Five Reasons Why Your Dog May Lack Resilience

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

Five Reasons Why Your Dog May Lack Resilience

August 8, 2023 Uncategorised 0

Many of the dogs I work with lack resilience. They also face difficulties in managing their emotions, sensing threat everywhere. Anxious and fearful dogs are often very sensitive to situations where they’ve experienced danger before, even if they’re not dangerous now. Often, they fail to downgrade situations from CRITICAL to NON-THREATENING.

Not only that, anxious and fearful dogs often interpret neutral or unfamiliar situations as threatening too. They are very sensitive to threat.

The reasons why dogs lack resilience is complicated. Consider resilience as a jigsaw with many pieces. The more pieces that are missing, the more our dogs are likely to struggle.

Sadly, humans can be very simplistic in our thinking at times. As a result, we fixate on one part of the jigsaw at the expense of the others. This also leads us to thinking our dogs can be ‘fixed’. The hardest part of my job is often helping guardians understand that there may be situations in life in which their dogs will never be able to cope.

The five major components to resilience

Many guardians can identify one single moment where they first noticed their dog struggled to cope. If I think about the dogs I’ve lived with, I might think of the time when Heston barked frantically at a neighbour who came onto the property and startled him. For Lidy, I might think of her surrender at a critical age to the shelter.

In reality, our dogs will cope better with these single events if they are optimistic and resilient to start with. It’s rarely just that one single moment. Resilient dogs will shake off those single moments and carry on without any change to their life. They recognise it for what it is: a unique event.

Although there are many more components to resilience, there are five that we should really consider: genes, pre-natal experiences, neo-natal experiences, maternal care and socialisation.

The dog training world likes to think of socialisation as being the most significant of these. As you can see when we put them in chronological order, socialisation is one of the final pieces in the puzzle. Socialisation is very important, without a doubt. However, if we think it is the only piece in the puzzle, we fail to appreciate the complexity of resilience.

Genetic components to resilience

Back in the 1960s, US Army psychiatrist Oddist Murphree wanted to understand the genetic factors that meant some soldiers returned from battle and then suffered much more than others. He used pointers in his research to find out to what degree anxiety was genetic. Over several generations, he selected for anxiety, breeding anxious dogs to anxious dogs.

What he showed was that anxiety had heritable features. In comparison to a control group, anxious litters had marked differences in how they responded to the world.

Because of the ways laboratories function, it’s easy to reduce variables that might affect this. Murphree’s work has been repeated many times. Research like this often uses a process called cross-fostering, where the babies of an anxious mother are swapped with the babies of a non-anxious mother. This allows researchers to understand the influence of environment and nurturing. Even though maternal care plays a role in building resilience, genes also play a substantial role.

Largely because of the commodification and organisation of dog breeding in Western societies, we often see the disastrous impact of this on the dogs we live with. The more we move to a factory model of breeding that focuses on looks rather than temperament, the more we realise that many of our dogs are born with a genetic legacy that can be hard to overcome.

Gestational stress

The placenta is a marvellous organ. It has evolved to help the foetus prepare optimally for life after birth. It is part of our evolutionary heritage that helps prepare us for the world in which we will live.

Not everything passes through the placenta. It’s often called the placental barrier for exactly that reason. Lots of things can go in one direction or the other, though. Cortisol is one of these. Researchers believe that stress hormones prepare the foetus for the life to come. High levels of stress hormones prepare puppies for a life of hardship and stress, making them sensitive to the environment. Being a sensitive threat detector in times of stress can save your life. A curious, exploratory rodent born into a dangerous world probably won’t last very long.

It can be very tempting then to think that we should reduce all stress in the lives of pregnant dogs. Ironically, this doesn’t prepare the unborn puppy any better for a safe world.

We often talk about ‘optimal’ stress when we talk about gestational experiences. We want the ‘Goldilocks’ level of stress. Too much will sensitise the puppy. They won’t be prepared for a life that’s mostly safe. Too little will mean our young dogs lack resilience when they encounter stress, going to pieces and taking ages to recover.

But it’s more than simply finding the right level.

It’s about finding the right level for the life the dog will live. This may be a contributory factor to why dogs struggle when transplanted from one life to another. Surely rescuing a dog from the streets and giving them a life of safety is a good thing? Surely the impact of maternal stress on the unborn puppy in puppy mills can’t matter that much?

Maternal Care Styles

We’re long past the days of blaming the mother for a lack of resilience, thankfully! The days when ‘cold mothering’ were blamed for all kinds of things from psychopathy through to autism are long gone. Considering cause brings out the most blinkered behaviour in humans.

