The Secret Life Of Pets: Lessons in how NOT to introduce a new dog to the family.

CAUTION: Spoilers ahead.


There’s no denying that I’m a sucker for animated movies, especially animal-based ones; it was therefore a forgone conclusion that I would rush to see The Secret Life Of Pets, and I’m glad I did.

Now, as the more discerning of you may have realized, this is not a movie review site. So why blog about a film? Simple! This particular example is a superb example of how NOT to introduce a new dog in to a home, and my trainer-brain spent most of the first half gibbering with frustration every time Max’s human made an appearance.

So Katie, you kind, sweet, well-meaning, misguided collection of pixels, this is for you and for everyone else in your position:

What Katie Did

Duke (the new dog) is brought straight in to the flat with no preparation, and immediately allowed to overwhelm Max (the resident dog) with some enthusiastic but exceedingly inappropriate pouncing and sniffing.

When Max makes his displeasure at the intrusion of this new dog very clear using body language (moving away, hunching up, putting his ears back and, when these signals are disregarded, growling and air snapping), Katie proceeds to scold Max for being unhappy and expressing it.

At bed time, Katie puts a blanket for Duke as close to Max’s basket as physically possible and then disappears in to the bathroom, leaving them completely unsupervised. They naturally proceed to squabble over resources (the respective sleeping spots).

Max displays beautiful, appropriate decision making by removing himself from the situation and following Katie in to the bathroom. Yet again, she completely ignores his very visible distress, and again scolds him before shooing him back in to the lounge with Duke, closing the door and leaving them alone together all night.

In the morning she puts down two bowls of food (again immediately next to each other) and heads off to work, leaving them completely loose and unsupervised once more. Naturally they immediately squabble over the food, and only the fortuitous appearance of a guinea pig in the air vent (hey, it’s a cartoon; you have to expect the unexpected furry cuteness!) prevents an actual physical fight.

Later in the day, both Max and Duke are collected for a pack walk by a human I can only describe as a cross between an amnesiac gold fish and a lustful sloth. This dreadful specimen of a pet care provider takes all of his four-legged charges to an off-leash dog run and proceeds to pay precisely no attention to them or their interactions; this allows both Max and Duke to escape and become lost in the big bad city.

At this point, hijinks ensue, my trainer-rage is replaced with fuzzy-wuzzy-based amusement and the obligatory odd-couple buddy ending arrives precisely as and when one would expect.

Now, adopting animals in need is an absolutely WONDERFUL thing to do, and as far as I’m concerned the more pets in my life the better. However, it’s also vital to recognize that our animals are individuals: some actively need dogs around them in order to thrive, others loathe having to share their home with other critters. On the third paw, some (like Kyra, my 6-year-old rescue mutt) fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. She enjoys the company of most dogs, but has a very low tolerance for rough play or erratic behaviours and will occasionally take a dog in aversion on first sight. The first meeting lays the foundation for your pets’ future relationship, and it’s our responsibility to make sure it begins as auspiciously as possible.

So, with all that in mind, here’s What Katie SHOULD Have Done:  

Ideally, Katie should have arranged for Duke to meet Max in a controlled, neutral space before deciding to take him home. If it goes well, then great! They’re all off to a flying start. If it goes poorly, then at least she has the information to make an informed decision. Is the issue something relatively minor, that could be worked on, or something more serious? It’s important to understand that when the new dog enters the resident’s territory the stakes rise: if they don’t get on in a neutral space, it’s highly unlikely they’ll suddenly be best buds when you get them home, so realistic expectations are vital.

Once Katie decided Duke would be a good fit, she should have planned ahead. This is going to involve a huge amount of change for both dogs, so it’s a good idea where possible to spread out the impact. If she was going to rearrange her home (spoiler! She should have!), then she should have done so well in advance of Duke's arrival. This would have given Max time to adjust to the new layout. If possible, she should also have brought something that smelled like Duke home with her, and taken something that smelled like Max to the shelter. This would have given both pups the chance to adjust to sharing their space with the scent of the other dog before having to deal with the slobbery reality.

