- Examining factors that affect the training environment
- Influencing your dog’s ability to learn
- Recognizing your dog’s emotional and physical needs
- Evaluating your dog’s response to his environment
- Dealing with your dog’s stress
Your dog’s ability — just like your ability — to learn and retain information is directly related to what goes on around him and how he feels. A noisy and distraction-filled environment makes it difficult for Buddy to concentrate on learning new commands. Strife in the household may cause Buddy to become irritable, even aggressive — feelings that impede the learning process. Even what you feed your dog has an effect on his ability to learn.
Similarly, how Buddy feels, both mentally and physically, influences his ability to learn. If he feels anxious, depressed, or stressed, learning and retention decrease in direct proportion to the degree of the dog’s distress. If he is physically ill or in pain, he can’t learn what you’re trying to teach him.
These observations are stating the obvious — just think how you’d react under similar circumstances — and yet we need to point them out in this chapter because dog owners seem to be oblivious to their effect on the dog’s ability to learn.
Managing Your Dog’s Environment
Your dog has a keen perception of his environment. Continuous or frequent strife or friction in your household can have a negative impact on your dog’s ability to learn. Many dogs are also adversely affected by excessive noise and activity and may develop behavior problems.
Look for the following signs that your dog has a negative perception of his environment:
Under these circumstances, learning is reduced — if it takes place at all — or the lesson won’t be retained. However, if you also have a keen perception of how your dog responds to his environment, your training goals will be more easily attained. This section provides some tips on creating for your dog the best possible environment for learning.
Starting on the right foot
You’ve heard the saying “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” You also know that the first impression leaves the most lasting impact. The stronger that impression, the longer it lasts.
Introductions to new experiences need to be as pleasant as possible. For example, Buddy’s first visit to the vet needs to be a pleasant experience, or he’ll have an unpleasant association with going to the vet. Have the doctor give him a dog treat before his examination and another treat at the end of the visit.
The importance of making a good first impression applies to your dog’s training as well. A particularly traumatic or unpleasant first experience can literally ruin a dog for life. The object is to make your dog’s first impression of training as pleasant as you can.
Recognizing your dog’s social needs
Dogs are social animals that don’t do well being isolated. For example, if you work, you likely have to leave your dog alone at home. Then when you get home, your dog is terribly excited and wants to play and be with you. But you may also go out in the evening, leaving your dog alone again.
Sometimes, your dog retaliates. In our younger (and more socially active) days, we had a lovely, well-trained Collie named Duke. Both of us worked, and we frequently went out in the evening. If we went out three days in a row, Duke would urinate on our bed. It took us a while to figure out this pattern; we solved the problem by not going out three days in a row, or by taking Duke with us.
Daycare centers for dogs are being established in many communities. You can leave your dog for the day without having to feel guilty about not giving him time to socialize. If you simply don’t have the time to give your dog the attention he craves, consider finding a daycare center for your dog. Their popularity is proof of the need for these services. Your dog will spend his day playing and interacting with other dogs and having a good time. Perhaps the best feature, depending on your perspective, is that when you pick up Buddy on your way home, he’ll be too tired to make many demands on you. In addition to keeping Buddy entertained and amused, many dog daycare facilities provide other services such as bathing, grooming, and training.
A potential downside of doggie daycare is that Buddy may think it’s playtime whenever he meets another dog, making him hard to control around other dogs. Other potential downsides are possible exposure to disease and parasites, trauma due to inexperienced handling by daycare personnel, and personal liability for Buddy’s actions.
Just like with any behavior, when it comes to exercise, your dog has a certain amount of energy. After Buddy has expended that energy, he is tired, and tired dogs have happy owners. If that energy isn’t expended, it may redirect itself into barking, chewing, digging, house soiling, self-mutilation, and similar behaviors — clearly not what you have in mind for the well-trained pet.
Identifying your dog’s emotional needs
Whether dogs have emotional needs depends on whether you accept that dogs have emotions. We believe they do, and here are some of them:
You can see your dog exhibit some of these emotions, such as joy and happiness, on a daily basis, but what about sadness and depression? Dogs react with the same emotions that people have with the loss of a loved one, be it a member of the family or another dog.
