Earl's Diary

Safe spaces


Every dog needs a safe space, somewhere he can go where he feels secure and stress-free. Earl’s safe space has always been our bed. My husband and I always laughed when he stood on the pillows, usually by 10 pm, and barked as if to say “Hey! It’s past my bedtime! Where are you?” Sometimes, he would attempt to lead us to bed by staring at us in the living room, then running into the bedroom, waiting for us. If we didn’t follow, he’d come back to his starting point and try again.

For the past few months, Earl’s safe space has been source of stress – not because it’s no longer his safe space, but because he has difficulty settling anywhere else. Since the beginning of his cognitive decline, he struggles to relax from afternoon onward. Typically, his restlessness begins around 2 pm and doesn’t abate until bedtime. During this time, he will engage with puzzle toys, chew on bones, and play training games, but he cannot sit still. If he tries to nap, he typically resumes his pacing after 5-10 minutes, or quickly jumps up mid-nap, as if startled.

Initially, I thought I could “fix” this problem through training. I timed out Earl’s demand barking for bed. I ramped up his enrichment and exercise. I played soothing music in our living room. I placed several fluffy blankets on the floor and sofa, hoping to replicate the softness of bed. Despite these efforts, Earl’s pacing and restlessness continued. And because of my focus on fixing Earl’s behavior, I became increasingly burnt out.

What I now realize is that I was approaching the situation from the wrong perspective. I cannot approach Earl’s dementia symptoms with a “fix it” paradigm. Instead, I have to adjust my behavior and the environment to reduce his stress and help his body and mind relax.

After all, if Earl was experiencing difficulty reaching his water bowl, I wouldn’t create a training plan to help him bend over to drink. I would simply elevate his water bowl to accommodate his aging body. I need to approach Earl’s pacing and restlessness in the same way: Accept and accommodate, not resist and fix.

Earl received his diagnosis last week and since then, I’ve worked hard to change the way I approach my care for him. When he paces, his body is stressed. Even if he’s working on a puzzle toy or a bone, I know that he’s experiencing an underlying restlessness that abates once I sit with him in bed. His demand barking for bed is a request for time in his safe space, not simply a nuisance behavior. My primary job isn’t to address the demand barking, or to entertain him until he’s too tired to pace.

My job is to address his underlying need to feel safe.

I’ve begun proactively sitting with Earl in his safe space during scheduled times, particularly times he has been displaying restless behavior. Instead of trying to tire him out with hours of puzzle toys and exercise, I give him play time, followed by guiding him to bed so he can rest (which he does, beautifully, once he snuggles into his favorite spot). When he wakes up, I engage him in a puzzle toy or some form of exercise, and then encourage him to rest again in his safe space. My goals are a reduction in pacing, a reduction in stress, and a scheduled routine that helps him feel safe and calm.

My mantra for this new chapter with Earl: Accept and accommodate to create a safe space for his mind and body.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.