Our Gentle Giants

The story of two Floridians and their foster Great Danes



June 1st, 2016

How We Systematically Introduce New Dogs to Our Family

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We are on our 5th foster dog now (6 if you count the foster we babysat for a week) and I’ve come to realize that every dog is significantly unique.

Each dog has its mental and physical quirks. He can be 100% fine with everyone, but pull on leash really hard. He can love everyone but despise men. She can have issues in her knees so you have to lift her into the car. She can have a big surgery to remove a cherry eye which requires a lot of aftercare.

One of the biggest things Christian and I have to watch out for with every new dog is their behavior. If we misinterpret a situation and the dog, there can be very serious consequences. Remember that we’re dealing with a 150 pound dog. And Great Danes in particular are slim, which means most of it skin, bones, and muscle. I personally have never known a Great Dane who has attacked anyone (they’re called gentle giants for a reason), but you never know with a strange dog.

It’s so important to pay very careful attention to the dog and his behavior when he first comes into your home, especially if he’s a giant dog. I can’t stress that enough!

We know the history of some dogs that are surrendered. Sometimes, they come from loving homes who can vouch for their behavior. Sometimes, they are found on the street and the person who turned them in basically knows nothing about the dog.

Even if the previous owner described the dog in a certain way and laid out his personality very clearly, you still have to be very diligent with your evaluation of him. You never know if his previous owner told the truth. Maybe he was never put in a certain situation so the previous owned didn’t know how he’d behave. Just be aware of his actions and feelings in every situation.

Picking him up and bringing him home

sad-great-dane

A very confused Costa

Whenever we bring a new foster home, we do very controlled and systematic introductions. It’s so important for all animals who are going to live together to have a good first impression.

It starts with us picking up the dog. We never bring Roxie when we pick up the new dog, because her presence and energy will only elevate the situation and make it more stressful. Not because she’s psycho and out of control, but because she’s another being there, one with her own energy.

When we get home, we walk the foster around the front yard and let him sniff around. After a few minutes, we put Roxie on leash and bring her outside to meet him. We don’t let either dog walk around the other one. They are to keep their distance and slowly get closer. We use the 5-second rule: introductions don’t last more than 5 seconds even if they are going well. After 5 seconds, we divert their attention. You never know if the situation is going to escalate. Yes, even when it looks like it’s going well!

The backyard

The next step is to take them in the backyard. Usually, we let Roxie off leash and she runs around the backyard. Some dogs may react when they’re on leash and another one is off leash and approaching them. But we know that Roxie will run off and not be interested in the Dane anymore which is why we let her off leash first.

Then we let the foster loose in the backyard. He now has a chance to walk freely, relieve himself, burn some energy from being in the car (which is sometimes for hours!)

We’re still watching him and Roxie very carefully. She doesn’t really care for other dogs. She doesn’t dislike them. She just doesn’t like to play or interact with them. She’s generally patient with other dogs. Fosters usually get up in her business and sniff her. Sometimes they try to play with her.

She usually lets them do what they need to do, but if it lasts a while, she will start groaning. We let her groan, because we need the dogs to be able to communicate with each other without us intervening. Plus, she’s not doing anything wrong. She’s allowed to “voice her concerns” if she’s uncomfortable as long as it’s in a safe way. If the Dane doesn’t get the hint after a few seconds, we’ll take his attention away from her.

Moose and Roxie

Now all that applies to the days after the first night.

On the first night, if the new foster starts to get interested in Roxie and follows her around, we let that happen. But we watch very carefully. If he’s getting very excited and she freezes and her ears go back, we know something is not right. She’s not happy. And if she stays in an agitated state like that for a while, she’ll start groaning. If the dog still doesn’t back off, she’ll give a quick bark that says, “Go away!” Of course, that is “exciting” energy. The foster might either get more playfully excited or curious, or he may go into defense mode.

We don’t want the situation to escalate, so before she even has a chance to start groaning, we call the foster over. He’s more likely to come over to us than Roxie because Danes are very sensitive and love humans.

By the way, this has never happened during a first introduction, but it has happened a handful of times during daily life.

