Safety First!

Safety Before Obedience


Zoe and Zydeco meet for the first time at a safe distance

When I first announced Zydeco’s impending arrival to friends on Facebook, an excited colleague asked: “So, what training tasks are you going to focus on first?”

Hmmm…Great question because it got me thinking. Puppies are exciting, each one an adorable illusion of a “blank slate” supposedly to be written on at will (he he). There is also a lot of pressure to get on the ball and Get Things Right right away with puppies, because they grow darned fast and can slip into challenging habits so quickly.  I also know that my five weeks with the Z-man are going to go by really fast. But when you’ve been living with a mostly mellow, eager to please, sweet-natured adult dog, a dog long past her puppy years like I have, it is easy to forget just how the heck all that great training happened in the first place. Quite frankly, apart from her dog issues, Zoë was a strangely easy puppy. No separation distress. No destructive chewing. Hardly any barking. Sweet and gentle with all humans. Quickly bonded to us. She was so easy and low energy in fact that I finally decided there must be something wrong with her. After some veterinary advocacy on my part, at last it was discovered that the reason she was so mellow was in part due to an under-active thyroid. But the point is this: I am first in line to extoll clients right and left about the importance of good management and how important it is to do this and to do that full time for their puppies right away ….But true confessions, I myself have never really had to work that hard with my own puppy–at least not with regards to regular puppy stuff anyway. So, now with Zydeco in the house, it is really my turn to walk the talk, because this little boy is a whole nuther kettle of fish entirely.

Zydeco with Genuine Dog Gear tug toy

The first day I met Mr. Z, watching my movements carefully as he hid between my friend’s legs, barking fiercely, then lunging forward to snatch at my treat pouch, I knew he was the puppy for whom all the puppy (and reactive dog books) have been written. Nipping, jumping, mouthing, crying, barking, chewing, boundless playfulness, drive, pestering, pouncing, harassing other dogs, difficulty taking no for an answer, difficulty settling down, howling in his crate when left alone–if it is a behavior typical youngsters are supposed to do, our boy would certainly be one do it with five times the zeal, and ten times the tenacity. So, anyway, long story short, amid all the preparations this past week, I’ve been taking the FB question pretty seriously actually. What should my first priorities with the Z-man be anyway? Sit? Stay? Come? Doggie Zen? Leave-it? No biting!? Go to crate? Name Game? Leash walking? Targeting? 101 Things With a Box?….Then what about the plethora of different approaches? Which will be the right fit for him? Emma Parson’s Click to Calm, Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program,  Grisha Stewart’s Give a Puppy a Choice…and what about Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels which I’ve always wanted to try, or Ken and Debbie Martin’s fabulous Puppy Start Right book? On the plus side, it is truly great how many excellent, force-free approaches there are available to dog and puppy owners nowadays. The down side, however, is it can be almost paralyzing–even for a professional trainer–to know where to start! But while I’ve been contemplating my options, one phrase just keeps popping into my mind like the refrain of a song that you can’t stop humming, a statement I learned from my good friend, mentor, and amazing trainer, Nan Arthur: SAFETY BEFORE OBEDIENCE

As I summarized in my first, introductory post, What are Z-dogs?, Zydeco is a certainly a brave boy, but he has had a rough start in life. Trusting humans, particularly men, is pretty shaky for him at times. Case in point, one night a few weeks back my friend told me Zydeco was so frightened by the surprise arrival of a handyman, he backed himself under a bench, barking frantically, and then defecated. So, although he may look like a little punk sometimes, with hair bristling down his back, his tail up, mouth puckered, all swagger and bravado, his surprisingly big dog voice ringing in our ears, there’s real fear underneath. Bringing a puppy like this into a whole new living situation, with new people, and into a home shared by an equally scared, and sometimes scary, anti-social adult dog is not a thing that can or should ever be done without great mindfulness. I knew that even with all my experience as a trainer, this was not a situation where I could even remotely get away with playing it by ear and hoping for the best. The moment I committed to caring for Zydeco,  I also then became fully committed to doing whatever it took to ensure that both Z-dogs (and our ever patient housemate-dog Maya too) would not only be safe living together, but they would, to the best of my abilities, also hopefully be able to feel safe under the same roof most of the time as well.


Double Ex-pen buffer zone


Visual screens over pens

The next question to ask then is this: what does safety actually mean in dog terms?

