Calming Shelter Dogs

Michael Baugh, CPDT-KA, CDBC

Sometimes the best thing you can do for a shelter dog’s emotional well being is nothing at all. But, please don’t misunderstand. “Nothing” in this case doesn’t mean neglect. If fact, this kind of “doing nothing” takes a great deal of attention and patience.

Dogs in shelters live under a great deal of stress and constant stimulation. People are coming and going. The lights are on for long hours. Dogs are barking and jumping and pacing. It’s a heartbreaking cacophony to those of us who work and volunteer in shelters. For the dogs it’s nightmarish. And it leads to progressive behavioral deterioration.

It’s no wonder so many of these dogs are frenetic when we take them out of their runs. They jump on us with apparent glee. They wiggle and wag and pant. Their excitement is over-the-top. We’ve all seen this before. They are filled with joy to be out of there and interacting with us. That much is true. The trouble is they are so aroused by their environment that they have no idea how to control themselves around people. They look crazy. It’s no wonder. They live crazy lives.

Because we care and because we love them, many of us reflect their joy and excitement right back at them. We pet them; tussle their ears and talk our sweetest most energetic baby talk. Then we trot them out for potty time and exercise. There’s no real harm in that. We’re only human after all. But are we doing any good? Is this dog learning how to live in a home with a family? Or is he just learning to freak out and jump with exuberance on every new person he meets?

I know. Those are hard questions to ask ourselves.

Let’s try this instead and see how it works. Behave the way you want the dog to behave. It turns out that dogs are very good at reading our body language, facial expressions and overall emotional tone. Be calm and project that calm onto the dog. Take him out of his run quietly, with a gentle hello. Walk outside at a normal pace. It’s okay if he’s jumping and pulling. This is new and he’s been living the bad version of la vida loca. Patience. Once he’s gone potty find a nice place to sit and quietly give him focused attention. Exercise is a good thing, but shelter dogs need quiet “down time” more than anything. And if it’s with a human being (you) all the better. Just sit quietly and observe. Breathe. Loosen your shoulders. Wait for the dog to calm with you. This may take a while. Say nothing.

If the dog looks at you, smile and in a gentle cooing voice say “good.” When you pet him, do so gently and slowly. You’ll find it’s very easy to accidentally get him wound up again. That’s okay. Start over. Once he starts to calm again, whisper “good boy” or “very nice.” The words are less important than the sound of them, soft and relaxing. Imagine the dog laying down at your feet, drifting into the first relaxing moment he’s had all week. Pet with long gentle strokes, no scratching or tussling. Good. Treats for eye contact, sitting or laying down are fine. But you might notice food is arousing to the dog as well.

This calming technique is great for dogs in foster care or ones freshly adopted from shelters. It’s a perfect way to just chill out with a dog who’s otherwise been wound up all day. I do it with my own dog. And I recommend it for every dog you visit at the shelter. If you’re lucky enough to interact with the same dog more than once, see if you notice a change in his reaction to you. Most adopting families want a dog who can settle down and do nothing with them. And sure enough, that’s exactly what you’re teaching your shelter dogs. Do nothing. And enjoy.