Going inside the house

At this point, the foster is put on leash and we go in the house with him. Roxie stays outside because with her presence and energy in the house, it can get a little hectic (only because the house is a little small and we are walking a giant dog through it.)

When we go inside the house with him, one of us goes and finds the cat. She’s usually somewhere high up, being quiet, and watching carefully from a safe distance. We don’t grab her and force an introduction, but we want to be mindful of where she is and make sure she’s in a safe space and not “trapped” under a table. If she were trapped somewhere and the dog discovers her, it’s likely to turn into a bad situation of her running of or hissing, which is a bad first impression. We want to avoid that.

Are you noticing a theme? Make the first introductions as friendly as possible! And you do that by setting everyone up for success.

We walk him on leash into every part of the house, even the bathrooms. We let him stop and sniff when he wants to. Then we let Roxie in and she walks around happily. Once they sniff again and they’re good, we let him off leash. Then the dogs are completely fine and happy.

sleeping-catThe cat

Mia will eventually come out and start walking up to us slowly. At this point, we quietly get control of the dog by continuing to love on him but also put our hand on his collar. As soon as he notices her, she freezes and usually the dog just watches or he pulls a little to get closer to her. One of us will grab her and hold her tight. That person will sit with Mia in their arms and the other person will be holding the dog back but allowing him to look at her and sniff her. We found that if we don’t allow him to properly see her, he’ll only get more and more curious and excited, which in turn freaks her out.

Usually after that, Mia is totally cool with the Dane! Whether or not the Dane is cool with the cat depends on his personality. Great Dane Love doesn’t assign fosters to just any home. They pair up fosters with homes that can accommodate him. If there’s a new Dane who hates small animals, he will not be given to us. The Great Danes we get either couldn’t care less about cats or are curious but not assertive.

Nighttime

Our fosters are always crated at night. We work to crate train all fosters  because it makes them more “adoptable”. What if a prospective adopter wants to crate the dog so they want a dog that is already crate trained? We also crate him at night so there are no run-ins with the animals while we’re sleeping. Mia (the cat) has the run of the house except for our bedroom (she occasionally inexplicably pees in our bed), Roxie sleeps in our room, and the foster sleeps in the crate in the office. We also crate him when we are away from the house, so there are no issues between the animals. When we leave, Roxie and Mia have the run of the house (except the bedroom) and the foster stays in his crate.

Other humans

There were two introductions that Christian wasn’t present for: our first foster and the foster we babysat. We learned very quickly that introducing the foster to a human who lives in the house has to be very controlled as well.

With Bubba, I did a controlled introduction with him and the household while Christian was gone. But then a few hours later, Christian came home and as he normally does, he entered through the garage door and into the house at his leisure.

This alarmed Bubba. To him, a strange man he didn’t know just waltzed into my/his territory without being invited! Christian immediately turned his back to him, which is a very non-threatening stance to be in. I went over and started hugging Christian and rubbing his chest and arms to show that I, the head of the house, accept this stranger and welcome him. Bubba was wary at first, but grew to accept Christian (and actually LOVE him!)

With Moose, the one we babysat, we made sure that I welcomed Christian into the house. He knocked on the door, I opened it, and we did a very slow introduction. Moose was already excited that night because he was in an unfamiliar environment, which is why we had to do a slow introduction. But after a few days, he was comfortable with us letting strangers in the house without having to do slow introductions.

I want to stress that I make a big deal about the size and strength of the dog, but you should truly be doing controlled and systematic introductions with every dog, regardless of their size. Yes, Chihuahuas can do damage to you and others. And even if you’re not worried about the damage they can cause, you still want to live in a peaceful household. If the animals hate each other, then everyone will be unhappy.

People are usually surprised to hear that we have such a systematic way of introducing a new dog to our house. But we can’t just let a strange, strong, and big dog run into the house and freak everyone out which would in turn freak him out. You don’t want a giant animal upset in your home where you and your family are. Plus, if the first impression is a bad one, you’re in for a bad time. This dog is going to be with you for a while (Ana was with us for 7 months!) Trust me, you want to be living harmoniously with everyone.