Owning a dog brings tail wags, cuddles, and companionship. And owning two or more dogs just multiplies the fun. But dogs are a serious responsibility, too, and the more dogs you have, the greater the challenge to care for them, especially when it comes to training.
How do you train a dog when you have more than one competing for your attention? Plus, there’s nothing more distracting (or infuriating) to a dog than another dog getting a treat. But with these helpful tips and techniques, you can train successfully and have well-behaved dogs in a multi-dog household.
The Challenges of Multi-Dog Training
The first challenge when training more than one dog at once is timing—you need to reward correct behavior at the exact moment it occurs. That can be almost impossible when your focus is divided, or when only one dog is performing the requested behavior.
The second challenge is distractions. When dogs learn a new behavior, it’s helpful to break it down into its components: distance, duration, and distraction. You need to start with each component at its lowest level then slowly build them one at a time. But how can you minimize distractions when there’s another dog bouncing around the room?
Separate the Dogs
The solution to both these challenges is to separate the dogs, at least when they’re learning the fundamentals like sit, down, or stay. It can also be helpful for teaching any new behavior when your dog isn’t yet ready to practice with any distractions—like their housemates. Work with only one dog at a time and place the other dog(s) in a different room or in their crates.
While you focus on the working dog, give the other dogs something to do so they don’t fuss or feel resentful. For example, provide a chew like a bully stick or a food-stuffed puzzle toy. The dogs should see their time away from you as a bonus rather than a punishment.
Keep your training session short by making it something you can accomplish in only five or ten minutes. Once you’re finished with the first dog, swap them out for another dog and repeat until all of your dogs have received their one-on-one training time. Tailor each dog’s lesson plan to where they need the most help. You can also take your dogs on individual walks to train outside the house. This is incredibly helpful when you teach your dog loose leash walking.
Use a Leash or Tether
But it’s not always possible to separate your dogs. Perhaps you live in a small apartment, or your dog becomes stressed when they’re alone. In that case, keeping the dogs tethered in the same room can be helpful. Alternatively, you can keep them on leash. Either will prevent the dogs from interfering with each other or stealing each other’s treats. That’s particularly helpful for dogs who are possessive of their resources.
If needed, enlist help so there is a different person holding each dog’s leash. It’s too awkward to give proper hand signals and deliver rewards all while juggling multiple leashes.
Tethers and leashes also allow you to control which dog is getting rewarded for a given behavior while training two dogs at once. For example, if you ask for a sit before letting the dogs into the yard, you don’t want both to bolt out the door if only one of them sat. Instead, unclip the leash of the dog who obeyed and hold onto the dog who didn’t, asking them to sit again once they’ve seen what their housemate just earned.
Teach Name Recognition
Once your dogs have mastered the basics, it’s time to work with them together. They will be around each other and potentially other dogs in real world situations, so they need to learn to listen despite what their housemates are up to. To help each individual dog respond to your cues, ensure they know when you’re talking directly to them. Use your body language and make eye contact.
It’s also helpful to teach your dog to recognize their name, then use it before any cue. For example, if you want Buddy to stay while Bella gets her dinner, you can say, “Buddy, stay” as you present Bella with her bowl. You can also give each dog a different release word so you don’t accidentally end Buddy’s stay when you release Bella.
If you have a large group of dogs, it can also be beneficial to teach them a group name that means “everybody listen.” Teach it the same way as you would for individual names but include all the dogs in the training. Be sure whatever name you choose sounds distinct from all the individual names or any cues you have previously taught. Then you can use the group name to get the attention of all the dogs at once.
Try Station Training
Station training is another valuable way to work with multiple dogs. In this technique you give each dog their own station or area to relax in while you work with one dog at a time. The station could be a dog bed, a platform, or even a couch. The dogs aren’t tethered or leashed, and rather they wait voluntarily at their station until you release them. This teaches patience and emotional self control because the waiting dogs watch their housemate get attention and earn rewards. You’re also reinforcing calm behavior because only after waiting quietly will a dog get a chance to work with you.
In the beginning, you need to pay more attention to the stationed dogs than the working one. Reward the dogs at their stations heavily and frequently for calmly waiting their turn. With the working dog, practice familiar behaviors so you can keep an eye on the others.
Once the stationed dogs understand what’s expected of them, you can slowly reduce the amount of reinforcement. Now transfer your full attention back to the working dog so you can teach new behaviors or increase the difficulty of old ones. Rotate among the dogs so each one gets a chance to be “the center of attention.”