For the last 30 years, we’ve always had more than one dog, at times as many as ten. When one of them passed on, there’s no question that those closest to that dog experienced grief. We had a brother and sister pair of Landseers named Cato and Cassandra. When Cassandra died, Cato showed all the signs of clinical depression.
Cassandra died when Cato was 7 years old and had been retired from a very successful dog-show career. Because Cato really enjoyed pre-show training and going to dog shows, we started showing him all over in Canada to get him out of his depression. And it worked. He competed for another three years and finally retired for good at the age of 10.
How can you tell whether your dog is experiencing any of these negative emotions? Pretty much the way you can tell with a person. If your dog mopes around the house, doesn’t seem to enjoy activities he previously enjoyed, is lethargic, isn’t particularly interested in food, and sleeps a lot, chances are he’s depressed. Under those circumstances, he may not feel much like training.
We sometimes see dogs with anxiety, apprehension, and fear — behaviors that can be hereditary, situational, or caused by some physical ailment. Whatever the cause, to train such a dog requires a great deal of patience and an understanding of how difficult it is for him to learn. On the other hand, the rewards are significant because through the structure of training, the dog’s confidence is increased, sometimes to the point where these behaviors disappear altogether.
Feeding your dog’s nutritional needs
The most important influence on your dog’s ability to learn, and the one under your most immediate control, is what you feed him. Because feeding is so important, we devote a separate chapter to this topic (see Chapter Feeding Your Dog
For the well-trained dog, you need to become familiar with what foods are available and what’s best for your dog. So many dog foods are on the market today that making the correct choice for Buddy can be a bewildering task. Just as you do when buying food for yourself or your family, you need to look at the ingredients. Dogs are carnivores and need animal protein. Select a food that lists an animal protein, such as chicken, beef, or lamb, in the first three ingredients. Avoid foods containing a lot of filler. When it seems that more comes out of your dog’s rear end than went into the front end, you can safely bet the food contains more filler than protein.
Managing the Dog Within
Besides the principal influences on your dog’s ability to learn that are under your control, there are influences that come with your dog, such as
- Breed-specific behaviors
- Mental sensitivity
- Responses to visual stimuli
- Sound sensitivity
- Touch sensitivity
All these things affect how the dog learns, what he finds difficult, and what comes almost naturally.
Whether you have a designer dog — a dog of mixed origin — or a purebred, he comes with breed-specific behaviors, such as hunting or herding, among others. These behaviors, in turn, have been further refined. Some dogs hunt large game, others hunt small game, and yet others hunt birds. Some hunt close by, and others hunt far away. Some herd and guard, and others just herd; some were developed to herd cows, and others, sheep. You get the picture.
There are many different breeds of dogs. The American Kennel Club (AKC), the main governing body of dogdom, recognizes 153 different breeds, but many others aren’t recognized.
These breeds are divided into seven groups, largely based on behavioral similarities. Some of these breeds are fairly close cousins, whereas others are as different as night and day. (There’s also a Miscellaneous Class for newly accepted breeds.)
For example, Group VII, the Herding Group, includes the Belgian Malinois, the Belgian Sheepdog, and the Belgian Tervuren, which are closely related. It also includes the two Welsh Corgis, the Cardigan, and the Pembroke, which have no resemblance to any of the other dogs in that group but in turn are related to one another. The most obvious difference between the two is that the Cardigan has a tail, and the Pembroke’s tail is docked. Appearance aside, what all the dogs in that group share in common is the instinct to herd. In addition, many of them share the instinct to guard. The German Shepherd, for example, is a member of that group.
Table 9-1 shows the various groups.