When actually bringing Duke home, she should have taken Max along with her, and then walked them back together. This repeat of the neutral-space introduction would have given them time to become reacquainted, have allowed for some energy to be burned off and (most importantly) meant them entering the enclosed space of the flat together. That way, Duke’s introduction to his new home and family would not have come as a giant surprise to either of them and Max would be far less likely to perceive Duke as an intruder and a threat. For the walk itself, ideally each dog should have their own handler; herding multiple pups at once takes a little practice, and when leashes tangle it can result in panic.

Both dogs should then have been taken on an on-leash tour of the flat together, before being separated and allowed to settle with minimal fuss. In a perfect world Duke would have a separate room to himself in which to decompress, but a crate in a quiet area of the flat would work as well. The (completely understandable) temptation is to behave exactly as Katie does and just smother the new dog in love and attention; what they really need, though, is several quiet days to slowly adjust to the massive changes through which they’ve gone. The resident dog also needs these days to adjust, and suddenly depriving them of attention because it is going to the other critter is unkind and often results in jealousy (exactly as happens with Max and Duke). 

It is absolutely vital to pay attention to what both animals are trying to communicate. Max is repeatedly pushed over his comfort threshold, and rather than respecting that and helping him to find the situation less stressful, Katie scolds him and pushes him even deeper in to his discomfort zone. He dislikes Duke jumping on him? She tells him off and grabs them both in to a “happy families” hug, essentially squishing his face in to Duke’s. She is trying to compel him to behave in the “correct” way; this very rarely works, more often exacerbating an already fraught situation.

At bed time, Katie puts their beds right next to each other. She wants them to be friends, and is once again trying to force the issue, despite Max's clear unhappiness. His routine should remain as consistent as possible, and Duke should sleep somewhere separate like a crate or another room. As a direct result of forcing them together, the two dogs squabble, elevating an already uncomfortable relationship to an actively competitive one. In addition to this, Katie has left them entirely unsupervised. Even if they seemed to love each other, this would be foolhardy – she has no real idea of Duke’s temperament or triggers, and Max has never had another dog in his house so she doesn’t really know his either. Supervision, especially at first, is vital.

When Max tries to walk away from a situation (which is absolutely the right decision), not only does Katie not recognize his excellent choice, she once again scolds him and shuts him back in the lounge. By doing this she is teaching him that walking away isn't an option. The next time there’s a fracas he is therefore far more likely to stand his ground, leading to a confrontation and, worst case scenario, a physical fight.

In the morning Katie doubles down on all of her mistakes from the previous day. She feeds them both right next to each other (and if they’re scrapping over beds can you imagine how they’ll feel about a really high-value resource like food?) and then leaves them together, loose and unsupervised, before the meal is even done. Naturally the situation escalates and we see them on the verge of a real fight. In fact, the only thing that prevents almost certain injury to one or both of them, is the guinea pig ex machina. This is NOT the sort of intervention we can rely on outside of family-friendly animated films! Ideally, both dogs should be fed at the same time, on opposite sides of a closed door, allowing them to associate each other with something good (Food! Yay!) but without feeling threatened or defensive. Over time, you can work your way up to them eating side by side, but it should in no way be the very first step.

Last but not least we come to the dog walker. In a previous blog I discussed what to look for in your pet care providers, and had a few people respond that it seemed like an unnecessarily involved process. Well, this guy is a prime example of why research is necessary. I worked as a dog walker whilst studying, so I speak from experience: although he’s meant to be a caricature, there are absolutely people out there just as irresponsible and untrustworthy. Now, even if you did your homework and your dog walker is an absolute gem, I would still advise against a pack walk when your two dogs are still getting to know each other. Especially at first, they should be going out with just each other, and in a very low-key fashion: think nice gentle strolls around the neighbourhood during which they can relax and learn to associate each other with positive things. They certainly shouldn’t be put in a situation where even the best handler has their attention divided between multiple dogs.

So, to sum up a rather long post: when introducing a new dog in to your home, emulate the tortoise not the hare. It’s tempting to rush things because we can’t wait to get to the Best Buddies stage, but as The Notorious B.I.G. almost said: Mo’ haste, Mo’ problems!