Dogs need us to provide them with safety. Safety as a need and reinforcer for behaviour, and our role in providing it, is vastly under-considered in dog training and what we demand of our dogs throughout their lives.
Dogs need safety:
- in place
- in rituals (including interactions)
- in people
They need us to provide emotional leadership and guidance on how to respond to the environment.
Safety signals are things that tell an animal they are safe.
Examples of things that are safety signals for humans are:
- Teddy Bear
- “Comfort blanket” (or the equivalent for us adults, our favourite big sloppy jumper)
- Your Mum. (whatever age you are!)
Examples of things that are safety signals for dogs:
- Doggy den (crate or bed – or they may choose the sofa as the place where they feel safe!)
- Blanket or something that smells of home or their owner
- Home/the car – familiar places where they spend a lot of time with you
- Their owners
Safety signals need not just be concrete objects or people. They can also be actions, rituals or routines, that help one feel safe. Like shaking hands, or offering someone a cup of tea.
For dogs, asking them to perform an action that they have been taught using reward-based methods, are confident and comfortable in doing, and enjoy doing, such as a Sit, can be a safety signal. Your regular morning or night-time routine with them can be a safety signal.
If the dog doesn’t feel comfortable in the routine, if there are conflicting demands on him, if he feels unsafe or uncertain whether there will be a predictable outcome, it won’t be a safety signal.
Dogs owners and the interactions they have with them can provide signals of safety that help in training.
There is a Welsh word ‘cwtch’ that has no literal translation in English but can be broadly translated as 1) a cupboard or cubby-hole or 2) a hug or cuddle.
The Urban Dictionary describes it is ‘the Welsh word for an affectionate hug. There’s no literal English translation, but its nearest equivalent is “safe place”. So if you give someone a cwtch, you’re giving them a “safe place”.’
Other descriptions given include
‘ Snuggling and cuddling and loving and protecting and safeguarding and claiming, all rolled into one.’
‘A cwtch creates a private safe place in a room or in two peoples hearts.’
Be the cwtch for your dog
To read further about the use of safety signals in animal training:
McGreevy, P. D., Henshall, C., Starling, M. J., McLean, A. N., & Boakes, R. A. (2014). The importance of safety signals in animal handling and training.Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9(6), 382-387.
Payne, E., Boot, M., Starling, M., Henshall, C., McLean, A., Bennett, P., & McGreevy, P. (2015). Evidence of horsemanship and dogmanship and their application in veterinary contexts. The Veterinary Journal, 204(3), 247-254.