Most of us in animal welfare have a pretty negative conditioned emotional response to the word “tether.” It evokes images of emaciated dogs in filthy yards attached to heavy chains. In most cities, animal laws preclude owners from keeping their dogs on tie-downs, with good reason. This is, without doubt, an inhumane way to contain a social species. Isolation equals punishment for most dogs. But thanks to organizations like The Coalition to Unchain Dogs, dogs all over the country are getting off chains, romping around in their yards, and staying in their homes.
Apart from concerns about isolation and under-stimulation, tethering can also lead to barrier frustration. When dogs are unable to investigate stimuli that interest them because their movement is restricted, frustration ensues. Over time, they can begin to develop a negative association with those stimuli, which they were previously simply curious about.
All this considered, I am a fan of the thoughtful use of tie-downs in some situations. I’m currently working with a family on integrating a new foster dog into their home. Two of their three resident dogs (Porter and Shelley) are relatively dog-social, and easily accepted the new addition after a week or so of structured interactions. We used baby gates to keep everyone safe, and rewarded the two resident dogs for orienting toward the new kid, building positive associations with his presence. After some parallel walks and refereed play sessions, the three hit it off famously.
Their third dog, Dusty, needed some more time. Dusty has a lot of training under his belt, so he was able to stay under threshold and practice impulse control behaviors with the new foster, Mushy, in close proximity. But he had a hard time switching from “training mode” to “just being” with Mr. Mush, so we needed to tweak our plan.
After some parallel walking with Dusty and Mushy, we allowed Dusty to smell Mushy in a very structured way. Different dogs, but this video demos how to do butt sniffs:
We were conservative and only allowed Dusty to smell for about a second. Then we happy talked him away and continued walking. When we got back inside, we practiced some matwork with both dogs leashed, rewarding Dusty for looking at Mushy and disengaging. The boys were tired from their walk, so they settled quickly.
So how to move from “training mode” to just hanging out together? This is where tie-downs are our friends. They allow the dogs to settle in close proximity and habituate to one another without having a human standing over them with a bait pouch loaded with stinky high-value treats. To be clear: There is nothing wrong with rewarding dogs frequently for controlling their impulses while they’re together. In fact, it is a wise first step in integrating dogs. But with Dusty and Mushy, we needed to practice settling without Dusty feeling threatened by Mushy getting too close too fast. So tie-downs bridge that gap.
A heavy-duty eyelet screwed into a wood baseboard is a safe way to tether dogs indoors. We do not recommend attaching big strong dogs to furniture or anything unfixed. In the early stages, the leash should only be long enough for the dogs to lie down comfortably, and turn around. They need about as much range of movement as they would have in a crate. They also need a comfy bed to rest on.
But what about barrier frustration? Isn’t this setting the dogs up to lunge toward each other and get even more agitated? It certainly could, if not done thoughtfully. There are a few prerequisites to using tie-downs:
- Tie-downs are a PORTION of a systematic plan in integrating dogs. They should never be used exclusively.
- Before using them, the dogs should have lots of practice doing impulse-control behaviors like down-stays in close proximity. They should also have some practice settling on a mat or bed separate from one another. My favorite way to build this is to work Karen Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation.
- The first few times you tether the dogs, do so after some parallel walking. After having a chance to interact in a structured way and burn off some of the initial steam, the dogs will be much more likely to settle.
- Think of the tie-down as an extra measure of safety, not as a means of containing the dogs. If either of the dogs are pulling against it, work the relaxation protocol mentioned above.
This is where Dusty and Mushy are now. We will systematically make it more difficult by decreasing distance and adding movement to the settling work. We will also continue parallel walking and rewarding impulse control behaviors in close proximity. We’re confident that Dusty will learn to enjoy Mushy’s presence. He’s an adult dog who has a history of bonding with fosters who have come and gone in his home. We just have to move at his pace.
All that said, this is a lot of work. It certainly isn’t for everyone. But Mushy’s foster parents are dog-savvy, compliant and committed to making this work. And that’s a recipe for success. Much thanks to Margaret and Christopher Esposito for allowing us to learn from their experience. And don’t forget, the little hunk Mushy will soon be available for adoption. 🙂