Yet we do know that maternal style matters. Again, it comes back to that key word: ‘optimal’. This is especially relevant in mammals where maternal care style affects how the newborn offspring cope with stress. Researchers were able to see this in cross-fostering projects. The amount of care and attention paid to the puppies is important. There’s some small evidence that this has sex differences too: it matters more for boys than it does for girls.

Careful breeders are sensitive to this. They may have a dog who’d win all kinds of titles at show, but if that dog is a neglectful mother, then responsible breeders will never breed from her.

We also know, though, that there is a cumulative effect of these jigsaw pieces. It won’t matter quite so much if the parents and grandparents are optimistic, curious and emotionally stable, and if the prenatal experience was good. With anxious genes and too much (or too little!) prenatal stress, the impact of maternal care can make things much worse. It can also improve things too.

Neonatal experience

In normal circumstances, animals move their pre-mobile offspring around as well as caring for them. Even though they are only able to wiggle and root, young puppies will sometimes get a little cold. Sometimes they’ll get a little hungry. When mum isn’t there, they depend on the litter for warmth, but they cannot depend on the litter for nourishment. This is why whelping boxes are important when raising puppies, and why programmes like Jane Messineo Lindquist’s Puppy Culture involve processes like early neurological stimulation, to help build physiological reflexes and provide some minor physiological stress.

It’s easy to think of puppies being cocooned from the world in the first weeks, but they are sensitive to tactile stimulation, temperature and smell long before they can see or hear. Exposure to these sensations can help familiarise them with the world in which they will live long before their eyes and ears are functioning.

Again, you can understand why puppy farms are a bad idea. In fact, we could argue that free-roaming mothers provide this step naturally where dogs in a puppy farm cannot. It’s something for shelters and foster-based networks to be sensitive to as well. Moving infants, cleaning infants and even moving away from them for short periods is part of normal early experience. It’s important. Despite this, modern rearing practices often make it impossible.


Socialisation is a poor name for a process that involves helping young dogs get used to the world and create the cognitive schemas through which they will interpret unfamiliar experiences as they age. Often, there’s little ‘social’ about it at all.

So often, we are obsessed with tick boxes and check lists of who dogs should meet. I’d argue we’d be better to build coping schemas for novel situations rather than inadvertently freaking our dogs out at a very sensitive age.

Schemas are simply frameworks that help us interpret the world. I think often of Greebo, the fictional cat in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series when I think of mental schemas. He divided the world into things to breed with, fight with or eat. If it didn’t fall into those categories, it was irrelevant.

Puppies have a longer period where they are less fearful than adult animals in comparison to wolves. This lengthier ‘socialisation’ window is what some researchers think allows us to live with dogs at all. Indeed, there are fairly substantial differences between breeds that show us we can manipulate this brief time period to a degree. Even so, it is still a short period before schemas decide that ‘approach with caution’ is the best. This is the default setting for many animals. We think of wolves as apex predators for instance, yet they are surprisingly cautious around novelty.

In fact, where they have not learned this natural caution, welfare agencies may often end up having to kill them, because they approach human settlements far too regularly. One such ‘friendly’ young wolf in Yellowstone National Park caused concern because caution wasn’t his default setting with humans.

Revising our thinking

The more we learn, the more nuance we have to appreciate. This can be tough when human brains are designed for simplicity and clarity. We’re not that far from black-and-white thinking about emotions, resilience and anxiety.

We also need to appreciate that complexity actually benefits us. We can breathe a sigh of relief that those one-off events were probably not the reason why our dogs may struggle. Taking our dog to a puppy class where they were mugged by six unsocialised adult dogs or that one time our neighbour snuck in and startled them is unlikely to be the cause of their response to stress.

At the same time, we can’t keep ignoring the cumulative effects of industrialised methods of puppy ‘production’ or thinking of rescue puppies as a blank slate. We need educated and responsible breeders just as we need very, very educated and responsible shelters and fosterers. We can offset some of the impact of anxious genes and poor pre-birth experience, although we can’t entirely make up for those missing pieces of the jigsaw.

As guardians, we also need to revise our thinking too. We need to accept that when pieces are missing, then we can’t expect our dogs to function in the same way as they would otherwise. A dog with sub-optimal resilient genes, inadequate pre-natal experience, lack of quality maternal care, poor post-natal experience and no socialisation is not the same as a dog who has all of the optimal benefits life can provide.

What else?

It’s easy to feel helpless when you realise your dog is missing a substantial number of pieces in the resilience jigsaw. We can help by supporting them. Dogs are a social species, like we are.

You can also download a copy of the Resilience Roadmap here

You can also learn more about resilience with this webinar.

If you want to know more about fear and anxiety, you can find posts here and here

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