Dog Skills #101 for Resilience
If you’re anything like me, you may be reluctant to accept that training could make the difference for your reactive dog. It may whiff of women in tweed and brogues, completely at odds with how you want to live your life with your dog.
You may also think that there’s not much benefit in doing it, especially if your dog is reactive to other dogs.
Perhaps they’re frustrated around other dogs. Going to a class wouldn’t really help with that frustration.
Or maybe they’re just not that interested in other dogs. Going to class would be the canine equivalent of some annoying, tedious social event that you’d rather not attend.
Your dog might even be afraid of other dogs. Even though you know that it would really benefit them to get over that fear, you also know it would be really tough up close and personal with so many dogs.
Plus, truth be told, the notion of drilling your dog seems as painful as poking your eyes out with pins.
This often puts us at a bit of an impasse. Sometimes, it can even lead us to some pretty biased thinking.
Because we don’t want to do classes with our dog, we can end up justifying reasons not to go.
We probably wouldn’t even learn anything in class. And classes are not for us, or our dogs. That can end up with us justifying the fact that skills won’t help our dog. After all, skills can’t help with emotions, can they?
How training can help
Although classes probably aren’t the solution, we can’t fall into biased thinking. I’ve seen this line of argument used to justify doing nothing at all with dogs who are really struggling.
We end up hoping that our dog will just make more sense of the world given enough time and space.
Sadly, this is rarely true. It’s not as if you’ve been throwing them in at the deep end and taking them to poorly-named “dog socialisation” meetings which end up a huge free-for-all with a bunch of dogs who have no social skills.
Haven’t you already been giving them enough time and space?
Most of the clients I work with haven’t been regularly overwhelming their dogs or putting them in at the deep end. Sure, life throws them challenges from time to time, but it’s not as if they’ve been trying to resolve their dog’s problems by overwhelming them.
That said, we can fall into patterns of doing nothing. We hope that things resolve themselves.
We also justify this by thinking of resilience as a thing we are. In reality, resilience can also be defined as being the things we do in response to challenge.
In other words, it’s not just about being born with some lucky insouciance and bounce-back-ability. It’s also about behaviours in response to challenge.
When we see things like that, it makes it much easier to accept that resilience is a thing that can be taught as much as it is a way that we repeatedly respond to challenges.
Vital skills for resilience
If you’ve been following my Resilience Roadmap materials, you’ll know that Step #01 is about pre-training. We think about what resilience looks like in individuals. We think about what resilient dogs do. The eight skills covered in that article are just the beginning.
Some of the skills we need relate to walks. After all, if our dogs struggle with strangers or with unfamiliar dogs they see on walks, we might need to support them a bit.
Generally speaking, we’re looking to keep our dogs safe – which means we’ll need to learn some assertive skills ourselves sometimes. Yes, we’ve got to get really good at saying ‘no’ to people who ask to pet our dog if our dog is sensitive to that kind of stuff. Too often, we prioritise people pleasing and politeness over our dog’s emotional wellbeing.
That also means avoiding places with off-lead dogs if our dogs struggle with that. Unfortunately, the English-speaking world is a hugely permissive one in many ways. Where there are strongly enforced leash laws in some countries, in England for example, to leash a dog is seen as an infringement of their civil liberties.
I read an article about Dutch and Danish national parks today where there are ‘rest’ areas for wild animals. These laws also apply in France too. It’s against the law to let your dog rampage through such areas because they disturb the equilibrium of other animals. While it’s not done to let your dog terrify domestic animals such as sheep or cows, leash laws are often seen as a restriction rather than a protection for other species.
That means wrapping our heads around the fact that people will have off-leash dogs. And yes, they do sometimes in places with leash laws, but at least there, they are in the wrong.
Beyond environmental choices
These choices protect our dogs from unnecessary approaches. However, avoidance does not help our dogs learn new responses to situations that are challenging to them. It’s not actually helping them to become more resilient: it’s just preventing negative experiences.
The trouble with this is that while there are some ways we will need to keep our dogs safe, there are also some times when unpleasant situations are unavoidable.
For example, if our dog struggles with strangers, it’s not unlikely that their biggest struggle is at the vet. Unless their early vet visits established the vet as a friend, it’s unlikely they’ll feel differently about being handled. This can mean that we then avoid vet visits when a check up would have helped. Sometimes we leave things to the last minute with dogs who do not like the vet.
Where our vet relationship can be vital in early identification of health problems, especially those which impact our dog’s behaviour, it means we sometimes end up avoiding them.
That means we get to ask what resilient dogs do in the vet. Despite our dog’s view that our vet is a bone breaker or torturer, most of us know it will be uncomfortable, but rarely less uncomfortable than real-life pains. Mammograms and smear tests are unpleasant but I’ve hurt myself more getting out of bed quickly. Old age sucks.
Besides knowing what resilient dogs do on walks and in the vet, we also need to know how they cope with grooming. Understanding how they inhibit impulses and tolerate mild frustration can also help. Being an ‘eat anywhere’ kind of dog can help, as can being able to play or investigate anywhere too.
Beyond this, knowing what do do around strange humans is important, as well as how to focus on less intense things.
There are many things that can help us support our dogs outdoors. Being able to focus on us and move away is important. Lots of our less resilient dogs get stuck in hypervigilance. They also tend to respond at full intensity to things that are not a threat. Like sensitive smoke detectors, they detect danger easily when no danger is present.
