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Canine Group Housing – Issues and Considerations

Jacque Lynn Schultz, Director, Special Projects, ASPCA


As pack animals and social creatures, most dogs enjoy and benefit from the company of other canines. The single canine housed alone all day in a sterile cage will start disintegrating in 7-14 days and will engage in excessive barking, circling, pacing or other stereotypic behaviors. Group housing yields social enrichment. Some shelters do it by carefully pairing up dogs to share a single cage. Some keep dogs in medium-sized playgroups (3-8) during the day and return them to individual cages for feeding and sleeping. Others choose to individually house the dogs in their care and provide social interactions by having a couple of dogs walked together or exercised off-leash together in a fenced enclosure or training space. When choosing to keep dogs in pairs or groups for reasons of social enrichment, a number of factors must be considered. This article will examine issues regarding health, matchmaking and husbandry central to successful group housing.


Before exposing healthy, adoptable dogs to a new intake, the newcomer should undergo a veterinary exam that includes taking a fecal sample and temperature as well as searching for signs of ringworm, mange, fleas and ticks, and respiratory disease (nasal discharge, coughing, and ocular discharge). Deworming, flea and tick treatment, and vaccinations should be given prior to kennel introduction. A new intake should stay in a holding ward 10-14 days before introduction into a healthy adoption ward. This allows any incubating diseases to present themselves without putting the adoption population at risk. When holding or isolation space is limited, save it for dogs who are lethargic, have diarrhea, are coughing or sneezing, have ringworm or are presenting any other signs of contagious disease. Cage contagious animals individually until any incubation period is past.

Due to the severity of parvovirus and distemper in unvaccinated or improperly vaccinated young puppies (under 16 weeks of age), do not mix litters of puppies who come in without a vaccination history and clean bill of health.


When the decision to group house has been made whether for play periods or full time, a matchmaking plan is in order. The following areas should be considered: age, size, sex and reproductive status, breed type and individual personality.


Place dogs with others at their developmental /maturity level. The typical canine life stages are neonatal (0-6 weeks), young puppy (7-16 weeks), older puppy (4-6 months), adolescent (7-18/24 months depending on size and breed type), young adult (18 mos.-3 years), adult (4-8 years) and geriatric (8+ years). Try not to vary more than one stage older or younger. Neonates and young puppies should stay with their littermates. However if several single puppies come into the shelter and you wish to house them together, take all precautions to ensure that they are in good health before exposing them to one another. Healthwise, dogs of this age are at greatest risk to succumb to disease.


While the “Mutt and Jeff” image of a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard mix housed together draws chuckles and attention, it is also a recipe for inadvertent disaster. Size groupings can be broken into four main divisions: small (1-20 lbs.), medium (21-50 lbs.), large (51-90 lbs.) and giant (90+lbs.). Build and conditioning should also be taken into account when pairing dogs up or combining for a playgroup. Neither long-backed breeds such as dachshunds or corgis nor fine-boned gazelle-like sight hounds should be grouped with stocky, well-muscled bull breeds.

Sex and Reproductive Status

When combining adult dogs in kennel runs, pairing up a male and female often results in the most compatible match. Both members of the pairing should be neutered and at least one MUST be. Care must be taken to ensure that the female is not in heat. Neutered males can make good companions. However, serious fights can break out among unneutered males, certain spayed females, and two females that are both in heat.

Breed Type

Breed type can give you additional information when considering whom to house with whom. Certain breed types were selected to work cooperatively with other dogs while others were specifically bred to fight their own kind. Most hounds (both scent hounds and sight hounds) are comfortable living in a pack setting and usually take well to group housing. Many breeds from the toy group are also comfortable sharing space. Terriers, on the other hand, are particularly fractious with other dogs unless kept in pairs of the opposite sex or well socialized to other dogs during puppyhood. Guarding breeds should also be housed singly or in pairs of the opposite sex. Extreme care should be taken when considering group housing for pit bulls, American Staffordshire terriers, Akitas, Tosas, Chinese shar-peis and any other breeds that fall into the fighting dog category.

Individual Personalities

Personality traits that should be noted when determining if a dog is a good candidate for group housing/play sessions should include arousal level, play style, activity level, and food/toy/cage possessiveness as well as aggressiveness with other dogs. This information is obtained during temperament testing, best done approximately 48 hours after intake. (For information on temperament testing, see Suggested Readings.)

