Creating a Connection: Beyond Ownership

The word “owner” in relation to dogs has never been my favorite noun. I am a parent. Not of human children, but a parent all the same. This does not in any way imply that I think that my dogs are furry children. They absolutely are not. Dogs are a completely different species than I am, and that fact makes me grateful beyond measure. But the base foundation of providing boundaries for safety’s sake and helpful guidance to teach them to make quality choices is there just the same. My goal is to build a relationship with my dogs based on mutual trust, respect for who they are, and love. I aim to help my clients do the same.

Photo credit: Rebecca Hilbert

When a dog is new to my home, my first goal is to show them that I will be there for them and provide for all their basic needs so they can relax and start trusting that I will keep them safe. I will make sure they have quality food they enjoy eating and sufficient clean and fresh water to satisfy their thirst. I will ensure that they can regularly and safely empty their bladder and bowel. I will ensure that they can feel safe and secure enough to have deep and restorative sleep. I will ensure that they are housed safely and securely with protection from the elements (alongside of me, inside of our mutual home). And finally, but not of least importance, after the above has given them enough emotional security to want more, I will help them to enjoy themselves and their life with me. This is what I believe should be every dog parent’s goals. These goals are the baseline for the start of building trust and emotional security. More on that here: Hierarchy of dog needs, originally adapted from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Linda Michaels.

Fully achieving a trusting and secure relationship, however, involves more than even the above baseline. When your goal is to build a true trusting relationship with your dog, that includes emotional and physical safety in more than just basic needs. Having choices that include body autonomy comes to mind. Allowing a dog to feel safe from physical intrusion is important. This body respect that you bestow on them gives them the option to seek physical affection from you. It also gives them the option to seek physical closeness with you that may not include having you pet them when they are merely interested in being close to you, without being touched. After all, as humans, we regularly expect this from our loved ones and dogs are no different in this. Unfortunately, this fact comes as a surprise to so many dog parents. A dog approaches us and our response is to reach out and touch that dog. But that’s not what we do with humans, is it? At least not if we want to remain out of jail in many cases! If we seek physical affection from another human, we generally wait for a sign that they also seek that action. So even if you are asking the dog’s human, you should also ask the dog.   Allowing a dog new to your home that simple option makes a world of difference in your future relationship with them. It removes so much pressure, that the relief, even if only internally noted by the dog, is truly immense. Read more on the subject of Consent for dogs.

Photos credit: Srimoyee Chakraborty

 

Not expecting much of anything of your new dog is important. Of course, showing your new dog the “ropes” is also important such as where they will eat/sleep/potty/relax/etc. This is not pressure; this is common sense and helpful to your new addition. Managing their space initially, so that you set them up for success, sets everyone up for success. A win/win. Providing toys that are safe to use when unsupervised is also important but pushing mutual play time on a dog who is just trying to make sure that they gain an understanding of the household first is pressure. Avoid social pressure of any kind in the beginning and wait until you have established a relationship first. That includes from people outside of your household.

It’s normal human nature to want to share our happiness in adding a new family member with our own personal favorite humans. However, this can result in an overwhelmed dog, wondering whether this situation that they have found themselves in is safer than the circumstances that they came from. This can apply regardless of whether you have gotten a well-bred puppy from a responsible breeder or a puppy/adult dog from a rescue group or shelter. It’s still a jarring switch from where they were, to where they are, whether their previous situation was stressful or peaceful. Imagine a frightened small child’s very first day of school, probably feeling overwhelmed with sensory input. This is similar to inviting everyone over to “meet the new dog”. This often places the dog in a context of feeling defensive at some point if this goes on long enough or even at all, in some cases.

Ideally, when adding a new canine family member, allow them to simply exist with all basic needs in place. Don’t ask anything of them that isn’t safety related and don’t start training cues. Just help them to get to know and explore their new situation. Not placing any demands on them will allow them to mentally relax. Trust comes from, not requiring a commitment, but from offering without anything asked in return. This is true of all relationship beginnings when you think about it, regardless of the species. Allow your new dog to settle in and get to know the routine of the household. Predictability helps build emotional safety as far as household routines. Allowing them body autonomy gives them the choice to seek it.

If you are adding a new dog to a household that already has one dog or more, I will assume that you have had a successful meet and greet first to make sure that both the resident dog(s) and the new do will at least tolerate interactions without becoming a battleground. Once in the home, however, there need to be safe spaces set aside for each side of the equation so as not to overwhelm anyone. The new dog should ideally be behind a gate in the home at first so that the resident dog(s) and the new dog can choose to interact with one another, with supervision of course. Outings into a yard, whether fenced or not, should also be separate until each dog is feeling more secure emotionally and physically. The resident dog(s) should continue to feel safe in their own home as they have done and the new dog should feel safe while settling in, without being intruded upon to such a degree that causes a defensive action. This step alone can prevent so many issues. Prevention truly is worth a pound of cure. You will set your new addition and your resident dog(s) up for success, proceeding slowly and letting relationships develop, as all relationships should.  

One last thought rarely addressed in any articles about bringing home a new dog is the initial potential “flight” period. For many dogs coming from a rescue situation (and even some from breeders), their cortisol level is at a high baseline, They are terrified of every little thing. When taking these dogs outside to do their business, it is a sad pattern that the new dog parent has not taken care of securing a well fitted harness onto the new addition and something startles them and off they go. This then results in a frantic search for a dog who is typically not familiar with their new surroundings which can  sometimes have tragic results. So, in the interest of more safety, both emotional and physical, have a well fitted harness on your new dog with a secure leash attached to a human who can handle potentially being jerked. They should be sure that the leash is safely wrapped around their hand for the first few weeks. Even if you have a fenced in yard, a terrified dog can and will find a way out that you didn’t know existed, due to some startling sound. Again, prevention truly is worth a pound of cure. Vigilance is your friend in this context. And forget about walks for a bit if you have added a very worried dog to your home. Build that connection first. Now go and enjoy your new addition, with these tips in mind!

Photo credit: Rebecca Hilbert


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Positively Expert: Debby McMullen

Debby is a certified behavior consultant and the author of the How Many Dogs? Using Positive Reinforcement Training to Manage a Multiple Dog Household. She also owns Pawsitive Reactions, LLC in Pittsburgh, PA.


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