Whether you just got a new dog and you are trying to figure out the safest way to introduce him to the household cat, or you need to help your dog get along with a new bunny, some training and introductions are definitely in order! It does not matter what species of animal you are trying to help your dog become accustomed to, be it a hamster, ferret or pet iguana, knowing your dog is the very first step. If it is a new dog, you both will be in for a learning curve, as the dog’s prey drive and his previous socialization are truly being put to the test!
Prey drive is the instinctual urge to chase, kill and eat a prey animal. All carnivores have prey drive, as it helped them survive through being adequate hunters. We see this in cats who play with toys and in wild wolves who hunt down rabbits. We even see this in dogs, though it often transfers itself into ball drive. Ball drive is virtually the same thing as prey drive, but the animal feels compelled to chase and catch a ball instead of a small animal.
The movements of a small animal peaks the instinctual interest of a dog. Their size, even the size of cats, can make some dogs want to chase them. Very rarely, however, do dogs act out anything beyond a game of chase, but that possibility of killing an animal smaller than themselves is always there. For this reason, you should never, ever leave your dog with another animal unsupervised for any period of time. It only takes one second for an accident to happen.
The success of an introduction between your dog and another animal is dependent upon your dog’s prey drive, your ability to control the situation and your dog’s training level. Ideally, your dog should be on leash and at a great distance from the other animal. He should be able to see them and hear them if they make a sound, but not be able to touch them. This will let you assess your dog’s interest in the animal and make the decision of if they can get closer or if they need more time.
If your dog needs more time before getting up close and personal with another pet, work on some basic leash manners. Teach him the command “Let’s go!” which is when you turn in another direction and encourage him to follow you. He should always be rewarded for this with a high value treat, such as real meat or cheese, to capture his attention. You should start this away from the new pet, but if they are within visual range and your dog is able to focus on you, all the better! This will all come in handy when it is time for your dog to meet another animal face to face.
Begin to get closer to the animal whenever you and your dog are both calm and relaxed. Take just a few steps and ask your dog to sit and and stay if he already knows these commands. If he doesn’t, simply wait until he stops calmly next to you and is relaxed. This is important, as you want to stay under his stress threshold! Work your way up to getting closer and closer, stopping ever few steps to let your dog calm down. Patience is key here! Never reprimand your dog for getting excited. If he doesn’t calm down, just go back a few steps and try again. He’ll get it eventually!
When you make it up to the other pet, ask your dog to sit if he knows this command. He must sit and stay before being allowed to sniff the other animal. If he doesn’t know this, then he must stand nicely and quietly. Do not let him interact until he is calm. After some time, his reward will be to finally meet the other animal!
Don’t use this method with meeting new dogs, but use it for meeting other species. To a dog, another species is a totally different ball game than meeting a dog. If you’re bringing home a new pet, or a new dog to a current pet, these training steps will help you on the road to a successful multi-pet household!