It’s true. Nervous owners are more likely to have nervous dogs. This study released last month confirmed something dog trainers have suspected for years. We get nervous which causes our dogs to get nervous, and when our dogs are nervous, we get nervous. It becomes a vicious circle. It is challenging for everyone involved when our own fears/anxieties affect our dogs, but even the most confident person can put unnecessary stress on their dog. Through training and understanding the impact our actions have on our dogs, we can create confident and happy dogs and help ourselves at the same time. Let’s cover some of the main ways we stress out our dogs and how avoiding these will help to lessen our anxieties as well.
Showing frustration when your dog behaves like a dog This is likely one of the most common things pet owners do and one that causes a great deal of confusion for our dogs. Think of a new puppy who has just been brought into your home. Everything is new to them and they are going to explore. As they explore, they find a new object, so being a dog, they explore it with their mouth and chew on it. It just so happens that it is your shoe. Suddenly, they are interrupted by this new human yelling, grabbing them roughly and throwing them outside. What have they learned? Did they learn not to chew on your items? No, they have just learned to be scared of you. They will be full of anxiety and confusion as they try to navigate this busy human world and learn what they should or should not be doing while having to avoid your anger. And they have to navigate this without getting any clear direction on what they should be doing. That is stressful.
Now think of an older dog. They are running and having fun at the off-leash park with their friends. Someone throws a ball (their favourite!) and they run after it. Their owner yells their name and a strange word ‘come’ that they have heard occasionally, but they are too focused on the ball to even register the cue. They chase after the ball and run around with it and their new friend. Suddenly, they hear their owner’s angry tone, they get grabbed harshly and the leash gets clipped back on. They head out of the park and their owner is frustrated and angry with them and they have no idea why. They were playing happily and suddenly when their owner appeared, things turned bad. What have they learned now? What feelings are they likely to experience when they are having fun and their owner appears?
Exerting physical punishment This ties into the above section. Take all of the above and pair it with physical punishment. What does that do? It creates more fear of the owner and even more stress as the dog does not always know why he is being punished. A dog may learn to be compliant in the sense that they do not do much when the owner is around and that they stay close to avoid punishment, but they are doing so under stress and are nervous about what type of punishment they may receive.
How do we avoid this then? We must understand that they are dogs and they are going to do dog things. Most things that we deem behaviour problems are normal dog behaviours. The frustration we feel adds stress to our lives, so both us and our dogs are better off if we instead learn to properly train our dogs and teach them about our busy human world. It is our responsibility to socialize and train them. If they are not listening, it is because we have not done our job training them, so we have no right to punish them. If it is a struggle for you, contact a reward-based trainer who can help you better train your dog so that you can both enjoy your time together and avoid the frustration all together.
Thinking in terms of dominance Your dog jumped on you? Dominance! Your dog barked at another dog? Dominance! Ran out the door ahead of you? Definitely dominance! We have all heard these. It seems like nowadays we attribute all of our dog’s behaviour problems or lack of training skills to dominance. First off, if it were as simple as you needing to be a better leader and not let your dog dominate you, I wouldn’t have a job. Secondly, we would not want to live with these animals if they spent their entire time trying to dominate us. They do not think this way and every single concern you will have with your dog comes down to a training issue, never dominance. So, forget about how they must respect you and instead focus on a relationship of mutual respect. You must learn how your dog communicates, spend the time training and socializing them and teaching them the world is a safe and positive place. If you struggle, contact a reward-based trainer who can help you better train your dog. Are you starting to see a trend here? Training your dog really does alleviate so much frustration and stress for both of you. Training through modern and reward-based methods enhances your relationship, and unlike punishment based training, it reduces stress and anxiety, instead of increasing it.
Forcing them into scary situations A final point on aversive methods and things we may do that create fear and aggression in our dogs; forcing them into something that frightens them. This can be as simple as making them say hello to someone they are unsure of, or perhaps forcing them into a group of dogs when they are afraid. Or perhaps we laugh at them barking at a new lawn decoration on our walk and force them up to it to see that it is safe. By forcing our dogs we are showing them that we are not to be trusted when a scary thing is around and we can actually increase their fear and anxieties. The solution? Don’t do it. Use food rewards to show them that these items are not scary and work at your dog’s pace.