Table 9-1 American Kennel Club Dog Groups
Type of Dog
Sporting dogs — Pointers, Retrievers, Setters, and Spaniels
Working dogs — includes sled and draft dogs, water dogs, and guard dogs
Toys — from Affenpinscher to Yorkshire Terrier
Nonsporting dogs — sort of a catchall category for those that don’t fit into any of the other groups
Herding dogs — those that herd, some of which also guard
Because the dogs in a given group, with the exception of Group VI, are there because of common behavioral traits, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s going to be easy for your dog and what’s going to be hard. Most terriers, for example, are lively little dogs because they were bred to go after little furry things that live in holes in the ground. (See Figure 9-1.) Shetland Sheepdogs like to round up kids, because they were bred to herd. Pointers are bred to finger the game, Retrievers to bring it back, Spaniels to flush it, and so on, each one with its own special talents.
Because dogs were bred to work with or under the direction of man, these talents help with your training efforts. But sometimes the dog’s instinct to do what he was bred for is what gets him into trouble today. Put another way, you may not want him hunting or herding or whatever. So some of your training efforts are spent in redirecting these behaviors. Whenever you run into a roadblock in your training, ask yourself, “Is that what this dog was bred to do?” If not, it will take him more time to learn that particular exercise, and you have to be patient.
Figure 9-1: The Parson Russell Terrier is a small, lively dog.
Most people readily agree that good temperament is the most important quality for pets. Unfortunately, the explanation of exactly what good temperament means is often vague and elusive, and sometimes contradictory. The official breed standard of most breeds makes a statement to the effect that the dog you’re considering is loyal, loving, intelligent, good with children, and easy to train. If only it were true!
Simply defined, temperament is having the personality traits suitable for the job you want the dog to do. If you want your dog to be good with children, and your dog has that personality trait, then he has good temperament. He may not do so well in other areas, such as guarding or herding, but that may not have been what you were looking for.
Similarly vague and elusive have been attempts to define the dog’s intelligence. Again, it goes back to function. We define a dog’s intelligence as the ease with which he can be trained for the function the dog was bred for. For example, teaching a Labrador Retriever to retrieve is very easy. After all, that’s what he was bred to do. On the other hand, you’d be dead wrong to think that an Afghan Hound is stupid just because he has no interest in that task. That’s not what he was bred to do; it’s not his job.
You need to recognize and be aware of your dog’s strengths and limitations. They have a profound influence on the ease or difficulty of teaching your dog a particular task. Circus trainers have an old saying: “Get the dog for the trick and not the trick for the dog.” Exploit your dog’s strengths.
Dogs, like people, vary in their ability to deal with negative emotions. Most dogs, however, are keenly aware of your emotions. Moreover, the more you work with Buddy, the greater the bond that develops. It seems as though he can read your mind. Okay, he may not be able to read your mind, but he certainly senses your emotions. If you’re feeling frustration, disappointment, or anger, Buddy senses it.
Because dogs are ill equipped to deal with these emotions, they tend to become anxious and confused, which in turn slows down or even prevents the learning process. Your job in training Buddy is to maintain an upbeat and patient attitude. As your dog’s trainer, your job is to teach him what you want and don’t want him to do. Without your guidance, your dog simply does what comes naturally to him — he’s a dog!
Blaming Buddy for what you perceive to be a shortcoming on his part doesn’t help and undermines the very relationship you’re trying to build. Remember, Buddy only does what comes naturally, and it’s your responsibility to teach him what’s acceptable and what’s not.
You’re the trainer, and Buddy is the student. He responds only to the commands you’ve taught him.
Responses to visual stimuli
How a dog responds to visual stimuli is a fancy way of saying how a dog responds to moving objects. For purposes of training, it relates to the dog’s distractibility when faced with something that moves. This, too, varies from breed to breed and depends on the nature of the moving object. The following are a few examples:
– Terriers are notoriously distractible. Our Yorkshire Terrier, although technically a member of the Toy Group, was convinced that every moving leaf or blade of grass had to be investigated. Although this made perfect sense to him, it made training him to pay attention a real challenge.
– In the Hound Group, some breeds, such as Afghan Hounds, Borzois, or Salukis, called sight hounds, aren’t much interested in objects close by and, instead, focus on those far away. Others, such as the Basset Hound, Beagle, or Bloodhound, are more stimulated by scents on the ground or in the air than by moving objects. Training a Beagle to heel — that is, walk on a loose leash while paying attention to you and not sniffing the ground — becomes a Herculean task.
