They Studied Multi-Dog Households — Guess What They Learned About Leadership?

Multi-Dog Households

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study shows the relationship between dogs who are housemates plays a role in how they make decisions
  • The researchers visited several pairs of both low rivalry and high rivalry dogs in their homes and observed their behavior during a food test
  • They learned low rivalry (less competitive) dogs tend to follow their housemates’ (or a human’s) lead when faced with the need to make a quick decision, even if it means following them to an empty plate
  • High rivalry (more competitive) dogs appear more independent and less likely to blindly follow either their housemate or a human; they may pay less attention to other dogs due to a low tolerance for having other dogs in close proximity

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Anyone who's spent any time around dogs knows that canine companions learn a great deal from both humans and other dogs. However, most studies of social learning in dogs involve a highly trained demonstrator dog who is unknown to the study dogs.

Recently, two researchers from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY set out to learn how the relationship between dogs who are familiar with each other (i.e. housemates) influences how they learn from one another. To do this, the researchers visited 37 multi-dog households so they could observe the dogs on their own turf rather than in a laboratory.

"We really wanted to look at the impact of the relationship between the dogs on their behavior, and doing that in a setting natural to the dogs, with dogs they already know, is really important," explained study co-author Malini Suchak, Ph.D.1

'Low Rivalry' Versus 'High Rivalry' Dogs

The researchers needed to know how competitive the dogs were with each other, so they had each owner complete a survey called the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). Based on owner responses, the dogs in each household were classified as either low rivalry or high rivalry.

Within each pair, the dogs didn't necessarily have the same rating for rivalry. There were pairs in which both dogs were high rivalry, pairs in which both were low rivalry and pairs in which there was one of each.

low rivalry dogs never or rarely showed aggressive behavior toward their housemate. High rivalry dogs displayed some level of aggression around resources they valued (e.g., food, treats, toys, their favorite human), and were considered to have more competitive natures.

How the Experiment Was Conducted

Here's a brief summary of the test the researchers conducted with each pair of dogs:

"A research assistant placed two plates containing food in front of both dogs. One dog was allowed to approach the plates and eat the food from one plate before being walked out of the room. At that point, the second dog was allowed to make a choice. If the second dog followed the first dog, he arrived at an empty plate. If he didn't follow the first dog, he went straight to the plate that still contained food."2

low rivalry dogs often followed the first dog and ended up at the empty plate. However, they only followed the first dog when they could make their choice immediately. Interestingly, when made to wait five seconds before choosing, both low- and high rivalry dogs were likely to go directly to the plate with food on it.

"This suggests that the low rivalry dogs may have been automatically following their housemates," says Suchak. "When we forced the dogs to wait, it was as if the low rivalry dogs actually took the time to think about the situation, and they went straight for the food."

The researchers theorize that compared to low rivalry dogs, high rivalry dogs may pay less attention to other dogs due to a low tolerance for having other dogs in close proximity.

High Rivalry Dogs May Be More Independent, Less Likely To Be Followers

In a second experiment, the research assistant removed the food from one plate before each dog made a choice. The researchers observed that low rivalry dogs often followed the human when they were allowed to choose immediately, which is similar to the way they followed their housemate dog only to wind up at an empty plate.

Study co-author Christy Hoffman, Ph.D. believes this behavior may be a feature of the personality of low rivalry dogs. "Since the tendency of the low rivalry dogs to follow was seen when the demonstrator was both another dog and a human," says Hoffman, "competitiveness may be a characteristic of the individual that extends beyond their relationship with other dogs."3 High rivalry dogs may be more likely to think for themselves and less likely to blindly follow than a less competitive, low rivalry dog.

"On the whole," says Hoffman, "our findings show there is variation in the ways dogs make decisions and that how dogs interact with others plays a big role in how they respond under conditions that require quick thinking."

Why It's a Good Idea to Give Canine Housemates the Chance To Be the 'Only Dog' Now and Then

There are many advantages to having more than one dog. For example, two dogs can provide companionship to one another and each has a built-in playmate when you're away.

Also, an older established dog can often act as a positive influence on a new addition to the family, especially if the new dog is younger, anxious or fearful. The new dog will often learn to take cues from the older dog, which helps the new guy gain confidence and a sense of security.

The new dog may also learn acceptable behaviors, including proper potty habits, by following the older dog's lead. But with that said, whether your dogs are low or high rivalry personalities, giving them some time apart can provide a much-needed break. This is especially true for dogs who spend virtually all their time together, because it's not unusual for minor stresses and irritations to build up into major blowouts. Time apart gives both dogs some breathing room and helps to diffuse tensions.

Consider having another family member take one dog for a walk or play session while you take the other to do a separate activity. If you're on your own, leave one dog at home with a delicious food puzzle toy and take the other dog for a walk, solo. This doesn't need to be a daily thing, by the way. Even one solo walk or activity each week can provide your dogs the opportunity they need to be the "only" dog for a while.

You can also let your dogs spend time apart by giving them access to different rooms of the house. That way, they can pick and choose when they want company. I have two females who tend to get on each other's nerves. I manage this by regularly giving one dog a recreational raw bone indoors while I take the other dog out to the backyard for a fun round of ball chasing, then I switch.