One of the many things I love about dogs is their innate ability to declare their feelings. If they’re happy, we know about it. If they’re not happy, we know about it. The question is, what do we DO about it?
This is something we explore regularly on our social projects. Just like us, dogs don’t cope well when their emotions are ignored but unlike us, they don’t sit around with their friends over a cuppa (or something stronger) to talk about it.
To begin with, forget about training and changing behaviour. Let’s take butterflies as an example. Stay with me… there is a point to this! I have a completely irrational fear of butterflies. I found this out during a visit to a butterfly farm about five years ago. I thought it would be a nice day out; it wasn’t! Anyway, I was quite relaxed going in to the space where the butterflies were hanging out. I saw a couple of cute butterflies enjoying a fruit snack and then, out of nowhere, approximately four million butterflies flew straight for me. Ok, so in reality they weren’t coming ‘out of nowhere’ as I had walked into their space and it might have been closer to only four butterflies, but it was too much for me and I had to escape. That escape took forever as I tried not to completely freak out, not stamp on too many children and tried to avoid the laughter of my partner who thought it was hilarious.
If at that point of near complete freak out, someone had put a lead on me, told me to ‘shhh’, tried to make me sit down and ignored every not-so-subtle sign that I was not at all happy, what would I have done? I would have tried even harder to escape and it would not have been pretty. That was not the time to start teaching me about appropriate behaviour in a public place!
Why does this need to be different for our dogs? We have attached leads to them so they can’t escape so we have an even greater responsibility to listen to what they’re telling us and respond accordingly. If our dog is telling us that they are unhappy about a situation, the first thing we need to do is take them somewhere safe. That shows our dog that we can be trusted, that we will listen and that they don’t need to start ramping up the gears to make their point even clearer.
Once they are out of that situation, they’re calm and they are in a position to respond to us, we can think about how to approach things differently, more slowly and in a way that the dog learns that they are safe. As Einstein said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
You can’t even begin to think about training or behaviour modification until your dog is in a relaxed state and able to learn. If you’re forcing your dog to stay in a situation that they are clearly unhappy with, they’re only really learning that you’re not listening, not able to keep them safe and that they need to work harder to make themselves heard. Do something different, make sure they have space and you don’t then simply walk back into the same situation and expect something different. If I’d been dragged back into that butterfly farm shortly after my escape, I can assure you that I would have been working harder to make my feelings clear and I would not have been able to behave differently!
Just as we expect our emotions to be respected, we have a responsibility to our dogs to respect what they are sharing with us. Act on what your dog is telling you, teach them that you’re a positive advocate. It’s only when they’re relaxed that will they be able to display the behaviours we deem as acceptable… just like us!