– The guarding breeds, such as the German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, and Rottweiler, were bred to survey their surroundings — to keep everything in sight, as it were. They, too, find it difficult to focus exclusively on you in the presence of distractions. Remember, their job is to be alert to what’s going on around them.
– The weavers of the Canton of Berne used the Bernese Mountain Dog as a draft dog, drawing small wagons loaded with baskets to the marketplace. As a breed, moving objects don’t usually excite these dogs. After all, it would hardly do for the little fellow to chase a cat with his wagon bouncing behind him.
– The Newfoundland, an ordinarily sedate companion (see Figure 9-2), becomes a raving maniac near water with his instinctive desire to rescue any and all swimmers, totally disregarding that they may not want to be rescued.
Figure 9-2: The Newfoundland, a large breed, is a laid-back dog except around water.
Some dogs have a keener sense of hearing than others, to the point where loud noises literally hurt their ears. One of our Landseers would leave the room anytime the TV was turned on. Fear of thunder can be the result of sound sensitivity.
Under ordinary circumstances, sound sensitivity isn’t a problem, but it can affect the dog’s ability to concentrate in the presence of moderate to loud noises. A car backfiring causes this dog to jump out of his hide, whereas it only elicits a curious expression from another dog.
A dog’s threshold of discomfort depends on two things:
- His touch sensitivity
- What he’s doing at the particular time
For purposes of training and for knowing what equipment to use, you need to have some idea of Buddy’s touch sensitivity. For example, when a dog doesn’t readily respond to the training collar, he’s all too quickly labeled as stubborn or stupid. But nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s the trainer’s responsibility to select the right training equipment so that the dog does respond.
Discomfort thresholds tend to be breed-specific. For example, we’d expect that a Labrador Retriever, who’s supposed to be able to cover all manner of terrain, as well as retrieve in ice-cold water, would have a high discomfort threshold. Shetland Sheepdogs tend to be quite touch sensitive and respond promptly to the training collar. What one dog hardly notices makes another one change his behavior. And therein lies the secret of which piece of training equipment to use.
Touch sensitivity isn’t size-related. Our Yorkshire Terrier had a very high discomfort threshold. That, plus his sight sensitivity, made training him a real challenge. Neither is it age related. A puppy doesn’t start out as touch sensitive and become insensitive as he grows older. There may be some increase in insensitivity, but it’s insignificant. A dog’s touch sensitivity, however, is affected by what he’s doing. In hot pursuit of a rabbit, his discomfort threshold goes up, as it would during a fight.
After you have an idea of Buddy’s discomfort threshold, you know how to handle him and the type of training equipment you need.
Stressing the Stressful Effects of Stress
Stress is a byproduct of daily life. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another — health, family, job, state of the economy, state of the country, state of the world. Even pleasurable experiences, such as taking a vacation, are a source of stress.
In order to deal with all these stresses, you may get one or more of the following (check the appropriate response):
❑Cabin in the woods
❑___________ (fill in the blank)
Now it becomes a source of stress, and so it goes.
Stress is a physiological, genetically predetermined reaction over which the individual, be it a dog or person, has no control. Stress is a natural part of everyone’s daily lives and affects each person in different ways. Dogs are no different. Just like people, they experience stress. As your dog’s teacher, you must recognize the circumstances that produce stress and its manifestations, and you need to know how to manage it.
Your personal experiences with stress help you relate to what your dog is experiencing. Learning the signs and symptoms isn’t difficult after you know what you’re looking for.
Stress is defined as the body’s response to any physical or mental demand. The response prepares the body either to fight or flee. Stress increases blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and metabolism, and it triggers a marked increase in the blood supply to the arms and legs.