Being inconsistent Let’s say you decide that your dog cannot go on the bed (as an fyi, all of my dogs come on the bed and our time together snuggling is one of our favourite activities). Then one day you are sick and feeling sorry for yourself, so you invite your dog up for snuggles. It is a wonderful bonding time for you both. A few days later, you lie down in bed, your dog jumps up to join you, tail-wagging and so excited for more snuggles. Instead, you yell at them to get off the bed. Now let’s say you are working on your dog not jumping. We have not been consistent and let the dog jump occasionally and greet them cheerfully. One day we come out dressed up for an event and your dog comes in with muddy feet and jumps on you. They get yelled at and sent behind a gate to be isolated. Can you see how this is confusing for your dog? Do you understand how all of this creates high levels of stress and anxiety in our dogs? How do you avoid it? Be consistent. Doing so will make things clear for both of you and eliminates a huge amount of stress.
Worrying about all stress One of the most common traits I have seen working with nervous dog owners is that they over-stress. They become anxious and over-protective of their dogs for any sign of stress. Dogs are going to face stress in their lives, so it is important that we teach them how to cope and work through their fears. If we always avoid the bad things completely or stop as soon the dog shows minimal signs of stress, they will never learn how to cope when something stressful happens. It is much easier to just avoid the scary thing for everyone, because in doing so, we need to face our fears and will experience some discomfort. I can understand why this is more difficult for nervous owners as they become stressed when their dog stresses and we get caught up in that vicious circle again.
This one becomes harder to solve, but the rewards for working through this are immeasurable. At first, we need to address our own stress. By becoming aware of your own signs of stress (trust me, if your dog could talk, they would have no problem identifying these as they are a cue that something scary is about to happen) you can begin to work on yourself. The key is to both work through your stress vs always avoiding it. You must begin to see changes and progress and can only do so when you really face the things that cause the anxiety. It is never about forcing a dog or putting them into situations that are too much for them, but to experience real progress, you must move past just managing the behaviour and work through the concern.
To help your dog, start working on your own anxiety. Identify your signs of stress, take time to settle and calm yourself and start at a pace you are comfortable and then begin to challenge yourself. Reward yourself for your progress. If you are struggling, work with a trainer with your dog and a professional for yourself. In order to best care for ourselves and our dogs we must work through our stress and learn effective coping skills. Not easy, but there is an army of people who can support you both.
Exercising too often or too little We have all heard the mantra, ‘a well-exercised dog is a well-behaved dog’. This is true, but there is such thing as too much exercise. Do not be fooled into the idea that hours of exercise will solve your dog’s arousal concerns as it has been proven that it does the opposite. On the flip side, not exercising your dog enough will also lead to behaviour concerns through over-arousal. Find a good balance of free exercise where your dog can run and play (such as off-leash parks) and structured exercise that focuses on mental stimulation (such as on-leash walks working on attention). Too much of over-stimulating activities such as dog daycare, off-leash park visits or group walks will increase your dog’s stress/arousal levels, so work with your trainer to find the right balance for your dog. You want them tired, but not over-tired or bored. Exercise is good for us as well and lowers our stress, so find ways you can get out and exercise with your dog so you can both enjoy the benefits!
Final notes Every time you get frustrated, stop and think about how things may be for your dog. Try to better manage your own emotions and watch how this will benefit you and your dog along with enhancing your bond. Be aware of how the simple of act of yelling, showing frustration or responding through strong emotions can impact your dog, even when it has nothing to do with them. We are all human and will have moments of this, so either keep your dog separated during these times or ensure you are reassuring them and pairing with positives to minimize the affect. Dogs have an amazing way of sensing and responding to our stress, so take it as a cue that you need to settle. And take everything above into consideration; teach them to be successful in our human world, avoid punishment, do not force them into anything, be consistent, let them experience appropriate levels of stress and get out and enjoy nature together!