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The Nothing Exercise

Many dogs that end up in the shelter system are there because they were unsuccessful house pets. This may be because they were never given the chance to be a successful house pet and were instead left outside tethered or in a pen. For others, they were simply not successful and their behavior landed them in a shelter. By spending time in a kennel, these dogs will not magically learn to become successful house pets. If anything, kenneling works against the house pet.

To be a successful house pet, 90% of a dog’s time will be spent indoors, with a human, doing absolutely nothing. This isn’t a sub-standard dog owner—this is real life. Not every minute can be spent in exercising and training. Most of a companion dog’s time is spent indoors doing absolutely nothing.

On the shelter arousal scale, where 100 equals aneurysm and 0 equals sleep, the only times shelter dogs see humans, the scale tips at close to or at 100. At the shelter, any time spent in the presence of a human is either an activity (volunteers walk and work with the dogs; grooming, medical attention, etc.) or a frustrating and arousing event, such as feeding time, cleaning, or, god forbid, walking one dog down the kennel aisle. I think that after a couple weeks in a kennel, the average shelter dog, even the previously successful indoor pet, will equate humans with arousal/activity.


What you will need:

  1. A quiet, indoor area. If there is no quiet, indoor area available, a bathroom will do. (A toilet makes a nice seat and you don’t have to pull your pants down to sit on it!)
  2. A leash
  3. A blanket or a couple of towels for use as bedding

Goal: To teach the dog to settle down, relax and take a nap in the presence of a human.

To Train:

  1. Go into the kennels and select any highly aroused dog.
  2. Bring the dog to your quiet indoor area.
  3. Place the bedding at the foot of your chair or seat.
  4. Gather the leash into neat pleats until most of it is folded, accordion-like, into your hands, and you are grasping the leash about 12 inches from where the leash meets the dog’s neck, giving him very little room to wander.
  5. Tuck your hands between your knees and lock your knees together. Wait and look out into space.
  6. Ignore EVERYTHING the dog does. Luckily, he can’t do very much. If he tries to jump on you, he doesn’t have enough leash to go very far, and if he chews at your feet or shoes, just tighten up on the leash a bit until he stops chewing, then let out whatever extra slack you took in when he started.
  7. AS SOON as the dog lies down, lean over, look lovingly at him, stroke the length of his back slowly and firmly, and tell him he’s a “very, very fine dog”. If he remains lying down (I doubt it for the first few times…) do this only for the count of one full second before discontinuing the petting and returning to a fully upright and seated position. I can pretty much guarantee that as soon as you lean over and touch him, the dog will get up and act unruly again. If he does, immediately sit up, keep that leash tucked between your knees, and look away.
  8. As soon as the dog lies down again, and he will, faster this time, repeat as above.
  9. If and when he REMAINS settled, lying down and calm while you are petting him, and still remains so after you sit back up and stop petting, reach down and resume petting.
  10. Whenever YOU want to terminate, wait until the dog is settled, and say, “okay” in a calm, quiet voice, stand up and move away.

Your inclination will be to want to ignore the dog when he settles, since it feels like it is ruining the moment of calm. It is not true. In fact, this is just the lesson the shelter dog needs to learn.

Most shelter dogs have spent a lifetime getting more attention for misbehaving—like getting chased when they steal a pillow, or yelled at when they are chewing a shoe, or even touched to get them to stop jumping up or mouthing. Most shelter dogs never got any attention for behaving nicely. Most owners, so relieved that their perpetually misbehaving dog is finally napping, tiptoe around the house and ignore the dog behaving exactly as they really wish.

You do not want to stroke the dog continuously while he is settled. Try for one second, then discontinue and sit up. If he remains, bend back down and repeat. Gradually, you can ask the dog to settle for longer and longer periods before getting attention from you. Sometimes vary the attention with just verbal coaching, “that’s a fine dog, gooooood dog,” instead of always touching him.

Resist the temptation to potty or exercise the dog before doing this exercise. Real dogs in real successful homes, don’t always get the chance to relieve their bladders or tire themselves out before they are asked to settle and do absolutely nothing. Nothing could be more vital to the success of this shelter dog’s ultimate chance for a successful placement than teaching him these skills, even if he is mildly uncomfortable at times.

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