When stressed, the body becomes chemically unbalanced. To deal with this imbalance, the body releases chemicals into the bloodstream in an attempt to re-balance itself. The reserve of these chemicals is limited. You can dip into it only so many times before it runs dry and the body loses its ability to rebalance. Prolonged periods of imbalance result in neurotic behavior and the inability to function. Stress takes its toll on the body, be it a person’s or a dog’s. When the body’s ability to counteract stress has been maxed out, the stress is expressed behaviorally and physically. This is as true for your dog as it is for you.
Mental or physical stress ranges from tolerable all the way to intolerable — that is, the inability to function. Your interest here lies with the stress experienced during training, whether you’re teaching a new exercise or practicing a familiar one, or during a test, like the Canine Good Citizen test (see Chapter Preparing for Your Dog’s Citizenship Test
). You need to be able to recognize the signs of stress and what you can do to manage the stress your dog may experience.
Positive and negative stress — manifestations
Stress is characterized as positive — manifesting itself in increased activity — and negative — manifesting itself in decreased activity.
Picture yourself returning home after a hard day at work. A mess on the brand-new white living room carpet welcomes you. What’s your response? Do you explode, scream at poor Buddy, your spouse, and the children, and then storm through the house slamming doors? Or do you look at the mess in horror, shake your head in resignation, feel drained of energy, ignore the dog, the spouse, and the children, and retire to your room?
In the first sample response, the chemicals released into the bloodstream energized your body. In the second sample response, your body was debilitated. Dogs react in a similar manner.
Help, I’m hyperactive
So-called positive stress results in hyperactivity, such as running around, not being able to stay still, not being able to slow down, not paying attention, bouncing up and down, jumping on you, whining, barking, mouthing, getting in front of you, anticipating commands, or not being able to learn. You may think your dog is just being silly and tiresome, but he’s actually exhibiting coping behaviors.
Why am I so depressed?
So-called negative stress causes lethargy, such as a lack of energy, being afraid, freezing, slinking behind you, running away, responding slowly to commands, showing little interest in exercise or training, or displaying an inability to learn. In new situations, Buddy either gets behind you, seems tired and wants to lie down, or seems sluggish and disinterested. These aren’t signs of relaxation but are the coping behaviors for negative stress.
Recognizing the symptoms of stress
In dogs, signs of either form of stress — positive or negative — are muscle tremors; excessive panting and drooling; sweaty feet that leave tracks on dry, hard surfaces; dilated pupils; and, in extreme cases, urination; defecation (usually in the form of diarrhea); self-mutilation; and anxiety.
Anxiety is a state of apprehension and uneasiness. When anxiety is prolonged, two things happen:
– The ability to learn and think is clearly diminished and ultimately stops. It can also cause a panic attack.
– It depresses the immune system, thereby increasing your chances of becoming physically ill. It affects your dog in the same way. The weakest link in the chain is attacked first. If the dog has structural flaws, such as weak pasterns (the region of foreleg between the wrist and digits), he may begin to limp or show signs of pain. Digestive upsets are another common reaction to stress.
Stress, in and of itself, isn’t bad or undesirable. A certain level of stress is vital for the development and healthy functioning of the body and its immune system. It’s only when stress has no behavioral outlet — when the dog is put in a no-win situation — that the burden of coping is born by the body, and the immune system starts to break down.
Origins of stress — intrinsic and extrinsic
Intrinsic sources of stress are inherited and come from within the dog, and they include structure and health. Dogs vary in coping abilities and stress thresholds. Realistically, you can’t do much to change your dog, such as training him to deal better with stress. But you can use stress-management techniques to mitigate its impact (see the section “Managing Stress,” later in this chapter).
Extrinsic sources of stress come from outside the dog and are introduced externally. They range from the diet you feed your dog to the relationship you have with him. Extrinsic sources include the following:
- Appropriateness of the training method being used
- Frustration and indecision on your part
- Lack of adequate socialization
- How the dog perceives his environment
- Training location
Fortunately, all these sources of stress are under your control (see the section “Managing Stress”).
