk to walk to heel, both to come back on command and to generally behave and respond to commands when they were together. All I was ever told was that you had to train both dogs separately and then bring them together…but when?? When does training stop and living begin? – There were no answers to this question and I was left perplexed and frustrated.

Looking back, they did not know the answers to my questions which is why I was met with a brick wall and a complete lack of help. So, I had to learn myself how to manage and train more than one dog. I have lived with a dog, two dogs, three dogs, eleven dogs, forty-seven dogs and now have settled with four dogs (ish!). Therefore I have had to learn how to not only manage multiple dogs, how to train dogs, but how to put it both together and train multiple dogs concurrently.

So, for those of you that own two or more dogs…here, on a plate are the answers that I have worked hard to find out, since my teenage years at the GSD training club banging my head against the proverbial wall!

Helping Your Dog Learn
Well, those old trainers were right in part – you do have to train dogs separately. You simply can’t start with two un-trained dogs and train them well together (actually, you can, but it’s not ideal and the processes are deserving of a book – not a few hundred words).

Most people already have one dog that they have trained and when introducing another to the household, it is essential that the dog is raised as an individual – time with the other dog very restricted – otherwise you will own a dog who owns a dog – left to their own devices the incoming dog will bond more readily and more quickly with the resident dog and for any training that is not what you need. So many people have a dog that rather than chase a ball will chase a dog that chases a ball – they become imprinted on the other of the same species. When starting out with a puppy, you need the dog to grow as an individual, to see you as the centre of their world – not your other dog(s)!

So assuming that is the case (if it is not, you have harder work and will need to increase separation from each other and training time / exercise / play with you independently now).

Basic Dog Training
You will then need to teach each of your dogs the following as a bare minimum; To sit, to down on command, to stand, to recall, to drop at a distance immediately, to walk on a loose lead and to stay in all positions. (in actual fact – whether you own more than one dog or more, you need to do that anyway!)

So, that leaves you in the position that I was in a few hundred years ago in my GSD class. More than one dog, trained and can carry out learnt actions in response to commands. So what now?
Well, the answer to my own question about when does training become living your life with your dog – it has two answers – one is never – in so much as you just don’t stop training – ever – you have to constantly reinforce the learnt actions, but actually you can’t help that, so if you care for your dog properly and they accompany you to as many places as possible – friends’ homes, the pub, holidays et al you will always need what you have taught – the down stay, the recall, the bed command and all manner of other instructions. Answer two, is the training finishes when each dog, alone will respond to all of the commands previously listed each and every time without using food as a lure or bribe – as a reward is fine up to a point. Teach dog should respond instantly to the taught command.

Training Two or More Dogs
Then comes phase 2 – the fun bit! You have to make sure each dog that you own knows his/her own name. I see many clients who call one dogs name and both will respond. Not what you need. I start to get the dogs to learn their names in puppy hood – any command prefixed with their name is just for them. You can teach it using food rewards, so having your dogs sit in front of you and give rewards saying the name as you issue the reward – e.g. Fido (give Fido some sausage) Rover (give Rover some sausage) Fred (give Fred some sausage). When you are giving Fido the sausage, Rover and Fred are learning that name (word) means nothing to them.

To carry this forwards I then use their name when getting each of them out of the car – I make the dogs wait and then call each by name – only the one whose name I have called can egress. I then progress to making the dogs sit and wait for their dinner and call a name and feed that one. I do not call the names in the same order each day, so they have to listen. If they move, they get put back and left until last to get their meal.

It is critical that when you recall one dog in the garden or park – EG “Bobby, come” – if Shaggy comes too, shaggy gets ignored and no reward. If you call Bobby – you do not want Shaggy – making sense?

Getting the Dog To Listen
So, in practical terms you have two or more dogs at this stage that know taught commands and know their names. Cool! Then you can start walking and training them all together. For example, when I am walking to the park in the morning, if one of my dogs pulls to sniff a tree or goes too far ahead, I can command ‘Bh-li (dogs name) heel’ – the others have learnt to ignore that – commands prefixed with Bh-li mean nothing to Utz, Rohkh and Vhko.

Similarly, if three of my dogs are close to me and I wish to recall another one – I can and the others will not flinch. As long as I use their names first, I can get one dog to drop, if for example he is off chasing another dog or rabbit without all of my dogs laying down. I can get one to lay down and stay whilst recalling another.

The key with all dog training, and more so when you have multiple dogs is consistency – if I call Rohkh and Vhko comes too, Vhko gets no reward – ever.

It takes time, effort and regularity to have dogs that act independently of each other.

Dog Commands and Nuances
There are of course times when you need the whole lot to do the same thing – like ‘come’. Once again you have a choice. A colleague of mine uses the collective term ‘dogs’ when she wants them all to do something like ‘Dogs, come’ – that means all of them. I tend to use the term Boys – when I am talking to them all (despite one being female!) Equally a command delivered without a name prefixing it means ‘all’. So when I am walking and I say ‘Heel’ or ‘Come’ that means all do it. If a name is attached it is just that one dog whom I am addressing.

So, there it is – handling and training multiple dogs – what I wanted to know as a young teen. It has taken twenty-odd years to learn what I now know and it does take a great deal of hard work. It is however incredibly useful, practical and impressive. Quite frequently, I will take all of my dogs out and get three of them to ‘Down, Stay’ whilst doing recall, heel training around them and similar with one other. You end up with well trained dogs and they get great mental stimulation. As with every aspect of dog training the more you put in, the more you get out. As the saying goes…every little helps!

by Ross McCarthy MA FCFBA MBIPDT MGoDT AMBPSCA
Principal of The Cambridge Institute of Dog Behaviour & Training