Breaking these down into being able to look towards us, move towards us and disengage from the world and move on are key skills. Having other skills like being able to u-turn, do a 90° turn, perch two or four feet on walls or benches can also help. Even letting yourself be lured by the promise of food is a learnable skill that many of our reactive dogs don’t yet have.
Sometimes, we will need to help our hypervigilant dogs engage at low intensity in order to process novelty. Quite often, hypervigilant dogs don’t actually engage when they’d benefit from sniffing or watching from a distance. That’s also a learnable skill. We might need to teach them to look, smell or listen with purpose.
Our less resilient dogs may struggle with handling. Even though petting, stroking and brushing can be lovely, they may be very wary of contact from the humans they live with. In all honesty, humans are also very hands-on primates, grabbing and holding. We lift our dogs more than we should, and we pet them on our terms, not theirs.
Grooming and handling procedures can be a real challenge.
Even simple things like putting on a harness or lead can cause our dogs to experience a lot of conflict and it can be a time of confrontation.
Many skills can help here, from approach behaviours and targeting. In the dog training world, these are often known as ‘start button’ behaviours, where an item like a brush or nail clippers becomes a prompt for behaviours. When they are presented, the dog approaches and this signals their willingness to participate.
Platform training and specific cued muscle movements can also help. For instance, a dog who knows how to lift a paw rather than have it lifted is then able to participate in force-free nail clips or foot checks. We can teach dogs other things too. That can be anything from rear foot targeting through to opening their mouth on cue. Whatever we need to teach, cooperative care reduces much of the pressure.
It also allows us to do balance and coordination skills that can help hugely with health. Instead of having to manipulate the dog, we can take a hands-free approach.
Impulse control and frustration tolerance
Some people operate under the idea that we can’t support our dogs with impulse control. It is what it is, they say. Watching a video of a large German Shepherd playing with a tiny kitten reminded me of how ridiculous this notion is. Of course impulse control can be learned. We see it all the time in the dogs around us.
Many skills can help with this, such as learning how to control your body yourself. So many dogs have a disconnect when it comes to controlling their bodies themselves. This might be one reason that things like Movement Puzzles and proprioception are helpful with dogs who struggle to control certain aspects of their impulses.
Learning to wait, to leave and how to do things in a more controlled way can definitely help.
For frustrated dogs, learning to tolerate short delays, to build up durational stamina and to cope when rewards are downshifted or omitted can definitely help them. After all, if you can cope with small challenges, the big things get easier.
Skills for guests and strangers
The dogs I work with often struggle around guests. Some are anxious, jumping up all over them or even growling and barking. Others are suspicious and take a long time to warm up. We can make a big change to how our dogs cope by making small changes to our training.
These small changes take all the pressure off greetings, making them much less stressful.
Learning how to take time, how to create space and how not to fixate on the scary eyes can really help.
These also help our dogs bridge the gap between being around guests and interacting with them. Knowing how to do this safely and at low intensity is vital.
This means that we can introduce our dog to house sitters, to trusted guests or to other humans who’ll play a small part in their life. Rather than their world shrinking to one that is not much bigger than their guardian, we can include a few more humans who can help support us. As someone who lives alone with a dog who hates strangers, that can make an enormous difference, let me tell you!
Skills to relax
Would you laugh if I told you I once saw an Alexander Technique practitioner so I could move and breathe in more confident and relaxed ways? It really helped me understand how to take breaths that calmed me. I’m prone to the occasional panic attack, and I understood that this would be important in managing those.
We humans learn how to relax all the time. If you’re a hard-working, focused, dedicated or driven individual yourself, you may appreciate how hard that can be. We can all benefit from either structured time for relaxation or learning how to switch off.
It’s no different for our dogs.
‘Being calm’ is often seen as a voluntary choice for our dogs. Despite that, many of the dogs I work with simply do not know how to be calm. Learning how to do nothing, how to settle, how to relax, how to cope when other people are doing things… these are crucial skills for our dogs.
When we’re more sensitive to our dogs’ needs and we’re a little demotivated by the whole notion of ‘training’ or ‘teaching’, sometimes there can be subtle biases at work there. One of those biases is rooted in the fact that we may not want to admit that we’re not entirely sure how to teach these things. Or, we’ve been to classes where the trainers are used to working with ‘standard’ dogs. Many dogs cope admirably with modelling, shaping and luring.
Modelling is a technique where we move the dog’s body. Sometimes we might do this with a sit, pushing the dog’s back end to the ground. Even if we’ve moved on from that, we might teach a paw target by lifting the dog’s paw.
Shaping means waiting for the dog to make a small behaviour that will build up into the one we eventually hope they will be able to perform. For instance, with a 360° turn, we might reward their head turning slightly to the left.
Luring is where we have a food item or toy in our hand and we use this to get behaviour.
None of these are inherently bad. Some people who are ‘anti-training’ think nothing of lifting their dogs, for example, which is not much different than modelling. However, for less resilient learners, they can be easily deterred or they can struggle. Knowing how to teach dogs who are sensitive to rewards can help. It’s also useful to understand that improving technical accuracy is beneficial too.
Technical improvements aside, there are ways to teach certain skills that make it easier for our less resilient dogs to learn them.
Some dogs benefit from thinking differently about what and how we teach. Having foundations upon which you can build makes a huge difference too. Improving technical competence means that your dog will find it easier to learn.
If you are looking for support for your frustrated learner on outdoor skills, feel free to sign up to Mayhem to Maestro. This course is specifically for frustrated dogs. You may also wish to download your free copy of the Resilience Roadmap.
It’s also not too late to sign up to my 4-hour online course on Skills for Resilience
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