Relating stress to learning
All learning is stressful. For many people, us included, one of the most recent stress-inducing learning experiences was brought on by the computer revolution. In our case, plenty of times during the learning process we were tempted to throw the agonizing contraption out the window. At that moment, learning, and the ability to think rationally, had stopped. There was no point in trying to go on until the body had the chance to rebalance itself.
When you train Buddy, you can’t prevent him from experiencing some stress, but you can keep it at a level where he can still learn. If you find that your dog is overly stressed during a training session, stop the session. At that point, your dog’s ability to learn is diminished, and neither of you will benefit from continuing.
Instances are going to occur when Buddy just doesn’t seem to get the message. They can happen at any time, especially when you’re working with distractions. Nothing you do works, and you feel that you’re not making progress.
“What can I do?” we’re often asked. “If I stop, Buddy will think he has won and he will never do it for me.” This line of thinking presumes that you and Buddy are adversaries, in some kind of a contest, such as, “you’ll do it no matter what.” If you approach training with this attitude, you’re doomed to failure; at best, you’ll have an unrewarding relationship with your dog.
Training Buddy has nothing to do with winning, but with teaching. You can walk away from a training session at any time, whether or not you think you’ve been successful. When you see that no further learning is taking place, stop! If you don’t, and you insist on forcing the issue, you’ll undermine both your dog’s trust in you and the relationship you’re trying to build.
Let Buddy rest for four hours and try again. You’ll find that the light bulb suddenly seems to turn on. By having taken a break at that point, you give latent learning — the process of getting the point through time — a chance to work. Our advice is to quit training when you find yourself becoming irritable or when Buddy starts to show signs of stress.
Konrad Most, considered to be the “father” of modern dog training, recognized the importance of maintaining the dog’s equilibrium. In his 1910 training manual, he wrote, “Good training needs a kind heart as well as a cool and well-informed head . . . .” Anyone can dominate a dog by physical or mental pressure, but only through the building of confidence by positive reinforcement can reliability and enjoyment of performance be achieved. Buddy must perceive you as trustworthy, or he’ll begin to exhibit neurotic behaviors.
A stressful first impression
Making a good first impression is so important. A classic example of the impact of the first impression is the following incident: Pinny had entered her 1-year-old Landseer Newfoundland, Immy, in a Newfoundland Club of America Water Test. These events test the dog’s rescue abilities and, when found satisfactory, result in a Water Dog title, attesting the fact the dog is a water rescue dog.
The Newfoundland Club of America conducts Water Tests where the dogs can demonstrate their water rescue abilities. Two levels exist: Water Dog and Water Rescue Dog. The Club
also conducts Draft Dog tests.
The first part of this test is on land, where the dogs are expected to demonstrate a passing familiarity with basic obedience commands, such as “Heel,” “Come,” and “Stay.” Immy was very well trained to do these tasks.
When Pinny and Immy approached the area in which they were to be tested, which had been roped off into a large square with yellow tape, she noticed that Immy was becoming extremely agitated. He outright refused to get close to, much less into, the roped-off enclosure. His eyes rolled back in his head, he wanted to bolt, and he became almost uncontrollable.
Pinny walked away from the area, calmed him down, and tried again. No way was Immy going close to the yellow tape that was flapping in the wind. Pinny didn’t push the issue, but Immy went on and did the water part of the trial with great success.
Driving home, Pinny tried to think why Immy was so frightened of the yellow tape. And then she remembered. When Immy first came to her, he was already 6 months old. He was a tall and gangly puppy with lots of energy and a propensity for jumping straight up in the air. It wasn’t long before he took this great talent and experimented with jumping the fence in the back garden. He took himself for a nice walk around the neighborhood and found visiting other dogs lots of fun.
Living on a rather busy street, Pinny was worried that he would get run over. So she came to the conclusion that an electric fence was the best solution to her problem. When the salesperson installed the fence, he asked Pinny if she’d ever trained a dog to the fence before. She answered that she had not. “Don’t worry, I’ll show you how to do it,” said the salesman. He took Immy on a leash, went up to the fence, which had yellow flags on it, and as Immy approached curiously, he yanked him back as hard as he could, and screamed “no.” Immy fell to the ground in shock, and Pinny was horrified.
