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Q. Whenever my dog gets with his canine friends, they all pick up each other’s bad behaviors — but never the good behaviors. Why does this happen, and how do I make it stop?

A. We’ve all seen it happen: An individual dog’s barking starts an eruption of barking from any and all surrounding dogs. Unfortunately, the type of socially ignited behaviors that dogs are most likely to copy when they’re together are often the ones we as pet owners try to teach our dogs not to do, which is why we see them as bad behaviors. 

Dogs are not likely to mimic a behavior another dog has been trained to do, such as rolling over or shaking hands, but instinctive behaviors like barking and digging can more easily be transferred from one dog to another. For instance, though chasing and biting a running vacuum — essentially a predatory behavior — may not be a common behavior, if one dog in the household starts doing this, the other dogs in the house may adopt this behavior as well. Chewing is another less common behavior that can be transferred from dog to dog. Recently, a pet parent told me her first dog’s habit of chewing on the carpet was quickly taken up by her newly adopted dog.

For this reason, I recommend that owners with a dog already displaying problem behavior, particularly aggressive displays toward other dogs or people, deal with that behavior before they plan any outings with other dogs, or before they consider bringing a second dog into the family.

How to Deal With Problem Behavior

I’ve been working with a young adult cattle dog who barks and growls reactively on leash. The family had recently purchased a cattle dog puppy; the younger dog very quickly picked up on the tenseness and reactivity displayed by the older dog and also began to growl and lunge on leash. On our first consult, I immediately recommended that the owners walk the dogs separately to prevent the puppy from learning any more unacceptable behaviors from the adult dog. Once the older dog was removed from the walks, the puppy’s reaction to people immediately softened. 

While it’s easy to see how two dogs living in the same house could teach each other some bad manners, your dog can pick up less desirable behavior from his friends, too. A Yorkie puppy I’ve been working with had never shown any reactivity on leash until his owner started walking him with a friend’s dogs who barked and growled at other dogs during their outings. After only a couple of walks, the Yorkie had developed leash reactivity, which persisted even once the friend’s dogs were gone.

Pick Your Battles — and Your Dog’s Friends

As a pet parent, it’s important to assess how much of a risk is posed to your pet if he were to pick up another pet’s behavior. This really depends on your personal preference. For instance, dogs can pick up the habit of digging from other canines, which may not be a big deal to someone like myself who isn’t particularly invested in having a beautiful backyard; but for someone who has an immaculately manicured lawn and garden, digging is a much bigger issue. Decide beforehand which behaviors are absolute nos for your household, and assess whether you will be able to put the necessary boundaries on your dog even when he is in a chaotic multiple dog situation, or if he is better off not being exposed to another canine with unwanted behavior. (Keep in mind that certain behaviors, like separation anxiety, are not usually picked up by other canines and thus are not really something to worry about.)

Often, our dogs simply are not as well behaved around their dog friends simply because they are more distracted and excited. The come when called may be a challenge when your dog is running loose with other dogs, not because the other dogs have convinced your dog that he shouldn’t come, but simply because he is more motivated to stay and play than to return to your side. Other behaviors, such as marking items, are often done with gusto in a multiple dog situation as each dog vies to mark on top of the other canine’s scent, which is a normal dog behavior.  

In certain situations, it’s wise to keep your pet from being around a particularly excitable and highly reactive dog because there is a chance your pet may pick up that behavior. But, most of the time, the behaviors our pets pick up from other dogs are simply a nuisance and will go away when other canines leave.