This is an expanded version of a handout available on The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project website. It may be found here.
If you have ever been in an emergency situation, how did you feel? Were you scared? Did you panic? How did you behave when police, fire or rescue arrived? Were you calm or frenzied?
However, we can rationalize and understand that those oddly dressed people with loud vehicles and flashing lights are here to help. Even if we are in a total panic and getting in the way, we know these people are here to help.
When emergency personnel are called, Rover will be stressed and upset, however, he does not comprehend what is happening like we do. How many dogs associate sirens and uniforms and heavy gear with positive things? It is not always easy for dog owners to socialize and condition dogs to these things – how do we set up for emergency scenarios? How do we get our hands on the equipment that may show up?
Now along with oddly dressed strangers converging, add in fast movements, equipment being brought in, loud voices barking out orders, maybe even family yelling and fighting. How do you feel? Imagine what is happening to Rover. Stressed dogs are more likely to react in ways we do not want. What could happen if a rescuer cannot get to your loved one or an officer feels someone is at risk because of your dog? Safety for emergency personnel who may have to respond to your house begins with you!
Back when my son was in 3rd grade and my daughter in preschool, my husband was in a bad accident at the house. Sarah and I were out socializing a new puppy and were over an hour away with traffic. This meant Connor had to handle the situation for poor Doug on his own. After 911 was called by a passer-by who saw Doug on the ground (Connor was inside and did not hear the fall), Connor immediately secured the dogs who were at home. Even at that age, Connor knew to secure the dogs. The last thing the responding rescuers would need would be two large dogs trying (and possibly succeeding) to break through a glass door or escaping if someone opened the front door. Even though friendly and very well-behaved, in an emergency situation, I know my dogs could respond in ways that could impede rescue. They are dogs after all. No matter how many times I make sirens and people in uniform a positive thing, I know I cannot 100% guarantee how my dogs will behave when the chips are down, some one they love is hurt and strangers are swarming the area. Therefore there are safety protocols in place.
Owners can reduce risk to the dogs and humans by following the ABCs.
A – Alert dispatch to a dog in your home.
B – Before police or emergency crews arrive, get your dog to a safe, secure place where he cannot escape.
C – Call someone to get your dog if needed.
When there is no stress, teach your dog an emergency cue to race to that safe place. In a fun way, encourage your dog to go to this place and BIG reward. Loads of toys and play and such. When the dog willingly and quickly goes to the area, start training in gradually increasing stressed tones. Make these tones the best thing and fun! Remember we may not be able to maintain cool and calm when all heck breaks loose. The dog must learn to go to this place even when we sound upset. This is something a good trainer can assist with.
I never trust mat training (go to and stay on a mat) during stressing situations. The safest place for your dog is behind a secure barrier like a closed door or in a crate. There can be no chance of a dog breaking a stay and investigating or worse.
Lessons must be practiced for the life of a dog. After you learn the lessons, practice and refresh or your dog will forget.
Finally, never let your dog roam loose. What if he decides to visit the emergency down the lane and interferes? Remember, the concern is for the victim. If your dog becomes a nuisance during an emergency, action you do not want may be taken.
Karen Peak is the owner of West Wind Dog Training in Virginia and the creator of The Safe Kids/Safe Dogs Project.