This leaflet has been produced specifically for the rescue and re-homed dog which may not be fully adjusted to family life or may have experienced mistreatment earlier in life. It is important when dealing with rescue dogs to persevere with the recommendations, however hard that may be, so that the result will be a happy and well-adjusted dog. The principles hold good for the family pet and puppy training, though the implementation may be less rigid.
Remember that all dogs are pack animals at heart and need to know their position within the household hierarchy to feel secure. Dogs never suffer from being last in line as long as they realise that is their position. It is also important to remember that dogs need company and should not be left alone all day – they must, however, learn to be left for a period without panic or distress, and this may require training as set out in this guide.
Chief Veterinary Officer, RSPCA
Introducing your dog to its new home
When your rescue dog first arrives, you will spend time getting to know each other. During this period your dog will be forming an impression of where he/she fits in your family group.
From the moment you collect your new dog, it is important that you interact in a way that teaches him/her the basic rules. Your dog needs to learn that it is you who is in charge.
Without the need for any force, shouting or aggression, you must teach your dog that you are more important than he/she is in the family group. You need to control the things that mean a lot to your dog: food, toys and – most importantly – your attention. By maintaining this difference in status, you will develop a positive, consistent relationship between yourself and your dog.
This booklet details five ways in which you can build up a good relationship with your new dog and, at the same time, avoid problems when you leave him/her alone at home.
By following these rules you can make sure that your dog doesn’t become too dependent on you from the outset.
1. Establishing a good initial relationship
Of course we all enjoy spending lots of time playing with and cuddling our dogs. You can spend as much time as you like interacting with your new dog but it is essential that you stick to the following rules.
Initiate all interactions.
Finish all interactions.
These rules mean that you decide when to touch, speak to, or even look at your dog! This doesn’t mean ignoring your dog most of the time, but instead having positive interaction with him/her whenever you choose.
Teaching your dog these rules of interaction will build up a good relationship and will prevent him/her from either becoming over dependent or demanding attention from you.
Rules help to ensure that your dog is confident enough to handle life on his/her own when you are not in the house as well as when you are there physically, but not ‘available’ to give attention.
Rules will also help to prevent your dog from becoming reliant on you for reassurance. If your dog is worried about something, and you always respond by giving attention, he/she may become anxious when left alone.
Toys should be kept in a toy box out of reach.
You decide when your dog gets a toy and when you play together. Your dog can still have some of his/her toys all of the time but you give them out, take them away, and from time to time, provide alternatives.
Your dog should learn that his/her food is under your control.
Ask your dog to perform a task, such as sit, or wait before you give food. Do not feed your dog on demand.
2. Teaching your dog that it’s all right to be alone
Because we do not know the previous history of most dogs in rescue kennels, it is possible that your dog may have shown behaviour problems when left alone in the past. In order to prevent such problems either recurring or developing, you need to teach your dog that being left alone at your house is a pleasant experience – spending time relaxing and doing enjoyable things.
N.B. If you do have to go out and leave your dog for long periods of time as soon as you get him/her, arrange for friends or family to help out for a short while.
Reward your dog for being relaxed when left alone – rewards can be toys, treats, cuddles or praise. If your dog becomes anxious and does not remain quietly in his/her bed, do not offer a reward. Instead, simply go back a stage and try leaving him/her for a shorter period next time.
Repeat each of the following stages until you are sure your dog is happy before progressing. How quickly you progress depends on how well your dog responds.
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3. Prevent your dog from becoming bored when left alone
There are a number of things that you can do to give your dog something to occupy him/herself whilst you are away.
Leave a toy/bone with your dog when you go out. Make sure that this is a ‘special’ toy by only making it available to your dog when you go out or when he/she is separated from you in another room in the house.
Try to leave something that your dog really loves such as a ‘Kong’ stuffed with food (peanut butter or cheese mixed with dog biscuits are usually popular), or a meat-flavoured chew.
Give your dog a treat ball or cube, that you can fill with dried treats, which make your dog work to get them out.
All of these things will give your dog mental stimulation and prevent him/her from becoming bored.
Remember that when you return home, these ‘special’ items should be put away again and only given to your dog when you go out, or when you are in a different room in the house.
4. Feeding and exercise
Your dog will be more inclined to relax when left alone if he/she has had an appropriate amount of exercise and been fed before you go out.
Try to always exercise your dog before leaving him/her. Take your dog for a 30 minute walk, returning home half an hour before you are due to leave.
Feed your dog a small meal half an hour before leaving.
Always ensure that your dog goes to the toilet before being left alone.
5. Avoid all punishment
If your dog misbehaves while you are out, it is vital that you do not react badly when you come home. Separation-related behaviour problems get worse when owners punish their dogs on their return.
Your dog can only link his/her actions with the punishment if the punishment occurs within half a second of the behaviour. This means that punishment will be linked with your return, rather than the destruction, barking or toileting carried out some time previously. Your dog will then become anxious about what you will do when you return the next time he/she is left alone. As a result of this increased anxiety the dog is more likely to chew or lose toilet control, making the problem even worse.
Many dogs who have been punished in the past when their owners returned will show submission in an attempt to appease their owners. They make themselves as small as possible, putting their ears back and their tail between their legs. Unfortunately, owners often think that the dog looks guilty and punish them because they "know they have done wrong". Even if you take your dog to the scene of the crime, he/she will not be able to associate your anger with his/her behaviour hours earlier – your dog will simply become more anxious the next time you go out.
Although it is not easy, if you do find a mess when you come home, it is essential that you never physically punish or shout at your dog. Try to even avoid letting your dog see that you are annoyed – let him/her outside before cleaning up.
The production of this leaflet is a result of work commissioned by the RSPCA and acknowledgements are made to Rachel Casey MRCVS, Emily Blackwell BSc and John Bradshaw PhD.