“It’s the easiest thing in the world to lose and the hardest thing in the world to get back”.
Trust is at the heart of any healthy relationship. It’s something that is gained and requires honesty, communication, and listening. When it’s absent it causes stress, anxiety, and even pain. Animals in particular need to be able to trust us, especially dogs since our lives are so closely intertwined.
Recently I was working with a young, anxious, fearful dog and experienced something that appalled me. While I was interacting with this beautiful, intelligent, loving dog, I was confronted by an individual demanding that I “show them whose boss and use a heavy hand”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. My heart hurt for the terrified animal. Where was the empathy and compassion? After all, if we are to ask a dog to act composed, we ourselves must exercise that skill first.
How could someone suggest such archaic, egregious, and ineffective things? I thought of all the dogs that have been on the receiving end of this person. Castigation never has and never will solve anything, other than lose a dog’s trust. On the other hand, specific behavior modification methods coupled with a calm, gentle approach, gains a dog’s trust. Once you have that, everything else falls nicely into place. The end goal should be to have a balanced dog with a robust capacity of learning and skill set whereby they can self-modulate in daily activity. Isn’t that what we all want – a happy dog?!
Dogs are nonverbal communicators. It’s our responsibility to decipher what they’re saying. Dogs, like all animals, use body language to speak. When you see a dog reacting, whether it be barking, lunging, growling, etc. it reflects what they are struggling with emotionally and cognitively. Once we begin to see things through the lens of a dog, from their perspective, is when we can truly begin to help them.
So, what exactly are anxiety and fear? While they have broad definitions, they both embody a feeling of worry, uncertainty, and nervousness. To some, fear and anxiety can appear to be disobedience. Often, the latter behavioral states go hand in hand. A dog may come across to people as obnoxious or even aggressive; however, when you take time to see things for what they truly are and look at every dog as an individual, you clearly see a dog struggling immensely. A scared dog is trying to survive and get through the moment. Right beneath the surface of these overt displays of behavior is a misunderstood animal. Behind the growling, barking, and lunging is a dog that needs help rather than hurt. A dog that is scared, confused, and anxious could have likely incurred some degree of trauma. The latter is an often overlooked and under-addressed component of a dog’s well-being.
It’s easy to respond to reactive dogs with aversive tactics. But that’s just it, it’s easy … it doesn’t require much forethought. Leash jerks, strangling, verbal abuse, and worse are antiquated and downright cruel. When someone acts this way, it is they that are reactive and not proactive.
While my job requires me to fully assess dog behavior, it always warrants a full assessment of the people that interact with them. Ironically, those that choose admonition and castigation are generally anxious and fear themselves. Don’t do what’s easy, do what’s right. There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. A place worth going requires patience, aptitude, and fortitude. Easy never yields a positive outcome. Lashing out lacks critical thinking not to mention compassion. These beliefs are far removed from cutting-edge canine behavior. The modus operandi should be to mitigate any reactivity and amplify calmness and confidence. When harsh, antiquated techniques are used it speaks volumes of the person inflicting the abuse and not of the dog that is hurting. The confluence of the latter coupled with unrealistic expectations generate an exorbitant amount of stress in dogs.
Dogs that struggle with anxiety/fear stay stuck with harsh approaches. When a reactive dog is shut down, or worse, the people are using what is referred to as “positive punishment” (Ie: harsh reprimands). It may shut down the outburst temporarily, but it will most definitely drive the anxiety and fear further down, making it terribly difficult to repair. The suppression then manifests emotionally, behaviorally, and yes, even physically, causing even more stress. Chronic stress is at the nucleus of disease. The mind-body connection is a powerful one. I’ve lost track of the number of dogs that suffer from anxiety and fear that also have ear infections, “allergies” and disease. Imposing unrealistic expectations on any dog, particularly these, only exacerbate an already delicate situation.
These are special dogs; I’ve had the honor of working with thousands of them over the years and have seen how they transform with individualized fear-free behavior modification. Sadly, I’ve also witnessed dogs remain fearful and often learn to be aggressive because of people’s myopic choices. These sensitive dogs need their stress reduced and their confidence increased, and most importantly their trust restored. I’ve witnessed incredible results when people are open minded and take the time to help these remarkable dogs. It’s impossible not to be inspired and rewarded along the way by their brave efforts and steadfast attitude.
So how do you deal with a reactive dog? The good news is that there are proven fear-free ways to help them, all of which are backed by scientific and empirical studies. Assume competence when interacting with any dog, but especially these. They need patience and someone to believe in them.
To the untrained eye, pairing a high value food (HVF) leading up to and during a trigger may appear fruitless or even rewarding to a dog’s reactive behavior; however, it’s a means to an end and at the root of behavior modification. The latter is used specifically by employing counter conditioning and desensitization (CCD). In order to gain perspective of how these seemingly minor or even erroneous efforts are, pause for a moment and look at things from a dog’s perspective. The short- and long-term goal is to gain and keep a dog’s trust while working within their learning threshold and helping them shift their mindset while gaining specific useful daily life-skills.
Reactive dogs aren’t the only ones that need tending to. Dogs that have the unfortunate experience of being on the receiving end of them can become scared, agitated and yes, even reactive themselves. I always scratch my head when people who knowingly have reactive dogs allow them to harass, bully and intimidate innocent ones, whether that be on their property or worse off leash. It’s our responsibility to help our dog. At the very least demonstrate consideration for others. Those in shelter/rescue work should be extremely mindful of this since they are the conduit between the dog and new adopters. Veterinarians, trainers, breeders and groomers are not excluded. Cutting edge, force free strategies absolutely must be offered on order to achieve positive results – a confident and happy dog.
The next time you see a reactive dog, exercise empathy and compassion – with an understanding that they are struggling. It’s not easy living with us humans. An exorbitant number of unrealistic expectations are put on dogs. Be patient with your dog and trust that gentle is always stronger than force. Remember, it’s not our dog’s job to live up to our false expectations, it’s our job to help them live up to their full potential.