Looking back, Immy clearly associated this most unpleasant experience with the yellow tape, and when he encountered it again at the Water Test, he wanted nothing to do with it.
Stress and distraction training
When distractions are introduced in training, your dog may not respond as you expect. As a result, you may become a little frustrated, taking the attitude, “How could you do this to me?” Buddy senses your feelings and becomes apprehensive and anxious. He only understands that you’re upset, but he doesn’t understand why. Unless you now calm him and yourself, and you reassure him that he’s a good boy and should keep trying, your training session will deteriorate to the point where all learning stops.
Prepare to be patient when you first introduce your dog to training with distractions. Naturally, Buddy is going to be distracted (that’s the point!), but over time, he’ll learn to respond the way you want. If you feel yourself becoming distraught, it’s time to take five.
When you take your Canine Good Citizen test (see Chapter Preparing for Your Dog’s Citizenship Test), remain calm and control any nervousness you may experience. Your dog is acutely aware of your emotions, which are likely to interfere with his performance. Remember, the object of training and of the test is to make a positive experience for both you and your dog.
Most of the tests for the Canine Good Citizen involve some form of distraction. You need to monitor your dog’s reaction to these distractions so that you can help him cope. One test requires you be out of your dog’s sight for three minutes, which can be a source of significant stress to your dog. You need to introduce him to and condition him for this exercise in such a way that any stress he may experience is minimized.
Try to make every new exercise or distraction a positive experience for your dog. A favorable introduction will have a positive long-term impact. The first impression leaves the most lasting impact. Whenever you introduce your dog to a new exercise or distraction, make it as pleasant and as stress free as possible so that it leaves a neutral, if not favorable, impression.
Become aware of how Buddy reacts to stress, positively or negatively, and the circumstances under which he stresses. Something you’re doing, or even a location, may cause him stress.
Understand that Buddy has no control over his response to stress — he inherited this behavior — and that it’s your job to manage it as best as you can. Through proper management, Buddy will become accustomed, with every successful repetition, to coping with new situations and handling them like an old trooper.
Managing positive stress
For example, say that Buddy stresses in a “positive” way, which means he gets overexcited and bouncy. In the case of a person, you may say that he or she is hysterical. In the old movies, when someone started screaming uncontrollably, this was handled by slapping the person on the cheek. (For Buddy, a check on the collar to settle him down would be the same thing.) However, we advise that you keep your hands still and off your dog and keep your voice quiet, or you’ll excite him even more. Instead, give him the “Down” command and enforce it.
Every behavior has a timeframe, and experience tells you how long Buddy takes to calm down under different circumstances. During times of severe stress, Buddy is unable to learn or respond to commands, even those he knows well, until his body rebalances itself. Your goal is to restore your dog’s breathing pattern and body posture to normal. With the right management on your part, Buddy will become comfortable with any new situation.
Managing negative stress
If Buddy stresses in a “negative” way, take him for a walk to get the circulation going and redistribute the chemicals that have been released so his breathing can return to normal. Massage the top of his shoulders to relax him — just because he’s quiet doesn’t mean he’s calm. Try to get him excited with an object or food. Don’t, under any circumstances, use a check to get him “out of it.” A check will just produce even greater lethargy.
Stress manifests itself in so many ways, and it’s up to you, the owner, to know your dog. Remember, the dog has no control over his response. It’s also up to you to play detective to find out what triggers the stress behavior.
Other remedies for managing stress
Some dogs get unduly stressed during thunderstorms. Others, perhaps because of lack of socialization, get stressed when they’re away from home, left in a kennel, taken to a class for the first time, riding in the car, and the like.
A successful outcome to a physical problem
Perhaps the strangest case we’ve had to deal with was that of one of our own dogs. D.J. is an extremely handsome black Briard. When D.J. was a young dog, he got stressed by almost everything. If we put him in the car, he’d throw up and turn in circles in his crate. When he got out, he’d be wet from drooling and would want to pace and pace. Around other dogs, he was anxious and wanted nothing to do with them. If they came too close, he’d lunge out at the end of the leash, teeth flashing — a frightening sight for any dog or person that happened to be close.