* Avoid housing two easy-to-arouse dogs together because once they work themselves into a frenzy the act of simply bumping into one another may provoke a fight.

* Play style is a crucial consideration when determining playgroups. Body slammers tend to be larger, muscular dogs with blocky skulls (think boxer/bulldog/pit bull) that often find sport in running headlong into the side of another dog. Mouth wrestlers are dogs who play by mouthing the head, neck, and shoulder areas of their playmates while knocking them to the ground (think retrievers). Heel nippers, often herding breeds, love to chase and nip at back legs or shoulder bump other dogs while exercising their working instincts. Sight hounds, terriers, and some Rottweiler types delight in the chase and if their “victim” is size-disadvantaged, he or she may be seized by the scruff and shook, leading to serious injury or death. Last, there are the delicate flowers who do not particularly enjoy playing with other dogs. They are usually touch-sensitive toy breeds or smaller sight hounds who delight in cuddling up to other warm bodies but do not enjoy rough contact sports.

* Activity level, like age, is best matched kind with kind. Match the whirling dervish with the bouncing bowser, freeing up the couch potatoes to pile on each other for another forty winks. Those in the medium range can be matched with either end of the spectrum if other traits make the pairing desirable.

* Guarding behavior is a serious problem when group housing. Any dog that displays food bowl guarding or aggression should not be caged with another dog at meal times. Since these dogs often guard empty bowls as well as full ones, food trays should be removed before pairing up again. If a toy guarder is generally dog-friendly, he can exercise with other dogs in a play group as long as the area is cleared of anything worthy of guarding. That may include sticks, rocks and dirt clods as well as tennis balls and rope tugs. Cage guarders get highly aroused when adopters or kennel staff approach their space. This is too dangerous a situation in which to put another dog.


Concerns with staffing, cleaning, feeding and space must be worked out before group housing can be successfully incorporated into a shelter. When housing more than one dog in a cage or kennel, there should be enough floor space to allow all dogs to stretch out comfortably. USDA guidelines for dogs in laboratory housing require floor space equal or exceeding the length of the dog from tip of nose to base of tail plus six inches squared to determine floor area. Additional footage is advisable since no dog will want to lay in feces or urine. A more vigilant cleaning schedule may be necessary in kennels without indoor/outdoor runs, since the waste one dog makes now impacts on others.


A minimum of two kennel staff or trained volunteers is necessary to supervise canine playgroups. Their job is to clean up waste, give dog’s human attention, and calm or remove dogs who get too aroused in order to prevent fights from breaking out. Kennel staff will need to be especially observant when a new pairing or group is created to ascertain that all dogs are getting enough to eat and are comfortable with the match. Signs of withdrawal or depression in a previously outgoing dog should be brought to a supervisor’s attention so it can be determined whether the dog is getting ill or the match is not beneficial to the dog. Kennel cards that have room for daily notes about appetite, elimination, health and attitude are invaluable for keeping track of changes in the population.

When enrichment objects such as toys and chewies are placed in the cages, consider putting in several for each dog, not just one per dog. When toys are plentiful, they are less valuable to dogs and less likely to create a possessive aggressive response. Avoid high value items like beef knuckle bones and basted rawhide to keep the peace.Playgroups and group housing can enrich the lives of shelter dogs resulting in less barking and stereotypic behaviors while at the shelter and better acclimation to new homes once adopted. Any extra effort to ensure success is surely worth the investment.

Suggested Readings

ASPCA Complete Guide to Dogs by Sheldon Gerstenfeld with Jacque Lynn Schultz.
Chronicle Books, San Francisco 1999 (Available October 1, 1999).
General resource that includes large section on breeds (both pure and mixed), helpful in breed identification and profiling.

Care and Caring: A Resource Guide for Shelter Professionals by Sue Sternberg
Published by Milkbone. Free to shelters (maximum order: 25)
Call 1-888-DOG-TREATS to order.
Good source of information on temperament testing.

The Right Dog for You by Daniel Tortora, PhD.
Fireside Books, New York 1980.
Profiles breeds by activity level, dominance to others, sociability, learning ability and other criteria.

By Jacque Lynn Schultz, Director, Special Projects, Animal Sciences


© 1999 ASPCA

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