The First Year: Merging Your Pets

Here’s how to make sure your trustiest companion loves him as much as you do

Before the puppy love between you and your fiancé began, you had a different significant other — one you still depend on for long walks through the park and curling up by the fireplace. But now that everyone’s moved in together, the new rooming situation may not be quite as cozy as you’d hoped. Maybe your new hubby brought an old feline flame into the house that hisses at you whenever you’re in the same room, or your ever-friendly Labrador retriever refuses to warm up to his Boston terrier. Either way, merging pets can be a huge domestic stress, one that requires a lot of time and supervision before the squabbling gets out of hand. We talked with Dr. David S. Spiegel, VMD, a Swarthmore-based animal behavior consultant, for tips to ease pet introductions — so that your house is a little more peace-and-quiet and a little less dog-eat-dog.

If your pets hate each other: Spiegel says that it’s best to get your pets used to each other before the move-in date, so that the initial meeting isn’t too traumatic. “It’s important to set up structured bonding time,” he says, “where the animals can have enjoyable experiences in each other’s presence.” For dogs, Spiegel suggests taking the two pups for a walk together so that they can time to sniff each other out, and even enjoy a treat together so that they can get used to each other while relaxing and having fun.

Cats, Spiegel warns, are a bit trickier, because they can be a bit more territorial. “Sometimes it takes moving the new cat into a room by itself initially, so they can start to sniff each other through the door,” he says. Spiegel suggests even giving the cats treats or meals on opposite sides of the door. “If you do this over and over again a couple times a day for a week or so, you can start opening the door slightly. Make sure no one’s hissing or growling, and then have the confidence to open things up.”

If you pet hates your new spouse: This can take a lot of one-on-one training time with both your pet and your new spouse, so Spiegel says to figure out early where the problem seems to lie. If Spot tenses up and growls whenever your husband comes near you, for instance, then its time to use what Spiegel calls “counter-conditioning.”

“You can teach your dog a response word,” says Spiegel, “Say, ‘relax,’ for instance. Instruct your dog to sit or lie down repeatedly, and say ‘good relax’ after he’s down. Then give him a small, quick treat. Do this over and over again, so that the dog is totally relaxed at this trigger word.” When you’ve reached this stage, you can bring your husband into the room, giving your dog the trigger word. Slowly (very slowly, warns Spiegel) have your husband approach the dog. If that goes well, you can instigate some petting and start setting the tone for a more peaceful relationship and house.