Social Facilitation: When Two Dogs are Better Than One

babies english cockerNoises from the upper floor of the house; unfamiliar people; sudden movements. Those were just a few of the things that scared Buster. The buff-colored Cocker spaniel lived with his human parents and dog-sister Betsy in a two-story condo. His owners had called for help in rehabilitating Buster so he could go through life without being chronically anxious. At our first session, he appeared to be as frightened as they’d reported. Although he was clearly food-motivated, he was afraid to approach me. Everything in his body language broadcasted a hesitancy to interact. Where, I asked his owners, was Betsy? They’d locked her away in another room so as to reduce distractions during training. I suggested we let her out. I wanted to see whether Buster’s behavior might change with her there.

To say a transformation occurred would be an understatement. As soon as Betsy entered the room, she ran over and jumped on me for attention—and so did Buster! It was hard to believe this was the same dog who had, minutes before, practically been afraid to breathe the same air as me. With Betsy in attendance, I was able to work successfully hands-on with Buster. As our sessions progressed, we worked gradually toward his feeling confident without Besty present; but having her there at first was the key that allowed me to get a foot in the door.

Social facilitation means that one dog’s behavior amplifies or changes another’s. For example, one dog howls or barks when another does, or one anxious dog’s behavior in the vet’s waiting room causes another dog to become upset. But social facilitation can work to a dog’s advantage too, as in Buster’s case. Studies of thunderstorm phobias, for example, have shown that the presence of another dog who is relaxed can actually calm the phobic dog, whereas whether the owner was nearby or not didn’t seem to make much difference.

I’ve employed social facilitation with clients whose dog was afraid of a family member. Unfortunately, the trigger in these cases is usually a man (sorry guys, it’s the testosterone—you’re bigger, have deeper voices, and tend to be scarier to fearful dogs). Behavior modification programs can go a long way, but sometimes bringing another dog into the picture can move things along a lot more quickly. (Be sure the dogs get along first, and don’t invite another dog over if yours is territorial.) The scared dog sees the other dog approach the man; the man pets and plays with the friendly dog, and feeds treats. The scared dog will, more often than not, begin to approach the person as well. Even if he doesn’t get involved in the action the first time around, chances are, with repeated exposure, he’ll learn from the other dog that the person is no one to fear. (If the second dog doesn’t like the man either, I might start to wonder about the guy…I’m just sayin’.)

For a dog who’s frightened of pretty much everything in the great outdoors, assuming the dog is dog-friendly, inviting a friend with a confident dog to walk alongside can help. Just as with Buster, it could help the dog to see the world as less of a threatening place. There are so many types of situations where one dog can alleviate the stress of another. I even know of a woman who’s second dog was allowed to spend the night in a cage at the vet’s office with the one who was recovering from surgery, since the second dog served as a sort of security blanket for the first.

Social facilitation is one more “tool” to keep in your toolbox of things that may help your dog. Or, to put it in common terms, sometimes two dogs are better than one!

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19 Responses to Social Facilitation: When Two Dogs are Better Than One

  1. Kuruk says:

    So truewoowoooo! Having my sistah Nalle has helped me overcome much of my shyness! Woooowooooo, Ku

  2. LynnMarie says:

    YUP! sure works for my dogs to have each other around. Love how they help each other.

  3. Steph says:

    Unfortunately this doesn’t always work. Case in hand ..GSD, young adolescent, unsure, runs and woofs at people, left alone for over 8 hrs, freedom of all the house, how he has ever survived puppyhood with what he eats ..sofa foam, shoes etc. Free fed so he grazes; now the owners have got a 8 wk collie puppy which the GSD takes in his mouth and bites down till the puppy yelps. If these people cannot train one dog they certainly cannot contain two, double the trouble. All they have now is two untrained dogs.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Steph,
      This post does not suggest that getting a second dog will solve the behavior problems of the first, or that people who have a problem dog should get a second one. It’s about how the presence of a second dog can help in the moment, in specific fear/anxiety-producing situations. 😉
      Take care,

      • Sonya B says:

        Really good clarification. I like that you reiterated that a second dog can help “in the moment” for “specific” situations. You need to do little experiments to see if it will work. Like you did by bringing Betsy out and seeing that it changed Buster’s behaviour. And then how you don’t just leave it at that, you work on helping Buster feel more confident without Betsy present gradually. All about baby steps first. You are a master at problem solving 🙂

  4. Our older dog Mia has done wonders for Leo, who was 1 year old when we got her. She’s a playmate for him (she lets him chew on her ankles, so he doesn’t go after ours), and tells him when he’s gone too far. Also, I’m convinced she reminds him he’s not supposed to eat the furniture.

  5. Evelyn Haskins says:

    There is one problem here — and that is that having two (or more) dogs can exacerbate some shy dogs’ problems.

    Call it gang mentality (or pack mentality) but when shy dogs are used to always having the support of other members, their timidity can become a serious hurdling block if you ever want to take them anywhere alone.

