Have you ever seen a dog freak out at something new in it’s environment? Sometimes introducing new items can be stressful. While we want to minimize stress in our animals, it’s unrealistic to expect to eliminate it all the time. It’s important to teach them to handle stress – so they don’t freak out at the least little thing. Teach a dog to handle stress and you’ll have a dog that will learn to be calm and resilient and look to you for guidance and support.
“Sure, easier said than done!” I hear you…believe me. It’s not like we can tell our dogs “Relax, it’s okay. See? It’s nothing to worry about.”
Except, you can. In fact, you should if you want to have a happy, well-adjusted furry companion. As a good, responsible dog parent you should know your dog well enough to anticipate something that might scare him and take steps to help him.
I decided to decorate my house this year for the holidays. I’ve felt a bit Scroog-y the last couple years and haven’t done anything. Well, this year, I’m changing that! Scrooginess just doesn’t feel good. So off to the store I went for some Halloween fun to make my living room a little more festive…
But this guy has never seen Halloween decorations. And knowing Xander’s temperament I knew he’d need some help to not fear the Grim Reaper-ish baubles I brought home.
The new Halloween decoration elements included draping a table and some boxes with a black sheet, pumpkins, skeletal props, tinsel garland and lights. Oh yeah, and a giant, pose-able spider.
You can see he looks less than thrilled to be there. When he first saw just the draped table he growled at it. From his perspective, a giant black blob was suddenly sitting next to the bed he likes to sleep on. I might feel a little growly too. He paced back and forth eyeing it suspiciously.
Have you ever seen your dog do this? With or without the growling?
I called Xander to me, away from what was scaring him. He has a soft temperament, and is the least confident dog I’ve ever owned. But, he knows that I will take care of him, and will not ask him to do anything that is dangerous to him. He also knows I will ask him to face his fears and work through them. Together we are slowly building his confidence. But it does take work, and a certain amount of forethought on my part.
I first had to get him to realize the big black form was not going to morph into a table demon and eat us. So I went and sat next to it. I didn’t call him, I didn’t require he come over to me, I just sat there and talked to him in a soft voice. I specifically avoided the words “Good dog” and “It’s okay”. Instead I just sort of babbled: “You’re not afraid of this are you? It’s just the table. It’s nothing.”
He quickly got up the courage to approach me, although at first he carefully did not look at the table and positioned so my body was between him and it. I suppose he figured a table demon would take me first and give him time to make his escape. I reassured him by gently rubbing his face and ears, and when he actually relaxed and looked at the table normally – without giving it the side eye, or growling – I told him he was good and popped a treat in his mouth.
With some verbal encouragement and a few more treats he was soon sniffing the draped table like it was an old friend. He wandered away and came back later when I had added things! Oh no!
Teaching Xander that the table and it’s goodies won’t hurt him took me less than a day, but I did it in tiny little bits, like maybe a minute at the most each time. I’d use treats to encourage him to sniff the different items, ask him to sit or lay down and release him before he had a chance to feel too uncomfortable. Yes, I asked him to push past his comfort barriers as you can see in the pictures, but I didn’t ask him to stay there very long. Instead, he learned that small amounts of stress are manageable.
How do you know Xander is not entirely happy in these pictures? Look at his face – tight, tense lips, folded back ears, and his muscles and body are tense and poised to spring up as soon as I say he can.
I used “successive approximations” to teach Xander the confidence that he could see new things that made him uneasy and learn that just because it’s scary at first doesn’t mean it has to stay scary forever. By the time I was done decorating he was calm and relaxed around everything. Even meeting my centerpiece was no big deal, check it out:
Now look at how calm he is:
In my book Dog Care And Training For The GENIUS I teach you how to devise a training plan to help your dog through tense or stressful situations. Look for it to be published next month!
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