Monday, May 9, 2016

Fearful Dogs

Fearful dogs are not broken
Image_11When facing a behavior challenge with a dog, whether it’s fear, anxiety, aggression, or a physiological issue, a common response is, “How can I fix this?” My goal when I meet with clients is to help them reframe that question so that instead of asking how soon and how quickly they can fix their dogs, ask what can they do on a daily basis to help their dogs find it a little easier to just be.

I recently heard this phrase – “finding it a little easier to just be” – during a yoga class. Its applications to my philosophy of training mindfully are plentiful.

Fearful dogs gain confidence and feelings of safety on their own timelines. Their internal states ebb and flow depending on body chemistry and the environment. Often, recovery is not linear.
I find viewing training for fearful dogs through the lens of “fixing” unhelpful because fearful dogs are not “broken.” Just like all dogs, they have temperaments influenced by nature and nurture. They have the capacity to learn, to form new neural connections, to develop new associations with the environment, and to communicate via body language. What separates fearful dogs from non-fearful dogs is not the fact that they are broken, but the fact that they need specific tools and management to exist with a little more ease and  a little less fear.
They need extra help from their humans to find it a little easier to just be. 
When I meet with clients, we discuss how small daily adjustments help dial down the stress:
  • Giving the dog a safe space in the home away from noise and triggers.
  • Providing puzzle toys and games to give the dog moments of joy during the day.
  • Moving walking routes to a less stressful location.
  • Teaching coping skills to help the dog stay calm in stressful situations.
None of these adjustments “fixes” fear. And, as we know from research done by LeDoux, fear is easy to install and difficult, perhaps impossible, to fully extinguish. But when combined into a comprehensive management and training plan, these adjustments provide a way forward for dogs and their humans. Dogs experience a few more moments of joy during the day. Startle responses decrease and recovery times improve. The dog experiences relief from environmental stress. They start existing in a world with more positive associations.

They find it a little easier to just be. 
–  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

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