Roadmap for rovers: Helping dogs cope and stay safe in larger social settings

This week high streets in England are welcoming customers back, with restaurants and bars able to operate outdoors, in accordance with the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown. While this is great news, we are urging dog owners to prepare now so they can keep their dogs safe and happy during this next stage of lockdown easing.

Rachel Casey, Director of Canine Behaviour and Research, said:

“As the hustle and bustle of life starts to return, and the streets get busier with people doing more socialising outdoors, it is important that we don’t drop the ball when it comes to our dog’s wellbeing and safety. Whether you plan on bringing your dog with you when out socialising, or you expect to leave them at home for a little while, this transition is likely to be difficult for them if they have been used to being at home with you for so long during lockdown.”

If you are socialising more outdoors and are planning to take your dog with you, the key is to build up gradually; making sure your dog is relaxed and happy with a few people and dogs about before you take them somewhere busy. By keeping them close to you, relaxed and with their attention on you, this will also help them cope with new things, as well as avoiding the risk of them wandering off and getting into potentially hazardous situations.

Teaching them to ‘settle’ in advance will make taking them to a pub or café much easier. Start this training at home to start with, where there are no distractions, so they can learn more easily what is expected. Building up the training in progressively more exciting environments will help you get to the point of having a calm relaxed dog sitting at your feet in a busy summer café.

Teaching your dog to settle

The aim of this training is for dogs to ‘learn for themselves’ that lying down relaxed next to you is the best thing to do. Watch the video to learn how to teach the settle (link), or follow the advice below: 

  • Sit quietly on a chair with your dog on a loose lead and a blanket or mat on the floor. Drop tiny bite-size treats to your dog as a reward for settling down on the blanket. Don’t say anything to your dog while doing this.
  • Gradually reward more relaxed behaviours. This will vary between dogs – some will automatically start lying down so you can quickly progress to rewarding your dog only for this behaviour.
  • Then move on to reward specific signs of relaxing like sighing, weight shifting and head resting.
  • Some dogs will take longer and might struggle to stop pulling on the lead or staring at you. If this is the case with your dog, you’ll need to take things more slowly by rewarding behaviours such as standing quietly, disengaging from people or sniffing their blanket.
  • Always make sure your dog is having a good time when settling, whether enjoying their toys, chews, or simply dozing and snoozing!
  • When your dog is relaxed, start increasing the time they must be settled before you reward them. Gradually build up by a couple of seconds each time over multiple training sessions.
  • Once your dog starts to get the hang of it and is shifting their weight so they’re comfortable and relaxed, you can start practising with them off lead. You need your dog to learn that they can settle whether they’re on or off their lead – useful skills for a lot of different situations.
  • Slowly start building up distractions by practising the ‘settle’ initially in familiar quiet surroundings and then in increasingly busy areas or ask a helper to create a distraction by walking past, progressing to more exciting activities like sweeping or skipping.
  • If your dog becomes unsettled or gets up, ignore them and wait until they settle again before rewarding them. If they won’t relax and settle, increase the distance from the distraction or make the distraction less interesting.
  • Once your dog has learnt the basic objective of being settled, try training in different locations with more distractions.
  • Try to resist telling your dog what to do during training, the aim is for them to learn for themselves to be calm and to relax. This is a form of learning that requires your dog to learn to settle without needing to be asked.

If you are unlikely to take your dog with you when out and about, it is important they are content being left on their own for a short period of time; if not, they may become distressed and begin showing unwanted behaviours. Dogs Trust has useful information on their website on how to help prevent your dog developing separation anxiety.

One of the most common reasons for dogs coming into our care is behaviour related issues, which is why we want to help ‘change the tale’ for as many dogs as possible, so they remain in happy homes. As well as providing training videos and advice, Dogs Trust’s Dog School has been able to continue running training classes online while face-to-face classes have been paused during lockdown, meaning dogs and their owners can still learn through virtual classes to equip themselves with skills they can put into practice as normality returns.

With reports of dog theft increasing across the UK during lockdown, since the beginning of 2021, traffic to the ‘Dog Theft’ page on our website has increased by 780% compared to the same period in 2020. While this page highlights safety measures* dog owners can take to keep their pets safe, by ensuring dogs are brushed up on skills such as recall and settling, dog owners can potentially avoid creating an opening for opportunists looking to steal pets while out in public.

Dogs Trust Dog School has supported around 2,500 dog owners through their online classes in the first three months of 2021 alone. For more information and to book your dog or puppy onto a virtual set of training classes, visit Online training videos can also be found