    I’ve encountered this with my own Shrinking Violet, and with clients with two dogs that are always together. The shyer dog becomes a neurotic mess when it is removed from its own Big Bro or Mummy.
    It will cause serious problems if the ‘dominant’ dog dies first.

    I always advise clients with more than one dog to take them out and about separately. Train them separately and socialise them separately. Then be sure that when they are together both dogs look to you for leadership. That is ask them to tdo different things — eg. one to sit/stay, the other to heel.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Evelyn, thanks for your thoughtful response, as always. Please note where we weaned Buster off his dependence on his sister. I agree that in the situation you’re describing, a shy dog might become overly dependent on another dog. I wasn’t talking about a situation where the dogs are living together, or suggesting that they always be kept together. This was about using a second dog temporarily to help a dog through their fears, then weaning a dog off that help. Just wanted to clarify for you and anyone else who’s reading.

  6. Thanks Nicole! What a great article. I have a client with a new Puppy Mill dog that won’t even stay in the same room with the man of the house. But the dog acts much more relaxed and friendly at their daughter’s house, even with her boyfriend there. Client was crushed—until I told him that I thought it was because there was another dog at his daughter’s place. I’m not sure he believed me, so I sent him your article to read! Perfect timing. Now, I hope I’m right….fingers crossed. We’ll set it up and try it soon.

  7. Christie Vereide says:

    My retired greyhounds have really helped out our foster greys(fresh off the track)to acclimate to living in a home. For example, one of my dogs, Eja, shows no fear toward the vacuum, so I make sure that he is in the room with the foster dog when I introduce the foster to the vacuum. Such good boys, showing the new guys the ropes.

  8. Anu says:

    Loved this article today, and I’ve been fortunate to witness the positive effects great dogs have on my fearful dog.

    My Papillon boy, Remy, is afraid of most things outside of our home and backyard. But when we see one of his dog friends out walking he shifts from timid to joy in overdrive. It’s a stunning transformation.

    When I saw this happen the first time it was clear that these two lovely dogs were key to Remy’s enjoying his walks instead of enduring them. So every time we’re out and see Remy’s pals, we walk with them.

    It doesn’t matter in the least to Remy that after exchanging doggie hellos with each other, his pals pretty much ignore him for the rest of the walks. Remy is just happy to just trot beside or behind them with his tail up.

    Most of the time, walking in the company of these dogs will get Remy past whatever he perceives that day as scary in the neighborhood. But not always. The good news is that these neighbor dogs’ influence is successful more often than not.

    Whenever possible, I arrange play dates with these sweet dogs too. With his friends here in our fenced in backyard for some off-lead play, Remy’s beside himself over his good luck. He goes into orbit rocketing around the yard at top speed to express how happy he is.

    It gets even better: Remy now welcomes the attention of his pals’ owners, whether or not their dogs are with them. They’re all dog savvy and enormously are supportive of my efforts to help Remy. I’m very lucky to have such kind hearted neighbors and friends with great dogs Remy’s crazy about.

    No matter how many times I’ve seen Remy’s mood outside change from anxious to upbeat, it never gets old for me.

  9. firem4njoe says:

    It’s always great for a dog to have another canine companion (as long as they get along)

  10. Ramona Patterson says:

    Wow, great article and even better timing!! I recently was asked to foster a young pup (~5mos) that was picked up in a rural town by animal control. She had a very thin piece of twine or rope embedded an inch into her neck. It was surgically removed and she was successfully treated for the infection so it did heal nicely however, this is a dog that will not allow a leash any where within eyesight. I’m sure the animal control officers had to use the pole to get her so I now have a young dog I’m not able to get a halter or collor on. She stays in my dog run where I feed her all her meals by hand which she does very well with but I have not been able to touch her. When she sees my two canine girls at the gate, she get very excited and playful so I have been playing with my dogs where she can watch. After reading your article, I am tempted to release her into my yard along with one of my dogs but am concerned I will not be able to get her back into the run without making things worse. I welcome any feedback!

  11. Joe says:

    Isn’t this Buster situation you described here a video you showed at your Fearful Dog seminar? I faintly remember this. I have the dvd too and will have to watch this again unless I’m thinking of something else.

    • wildewmn says:

      Excellent memory! Yes, I did show a video of Buster and his behavior with and without his sister present. 🙂

      • Joe says:

        Awesome, that’s what I thought. Looking forward to your seminar on Saturday! 🙂 The weather should be nice that day too.

  12. jamanda says:

    Reblogged this on Sams Dog Rules and commented:
    This is an interesting article, and I can see how it ties in well with energy rules. The energy from the second dog helps the anxious dog.

  13. Melissa kalee says:

    Hi, thanks for this great article. I think that a well-balanced dog do have a positive impact on insecure once. It is a nice example of how a dog can be a good pack leader and it is important to socialise them with different types of dogs from a young age so as to prevent anxious and aggressive behavior after.

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