Sometimes it is easier to define something by first looking at its opposite. Things that definitely make dogs feel unsafe are: direct invasions on personal space, sudden environmental changes, strange or startling noises (and smells), changes in routine, and of course, any or all perceived invasions of territory, threats to resources, or threats of bodily harm, and I knew that by bringing the puppy into our home I’d be subjecting Zoë to most of these types of triggering stimuli all at once. As for the puppy, he was going to have to navigate a new routine, new people, new yard, new noises, new dogs, new smells–all kinds of stuff. When envisioning the management logistics, my main goal was to minimize the impact of these stressors as much as possible, and to immediately begin building positive associations right from the get go. It was also crucial to have multiple barriers between dogs at all times, as well as several levels of safety protocols in place ahead of time to ensure that the two of them would never get a chance to meet face to face until I was certain they were ready. Leaving one or the other of them in a crate or in a back room while the other one ran loose simply wasn’t going to cut it. I didn’t even want them touching noses through bars because I knew that the absolute worst scenario of all would be a set up where one dog encroached upon the other in a condensed territory like a crate, plus feeling trapped at the same time. Yikes! I have always fought like a momma bear for my Zoë’s comfort as best I could. But above all, the last thing I wanted was for Zydeco to have so many volatile encounters with Zoë, he became even more reactive to dogs as a result.

So what does this level of basic management for safety in a reactive dog household look like in human terms?

In a word: inconvenience. Number one, we humans just had to bite the bullet and temporarily give up a huge amount of living space to accommodate the necessary buffer zones between dogs, as well as allow for enough space for puppy romping. Luckily our house is big enough that even with doubled up ex-pens dividing living room from kitchen, puppy toys everywhere, and all the extra crates and dog beds, we have managed to fit it all in with minimal crunch. We are also lucky that front and back yards are both fully fenced but separate from each other. After the first day, I also had to add in visual screens for Zoë’s sake by covering the ex-pen barriers with blankets. Basically it looks like Fort Knox around here right now, and yeah, it’s a drag having to maze through multiple gates to get from living room to kitchen, particularly when I keep forgetting my phone all the way out of reach on one side or the other, or someone knocks at the door, but honestly, sitting here right now, perched in my temporary downstairs kitchen office (set up specifically to be near the puppy), surrounded by 1/4 gage wire fences covered with blankets, a contented, snoring puppy at my feet, a peaceful, snoring Pit bull in her crate just a few feet away on her side, whewee! I have to say, heck yeah, it is worth it. The ex-pens let us all relax and learn to co-exist more gradually. They keep puppy out of trouble and ensure the older dogs get their space. Whoever you are that invented ex-pens, I’d like to kiss you right now! 🙂


Zoë and Maya relax in their adult dog area


Zydeco sleeps in his preferred napping position on his side of the barrier

So, what are some practical things that do help a dog feel safe? Oh, yes, let me count the ways.

  • A predictable routine–basic needs for good nutrition, clean water, undisturbed 12-14 hours of sleep, and potty breaks will be met without fail.
  • A safe space to retreat to–either a cozy crate, or favorite couch, bed, quiet room, or sunny spot
  • Well-practiced, pre-trained rituals in place that soothe instead of amp the dog up–e.g. go to crate when the doorbell rings, relax on a mat before walks, eye contact before released to a toy, etc.
  • Safe outcomes–no force, fear, or threat of pain or discomfort in relation to people–EVER. No exceptions.
  • Good associations the dog can predict and count on–especially when startling things happen, when training time begins, when the dog’s name is called, when an unpleasant husbandry procedure has to happen, when a new person appears in the doorway, etc.
  • Complete absence of all deliberate coercion, discipline, or pressure—e.g. letting dogs warm to new people in their own time, not getting hung up on power struggles with the dog, no verbal or physical corrections when dog makes a mistake, no sweating the “small stuff” such as house-soiling accidents, barking, digging, chewing, stealing food–in other words–what dogs do.
  • Clear and dependable patterns of reinforcement. If a dog expects a paycheck for, say, going to his mat instead of jumping on a guest, or coming when called away from a squirrel or another dog, it is important to continue to reward those good choices throughout the dog’s lifetime.
  • Especially for puppies…the undivided attention of a human being almost 24/7 for the first several months (except when practicing being alone for short periods), a sleeping place close to family, plenty of things to chew, interesting things and fun places to explore, safe people and dogs to meet, or maybe just look at from a far, puzzles to figure out, lots of low-stimulation / downtime for growing, an emotionally safe space to learn, and lots and lots and lots of reinforcement for every little thing done right.

Zoe temporarily wearing head halter and drag line for added safety the first couple days. She now only needs the drag line.


Zydeco’s crate from home, tucked in a quiet corner of the kitchen. He also wears a light drag line at all times so we can intervene and redirect without ever having to grab him.

Zydeco has been with us for three days now. I had to take most of the week off. We had to rearrange our entire household into maze land. My husband and I both have lost a fair amount of sleep. We’ve given up all semblance of having an orderly household. Most nights I’ve been much too tired to cook, so we’ve begun to resort to pizza delivery and take out. Zoë has needed some extra support (which I’ll discuss later), but she’s figuring it out. Zydeco I’m proud to say is BLOSSOMING! He is playful, responsive, sweet, super smart, a little evil–all a puppy should be.

please knock

Emotional safety tip: no doorbells!


Emergency dog fight break up plan


Sailor hooks to stabilize gates

Stay tuned for part two! Safety Before Socialization

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