Today I want to talk about how something that isn’t discussed often in blog posts, but it’s a common issue in dog training, especially in behavior rehabilitation training. Common knowledge tells us that how we feel has a direct impact on our dog’s behavior, but what if you can’t help it? What if, despite your best efforts, you can’t “Just relax”? For example, let’s say you have a reactive dog. You’re out for a walk and you see another dog approaching. You try to stay calm, but at some point you stopped breathing and now you have a death grip on the leash. Why? Because you know exactly what’s going to happen (almost like a bad dream on repeat). All is well until your dog notices the other dog, then all bets are off: Hackles up, growling, barking, lunging, complete and utter chaos. It’s stressful, it’s embarrassing and it makes you feel absolutely…powerless. You tried to relax, but you couldn’t help it. You knew that, despite your best efforts, your dog was going to react poorly because he does it every.single.time. in similar situations.
Now here comes the catch: Ask any dog trainer, and they’ll tell you, “How you feel affects your dog’s behavior.” They’ll tell you that you have to be calm. That you have to relax. That any tension in the leash goes straight down to your dog and affects the outcome of his behavior. After working with numerous behavior cases, I have met owner after owner with the same confession: I try to relax, but I can’t help myself.
I get it. I really do. I personally own two dogs who used to have extreme fear and extreme aggression issues. And I got both of them before I was a professional full-time trainer. Going out in public with unpredictable dogs is not only nerve-wrecking, but it’s stressful, exhausting and a real liability. It almost makes you not want to leave the house at all.
As a trainer, I understand where you’re coming, and I’ll tell you this: You can’t fake how you feel. Your dog is an expert at reading your body language, he senses your breathing pattern, he knows how you feel sometimes before you do. (That’s how dogs can alert to anxiety, low blood sugar, and more; service dogs are specially trained to hone in on their natural instinct and use it to their handler’s advantage.) Bottom line: You can’t lie to a dog.
Okay, so how can you overcome your fear? Just like anything, it takes practice and repetition, and YOU HAVE TO SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS. I cannot emphasize that last line enough. Both you and your dog need to hit the RESET button and break down the issue into manageable steps. My goal in ANY rehabilitation training is to never see the behavior again, whether that be reactivity, aggression etc. I design training plans that take the owner and dog step-by-step through the rehabilitation process, and with each step, I give the owner and dog the tools they need to be successful.
>>Truly overcoming your fear requires baby steps – much like building blocks – to restore the lost faith in your dog, and in situations where your dog normally reacts. When I’m working with reactive dogs, I start by laying a foundation of trust and respect between you and your dog. We start with the basics by emphasizing focus and motivation in training. Everything is done on a slip lead (no training collars); it isn’t until after the foundation has been laid and desensitization has begun until we add the training collar back into the equation (if needed). Step by step, I teach your dog self control and to control his impulses. Step by step, your dog succeeds…and you learn to relax. My goal is to change your dog’s behavior and instill confidence in both your teamwork skills and your ability to trust your dog in different situations.>>
Sometimes, you need to see it to believe it. In extreme cases, for the red-zone dogs, or in situations where the owner plays a HUGE role in the dog’s behavior, I recommend Valor’s board and train program. This gives me the opportunity to work with the dog apart from the owner, and then at the end of the program the big reveal happens where the owner gets to see the new version of his dog. (Fido version 2.0, if you will!) Sometimes, owners need to skip the baby steps and see their dog in action (or, inaction rather!) to believe their dog is capable of good behavior. We usually hear something along the lines of: “Is that my dog? There’s no way that’s my dog!” That moment is not only rewarding for me as a trainer, but it also repairs the once-broken trust and instills newfound confidence into the owner that translates into success for the team.
You do affect your dog’s behavior, but you’re also human. Rome wasn’t built in a day. 🙂
-Amy Pishner is a Canine Training and Behavior Specialist and the Owner/Head Trainer for Valor K9 Academy. Amy specializes in puppy imprint training, basic obedience and behavior rehabilitation training.