Your Dog’s Happy Place: the Sanctuary Space
A sanctuary space, also called a safe zone, is a room or space where your dog can feel safe and secure during worrisome events. It can help reduce fear, anxiety, and stress, and decrease reactivity.
Why set one up?
It’s important to have a place your dog finds safe and comforting. The sanctuary space is a safe zone; it’s the perfect place for your dog to hang out when other activities in the home may be upsetting or too arousing for your dog. Examples may include:
- visitors entering your home and your dog is barking and reactive, or excited and jumping
- a new baby is coming
- your kid’s playmates are coming over
- a repairman is scheduled
- a storm (or other noise event) is predicted
This special place can provide an important break for your dog to calm down and be less stressed.
Where to set up the Sanctuary Space
Choose a room or space that allows your dog the ability to smell and hear many household activities, but without being in the thick of things. Ideally, choose a space that he already enjoys and chooses to use. Provide fresh water, meals, edible toys, and comfy bedding for your dog in the sanctuary space (SS).
The sanctuary space can be created with:
- Any room your dog already uses or likes such as a bedroom, or laundry room.
- A baby gate. This option allows you to confine your dog to a low-traffic room adjacent to family activity.
- A crate. If your dog is already housetrained, consider using a larger crate for extra space and comfort.
- An exercise pen. It is easy to fold up to carry or store and can be placed where desired.
How to begin teaching it
- Once a day, every day, place her in the sanctuary space with a food toy filled with fabulous food.
- You can use a baby gate or a closed door to confine her. Baby gates can be great because they allow the dog to see out while still keeping her confined and people safe.
- First, leave the baby gate down. Do this for several days until it is a habit for her to be in that space enjoying a wonderful toy. If she brings the toy out of the room, consider securing the toy, not your dog to something so that she can only enjoy it in that room.
Tips for your dog’s specific issue
If you are using the sanctuary because of reactivity or excitement toward visitors:
- The space should be away from the front door.
- Place your dog in the space before the visitors are due to arrive.
- Play music or white noise to decrease the sound of the people entering your house.
- Provide a food toy filled with high-value food.
- Have a comfy bed available.
- You can either close the door or use a baby gate. Some dogs do better if you start with a baby gate.
If your dog is afraid of noises such as fireworks or storms, the sanctuary space can be any area in which your dog feels comfortable. For example, if your dog wants to hide out in a closet in the bedroom, allow that.
- Ideally, choose a room with few or no windows.
- Close the shades to block light flashes.
- Play music or white noise to help drown out the sounds.
- Give your dog a Kong filled with the yummiest food to keep your dog occupied.
- Provide a comfy bed.
- You will not lock your dog in this space. You want it prepared ahead of time so that your dog will learn to choose it when it’s needed for a scary event.
- Consult your veterinarian for medications that can be given before the noise event to help your dog relax.
- Keep track of the weather via apps such as the Weather Channel to know in advance what to expect.
- Try noise-canceling products such as Rex Specs Ear Pros (https://www.rexspecs.com/products/ear-pro).
Troubleshooting barking or whining:
- Provide your dog with plenty of aerobic exercise each day. A tired dog is a calmer dog.
- Always provide safe, edible chew toys in the safety zone, such as stuffed Kongs.
- Choose a spot for the safety zone near family activities and near your sleeping area at night. Dogs are social creatures and should not be isolated.
- If you’re using a crate, you can cover most of it with a light sheet or towel from the start (allow air flow).
- Ignore whining or it will escalate. A much more effective strategy is to prevent it to begin with by following a conditioning plan closely.
- Feed your dog all her meals in the sanctuary space.
- Give food or treats in food-dispensing toys and let her figure out how to get them.
- Give her a stuffed, frozen Kong in the SS or any special food toy that will be long-lasting.
- Consider a remote treat dispenser such as the Furbo.
- Between meals, when your dog is not watching, sprinkle a few outrageously good treats in the SS. Let her find the treats as a surprise in her own good time.
- Offer your dog her favorite edible toy in the SS, then go take a shower, pay the bills, or check the mail. Start with five-minute-long activities, gradually increasing the time your dog is confined each time you practice.
- Track your dog’s behavior by watching over a camera placed in the room. You want to see calm behavior, not excessive worry or stress. (You can Facetime your dog by placing one device in the room and watching over another. Put it on mute in your dog’s space.)
- For pet-calming music, try Zoundz Music for Pets.