How would you feel if I told you that you the cause of some of your dog’s issues? I know you probably don’t like hearing that but I’m sorry to say it may be true. No one means to enable their dog’s problems but all too often we’re to blame.
Whatever your dog is doing always pay close attention to his state of mind. Your dog’s state of mind is tremendously more important than his behavior in any and every situation. You need to make sure that you never give affection to an unstable frame of mind. So whenever you dog is in an anxious, exited or overly aroused state of mind, that’s not the time to reward them – because whatever you reward will happen again.
The phrase to remember is, “you get what you pet.” If you pet an anxious dog, you’ll get an anxious dog in that situation, if you pet a happy dog, you’ll likely see a happy dog when the situation presents itself again.
This is where our human compassion can really mess us up because when our dogs are scared, anxious or uncomfortable our tendency is to console and comfort them. But this is the last thing we should be doing. You have to remember that our dogs cannot understand the words we’re speaking to them, they only make associations. So when thunder booms overhead and your dog gets startled and shows signs of anxiety and you start stroking him saying, “Don’t worry its ok little guy. It’s only some noise . . .,” what your dog is taking from that is, “This is a big deal, remember how you feel right now in this situation.” And they pair the stimulus (thunder in this case) with their state of mind when they receive affection.
By petting them we are rewarding their state of mind at that moment and telling them that this is a big deal. Like kids, if we tell them it’s a big deal, they will believe us. What we need to do when they get anxious is to ignore them and not make a big deal of the situation. They will look to us and see that we are OK with whatever it is that has them spooked, and that nothing bad has happened to them, so it must be a non-event.
Ignoring works pretty good if it’s one of the first times that the dog has shown the anxiety to something, but if it’s been repetitive and reinforced that’s not going to have a big impact. You should still not give affection at that time but you will also have to do some active counter conditioning in a controlled setting to help your dog see improvements.
In this post I’m focusing on anxiety because it’s the most detrimental state of mind to reward that is the hardest to overcome. Severe anxiety is a difficult thing to adequately address (especially if the trigger is something uncontrollable, like thunder) and will take a lot of time and patience to see improvements. In some cases it may be necessary to supplement behavior modification with medication. This is a little out of my area of expertise so I’ve asked someone more qualified to be my guest blogger next week and give you some information on the topic of anxiety and medication.