Knowing that D.J. was on the very best diet he could be on, we ruled out food-related problems. He went through every medical test in the book to try to find out the cause of his stressful behavior. Nothing was found, and so we lived with him, always seeking some kind of answer. The answer came when he was nearly 3 years old.
We learned that a veterinarian and Certified Animal Chiropractor was giving a clinic for dogs and horses in our area. The chiropractor was in a horse barn, working on some dogs when we arrived. She instructed us to bring in D.J. and just let him sit and watch what was going on for a while so he could get the feeling of his surroundings.
In the barn were horses, goats, and chickens. D.J. was fascinated by the smells and was fine so long as nothing or no one came close to him. We carefully inched him closer and closer to the doctor, who was sitting on a small stool. D.J. stood with his back to her, and all of a sudden, decided to back into her. She talked to him for a while, without touching his body. When she touched him, he jumped, and we all jumped.
She was a model of patience with D.J. and started again. While his attention was glued on a chicken, she was able to feel up and down his back. As she felt his back and then his tail, she told us that many vertebrae were out of alignment, and there’d been some kind of break in his tail. We surmised that this break must’ve happened during the birthing process, which apparently isn’t uncommon. She very gently manipulated his back into position. But she really felt the problem was his neck.
Slowly, slowly, she moved up his body, and he was motionless. Thank goodness the chicken was obliging and stayed within a nose length of D.J., who was still staring at it. The doctor finally was able to feel his neck and with two rather quick movements, adjusted the vertebrae. He stood up and shook himself, sat down suddenly, and then just lay down.
She told us that his neck was such a mess that the nerves connected to his eyes were severely displaced. She felt that he’d never been able to see properly — either his vision was so distorted he couldn’t make out shapes, or he was seeing upside down.
This of course explained all his behavior and the stress that he felt. If his vision was poor, naturally he always felt threatened when away from home. Because he was never off leash when we took him out, and couldn’t run away as he wanted to do, he would then be forced into a defensive posture, hence the teeth and the growling.
After his adjustment, D.J. became a very cuddly and sweet dog. Most visitors pick out D.J. as our most friendly dog.
So the moral of this story is that when your dog is stressing, there’s a reason for it. You just have to work at it until you find the answers.
Products now exist that make dealing with stress so much easier. Homeopathic remedies and Bach Flower Remedies are excellent to use for this purpose. You can address the following conditions with these specific products:
– For fear of thunderstorms: We recommend Aconite 30c. This remedy comes in liquid or pellet form. Usually one dose gives the dog a feeling of being able to cope with the storm.
– Going to the doctor: When taking a dog to a place where he experiences fear, such as the animal hospital, we use a product called Calm Stress. It’s a liquid homeopathic that you can put it into your dog’s mouth just before you enter. It lasts about 20 minutes. After your dog understands that he need not be afraid, and he has coped well with the environment, further dosing is unnecessary.
– Carsickness: A simple remedy for carsick dogs is a ginger cookie. Ginger has a wonderful way of settling the stomach, and if you give your dog a ginger cookie just as he gets into the car, the car becomes a good place to be in. If the trip is a long one, you can give him a ginger cookie periodically. Dogs can get quite stressed in a car, not only because of the movement but also because of objects flashing by the windows. Using a crate for such a dog is a good idea, because you can cover the crate so the dog isn’t constantly exposed to visual stimuli. (We also recommend you crate your dog for safety reasons — just like you use your seatbelt — anytime you take him in a car.) Rescue Remedy, together with Calm Stress, also works well to combat carsickness.
We also use the Calm Stress remedy to rehabilitate rescue dogs with great success, as well as another one called Rescue Remedy. A Bach Flower Remedy is used when the dog gets so stressed that he’s in danger of shock. This remedy can be dropped directly into the dog’s mouth (about four drops) or put into his water bowl.
by Jack and Wendy Volhard