We are doing something different today, in sharing a guest post written by a good blog friend of ours, Guilie Castilllo, in promotion of her new book “It’s About the Dog – The A-to-Z Guide for Wannabe Dog Rescuers”. It’s rare I agree to a guest post here; my favorite part of blogging is the writing so I usually choose to do my own (in fact, I think I’ve only ever had one other guest post!). However, because I have known Guilie for quite a while, and because I believe the topic of her book is important, I feel good about doing this. She agreed to write on a subject near and dear to my heart – life with multiple dogs (she has 8!). We may be a one dog household now, but we had four at one time and I was curious how her experiences might compare to ours. I love what she wrote, and I related to so much of it. Be sure to follow the links at the end of the post because there is a giveaway of the book as well!
A HOUSEFUL OF DOGS
Dog rescue comes with all sorts of consequences, some unexpected (like a broadening of one’s compassion, or the shift in our values and priorities), others rather predictable. A houseful of dogs, for instance. Ten years ago we had one dog; today we have eight. All but one of them started out as fosters, temporary residents that would be rehomed as soon as they were healthy, or more sociable. Or when we found a suitable home for them. Which is difficult enough in places like Europe or the US; in a place as small as Curaçao, finding a dog a good home is truly a feat. We’ve been lucky, in fact, that over the years we’ve been able to place so many with extraordinary families; otherwise we’d have twenty-something dogs running around. The ones we kept are the ones that had some sort of issue, whether medical or behavioral, that required far more than the average ‘good’ home could provide.
Take Sam, for instance. (That’s the dog on the cover of It’s About the Dog: The A-to-Z Guide for Wannabe Dog Rescuers.) Adorable to look at, has profound anxiety issues we will probably never resolve in any meaningful way. Or Sasha, who passed away last year; terrified of humans, no amount of training ever turned her into the cuddly ball of love most people want when adopting a Maltese. Or Winter, who came to us with what looked like a bad case of scabies but turned out (fortunately) to be just a flea allergy—but which still took years to heal properly.
I’m not sorry we kept them. It’s so hard to imagine the house without them now. No, it hasn’t been easy, and I probably wouldn’t recommend it to others; multiple dogs multiply love, yes, but they also multiply the challenges—exponentially. Still, in my case, the joys have so far outweighed the problems. And I’ve learned so much.
If you’re considering a multiple-dog household, here are a few things living with eight dogs has taught me that I wish I’d known sooner. Maybe they’ll help you avoid some of the mistakes I made.
Lessons from Living with Eight Dogs
Listen to them. Who said dogs can’t talk? Maybe not verbally, but they’re eloquent beings. The problem is we don’t pay attention.
We dismiss their fears and their insecurities—out of a desire to help them, sure, but a mistake regardless. We insist they behave in ways we think they should behave—they shouldn’t growl at people, they should be accepting of any and all other dogs, they shouldn’t lunge at the mailman, etc. We generalize, shamelessly: But my other dogs never did this; why does he? Or This training worked perfectly with the others; why doesn’t this one pick it up as fast?
We do all these things without ‘asking’ them for their input, and we continuously ignore them when they do ‘speak out’. That growl, that scuffle at mealtime: they happened because we ignored all the discomfort signals.
I’ve learned—the hard way—to pay much closer attention to their body language, learn what it means, what it signals. To respect the boundaries they set, and to work within them.
Make friends with your vet. One day it’s Duncan’s ear infection. A week later, Bowie is limping. During the weekend a scuffle happened and someone needs stitches. Jopie has been throwing up. Rusty ate half an iguana, and now is complaining of a bellyache. Panchita has another wart that needs to be removed before it turns cancerous. Winter broke a nail; does it need to be removed? Benny hasn’t been eating, doesn’t even want treats. One of Sam’s eyes looks a little swollen, seems sensitive to light.
And that’s not even counting vaccinations and yearly check-ups.
It never stops. On average, I spend more time with my vets than with my best friend. Part of it has to do with the fact that several of our dogs came to us already with medical conditions we can treat but not completely cure (Panchita, for instance, still suffers from tick fever complications). It’s also because of age; the older ones have begun developing age-related complications: arthrosis, for instance, or digestive issues, or maybe they don’t see or hear too well anymore. But it’s mostly just a numbers game: more dogs, more time at the vet. (Bonus tip: bring the vet, and the assistants, coffee and cookies. No, seriously.)
Practice Zen. I don’t mean in a don’t sweat the small stuff way (although that’s an attitude totally worth developing), but rather in the sense of transmitting calm. I love my dogs, and I love that they’re excited to see me. But I’ve had to learn to stop responding to their excitement with more excitement of my own, for a reason that seems so obvious now but which took me years to grasp (let alone practice; still working on that): excitement breeds tension.
In a single-dog household, maybe even in two-dog households, getting your dogs riled up (when you come home, at feeding time, in the car) may result in nothing but fun—and a few hilarious photos. In a multiple-dog situation, it may result in a fight and a trip to the vet.
Calm and relaxed is the goal for any dog (just ask your behaviorist), but when you have a pack it becomes key.
Dogs pick up behavior from each other. A good thing when the behavior is, say, peeing outdoors, or respecting personal space at mealtime. But when it’s undesirable behavior (climbing onto the bed, chewing up cushions or pillows, digging up the yard, whatever your big no-no’s are), this means the challenge of reshaping that behavior will be much harder—mainly because the undesirable behavior keeps getting reinforced. You can’t train multiple dogs together, so you have to work with each dog individually. But as soon as your training session is over and the dog goes back into the pack, they’re all set to reinforce the behavior you’re trying to change. Reshaping behavior in a pack takes a lot more effort, and a lot more consistency in training.
The positive side is that, once a dog has really picked up a new (or reshaped) behavior, chances are the other dogs will pick up that same behavior faster, too. Especially if the ‘zero patient’ dog is one of the alphas. (Yes, I have also discovered that a single pack can have multiple alphas, depending on the situation.)
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I hope you’ve found these insights useful, at the very least entertaining, and I’d love to hear your feedback and your own experiences, multi- or single-dog. One of the main takeaways of the ‘dog life’ for me has been that the learning never stops, so I’d be thrilled to hear your thoughts and whatever insights you’d like to share.
Janet, thanks again for having me over, and I look forward to chatting with you and your readers in the comments.
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Guilie Castillo, Mexican expat, writer, and dog rescuer, is the author of It’s About the Dog: The A-to-Z Guide for Wannabe Dog Rescuers (Everytime Press, April 2018), a hands-on, less-tears-more-action, 100% practical introduction to dog rescue. This post is a part of The Dog Book Blog Tour; during April and May, author and book will be making the rounds of dog-loving sites on the blogosphere to talk dogs and rescue—and to give away THREE signed copies. (More about both tour and giveaway here.)