The dog blanket as an island of safety
The most important thing to do when your greyhound comes into your home for the first time is to prepare a safe and quiet place for him where he can relax and sleep.
A place of his very own, where he can withdraw from the world and from people, away from everything and everyone, a place where nothing and nobody can disturb him and where he feels safe and protected. To have a safe place is a fundamental need which all dogs have, and everyone must to be aware of this and respect it.
This place is usually the dog’s bed.
For dogs who live in an apartment this is usually a big cushion, or a padded dog bed (with edges or borders), or a canvas dog bed or small mattress, on which a blanket, rug or throw is placed.
In this article we will be using the words dog bed/ cushion/mattress etc in an interchangeable way.
We suggest that you always put a blanket or throw on top of the cushion, dog bed or mattress, because that blanket can then be used as the dog’s own ‘safety blanket’ when you’re out and about with him, for instance at the homes of friends, at a restaurant, in a hotel, on a boat, in a campervan or wherever.
To give your dog a clear reference point, where he can rest and withdraw from the world, helps him to integrate into the domestic environment and home circle (made up of his human family and maybe other pets too), and teaches him how to manage periods of rest and periods of activity in the right way, and equally importantly how to calmly accept being separated from us when we go out, and how to experience with serenity the times when he is alone.
It will only be possible for your dog to accept his bed and blanket as a safe place which he associates with being calm, if you let him have experiences in which he associates the bed or blanket with positive feelings of calm, tranquility, safety and fulfilment.
Dogs experience the world through learning processes called ‘anchors’, with which they associate a situation or an event or a stimulus with a positive emotional state.
So we need to teach our greyhound that his bed or blanket is a source of relaxation and protection, associating it exclusively with feelings of calm and relaxation.
How do we do that?
In 5 steps
1. Putting the cushion/blanket in the right place.
It shouldn’t be anywhere too isolated in the house, but neither should it be near entrances or passing places. It should be in a safe place, with an appropriate and stable temperature, always quiet at all times of day. Not just the place itself but also the material the cushion or blanket is made of can have an important role to play. Observe your dog’s tastes and choose a material which is not like the objects he normally plays with.
We invite you to read the our article about choosing the right place entitled Working on Developing Calm: https://www.petlevrieri.it/en/2013/11/01/working-on-developing-calm/
2. Do not disturb!
The cushion/blanket/safe place must be respected by everyone in the family, humans and pets, adults and children, in the same way that we require our own beds and resting times to be respected. This means that when the dog is on his cushion we should not disturb him or stimulate him – not even by cuddling or stroking him – and this should be strictly adhered to in the first stages of settling in. If you want to cuddle or stroke him or invite him to interact with you in any way, don’t go to his cushion but call him to you, invite him to get up and come to you.
3. Never use the dog bed/blanket/cushion as a place of punishment.
You should never punish the dog by telling him to ‘go to his basket’ or to his bed or on his blanket, to avoid him associating his safe place with something very unpleasant. Also you should not use his bed/cushion to carry out cleaning or medicating routines, nor should you use his blanket to dry him with.
4. Connect the blanket/cushion/dog bed with something positive for the dog
In order to help your dog choose his cushion as a reference point, in the early days praise and reward him when he goes there of his own accord and to rest there. In some cases it may even be necessary to reward him just for looking at it.
The next step is to reward him when he is calm and settled on his cushion. In order to do that, pay attention to the whole body language of your dog because it is essential to reward his positive emotional state and not his physical posture. For instance, a dog might be sitting or even lying down on his cushion but be in a visible state of anxiety or restlessness.
How do we reward a state of calm connected to the cushion?
Proceed as follows:
As soon as your dog is relaxed or is going the right way about it, pass close by him – taking care to approach him sideways (not head-on) and following a circular trajectory, in a slow and relaxed way – and drop, place near him or offer him a treat and then ignore him again. The idea is not to rouse the dog when giving him the treat. If he gets up and starts to follow you – which can happen in the early stages of this kind of work – just ignore him.
5. Try to increase the beneficial and calming effects of the cushion and blanket by using positive reinforcements.
Reward him every now and again for being calm on his cushion/blanket by giving him a treat as in point 4.
If, for example, you are used to playing with your dog after his nap, you could start doing this even before he gets up: by associating a whole series of happy moments and pleasurable actions (such as strokes and massages) with his cushion, this will become the best place for him to rest and relax.
The important thing is to keep the playing at an intermediate level of arousal (not too exciting) and for it to encourage pleasant emotions.
Only on this basis can the cushion/blanket become a transitional tool able to guide your dog towards a state of calm even in an unfamiliar environment. In fact this kind of associative work with the cushion/blanket will also help you as a first step when getting the dog used to being separated from you, which is an important objective both for adult dogs who may suffer from separation anxiety and for puppies, who need to gradually become more autonomous.
To do this, you need to work slowly in stages, first rewarding the dog for staying quietly on his cushion while you move away but remain in the same room, then going back to him while moving around the various rooms in the house.
Alongside this, you could also introduce some little ‘separations’ within the house itself, by going into a room – e.g. the bathroom – and closing the door.
Once you’ve consolidated this work on the cushion/blanket indoors and you are satisfied that your dog associates it with feelings of calm and relaxation, then it can be used as a kind of portable ‘island of safety’.
You can take it with you when you go to the restaurant (translator’s note: dogs are allowed in restaurants in Italy) or when visiting the homes of friends. It will become a positive ‘marker’ (i.e. an anchoring object associated with something positive) which will induce a state of calm and make it clear to the dog that he will be stopping in that place for a while.
This will significantly increase the dog’s ability to feel at home in different environments, as he will be able to find his comfort zone even outside the home.
Indeed many dogs, when they are outside the home, never lie down quietly and relax but are constantly trying to interact with their owner or the people around them, who they try to engage with by barking or whining to attract attention.
This state of restlessnesss can be contained if the dog can find his blanket/cushion there for him even in an unfamiliar environment, so he can settle down while waiting for whatever activity his owner will engage him in next.
By Stefania Traini Translated by Isobel Deeley