How to Teach Your Dog Emotional Resilience
Dealing with a dog who barks and lunges on leash can be a daunting challenge for any owner. If you’ve tried just toughing it out, you know that simply exposing them to the things that bother them won’t solve the problem. And hoping they’ll magically become comfortable with the world around them is a pipe dream. In fact, repeating the same strategy over and over might even backfire. It could simply make them more fearful and reactive than ever before.
Some trainers advocate for harsh methods that involve forcing your dog to face their fears. This may even involve using muzzles or punishment. Unfortunately, this approach only suppresses their behaviour, without actually addressing the underlying emotions causing the distress. This can lead to a dog who no longer trusts you. Sometimes then, they don’t even trust their own instincts. That makes it even harder for them to learn the difference between safety and danger.
But there is hope! By using positive training methods and understanding your dog’s individual needs, you can help them build the emotional resilience they need to face the world with confidence. In this post, we’ll explore some effective strategies that will help your dog overcome their fear and live their best life.
The twelve core skills of emotional resilience
There are twelve key components to emotional resilience. Emotions are dynamic. They are ever in motion, constantly fluctuating and changing. As a result, it works best when we take a flexible approach to training dogs who struggle with all those Big Feelings at times. We need to be adaptable and adjust our support in the moment.
As a social species ourselves, we are experts at helping others become emotionally resilient. We help each other gain perspective through conversation and therapy, for example. When we see our children struggling with their feelings, we support them and comfort them. We check in with ourselves and with others around us to adapt our emotions to the situation at hand.
As adults, we are able to do this for ourselves in many circumstances. Sports players might amp up their emotions before a match in order to give them the appetite to win. Poets, painters or musicians might hold on to and explore moments of deep sadness in order to express their feelings as art.
Sometimes, we tone down our positive emotions because they might be inappropriate at the time. If you’ve ever had a moment at a funeral where you remembered something funny that happened with the deceased, you probably held on to that laughter rather than guffawing in church. Likewise, if you were turned down for a job you really needed, you probably refrained from bursting into tears in the interview room.
There are many times when we help others manage their emotions. Occupying children on Christmas Eve or supporting the bereaved are two ways we step up to help.
Supporting others is a primary advantage of being a social species. It’s part and parcel of living with dogs to help them when they need it too.
#1 Teach important skills separately
Many people haven’t really thought about what they want their dog to do instead of barking and lunging. Sometimes, we’re also inconsistent. This can make it very confusing for our dogs. Sometimes we want them to walk on. Other times, we expect them to stand still. We might ask them to sit or to ‘go say hello’.
This can make it very confusing for our dogs, who never know what is expected of them.
We also fail to do the groundwork. We expect them to be able to pull 97 behaviours out of the bag in situations that they have Big Feelings about.
The simplest way we can address this is to pick one thing we want our dogs to do instead of barking and lunging. This may be something as simple as turning to look to us for more guidance. Then, we might expect them to walk away, walk on or to sit and wait politely.
When we are clear about what we want, we can then practise these skills separately to turn them into habits for our dogs. Instead of asking for them only when our dog is barking and lunging, if we teach them broadly and widely in lots of other situations, we will make it much easier for our dogs to understand what to do.
#2 Choose situations selectively
Although it can be very hard to find alternative places to walk our dogs, if we keep putting them back into the same old situation, we cannot expect things to change. One way we cope with challenge is picking our battles carefully. We don’t cure a fear of swimming by taking a dive off the top board in the pool. We don’t cure our fear of public speaking by addressing an auditorium of 8000 people.
It is probably not your plan to avoid situations for the rest of your dog’s life. If your dog is young and has a fear of the vets, it’s impossible and impractical to avoid going there just because your dog doesn’t like it.
Even so, for a short time as you develop the skills you need (see #1) then it helps to avoid situations where your dog will not be able to cope.
#3 Make changes to the environment
We can also adapt the environment if we cannot escape the situation. For instance, if we know our dog barks and lunges at other dogs, we can make changes if that happens. One way we can do this is to walk earlier or later. That way, we avoid other dogs.
Another way we regularly do this is to u-turn and get out of the way. If we see dogs coming towards us, we can peel off and move out of the way. We might choose to move into a side-street or to stand behind a hedge.
In many ways, this is very similar to #2. Management like this is not a long-term strategy, but it can definitely help in the short term or from moment to moment. Working on the things that cause our dogs to have all those Big Feelings is vital, though.
#4 Help dogs direct their attention
If you’ve ever sat waiting in dread for results of a test, you’ll know how useful it can be to simply take your mind off things. Giving our dogs something else to do can really help. This kind of ‘busy work’ can occupy dogs instead of focusing on their trigger.
Like #1, it helps if we have a long history of doing this busy work elsewhere. One simple game is the ‘up-down game’ from Leslie McDevitt’s Pattern Games. Another that is really helpful is Deb Jones’ ‘two-treat toss’. Before we use these games in real-life scenarios, it does help to have practised them widely before we need them. Another reason to do that is that the game itself doesn’t become a predictor that things are about to get hectic.
There is no point trying to do busy work with a dog who knows that the only time you dig out the treats is when a squirrel comes on the scene. We need to make sure our dogs have strong habits of engaging with us on walks or allowing us to keep them busy.
Busy work can be ideal if you spot something that your dog would bark and lunge at, but you know it’s likely to have moved quickly. Say you spot a cat before your dog does. Busy work can help avoid the all-too-predictable barking and lunging as soon as the cat starts to move. Taking a minute out of your walk to keep your dog’s eyes and mind busy can really help.
#5 Change your dog’s emotional perspective
Many training programmes for reactive dogs work on helping dogs change emotional perspective. They will also have ideas to help you do #1 to #4. For instance, Amy Cook’s Play Way includes a section on management which covers steps 1-4 in detail. Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training also includes staged set-ups and guidance on some aspects of steps 1-4.
But dog trainers know that management isn’t a true solution for most dogs.
One thing we cannot do here is hope for the best. Changing how dogs feel about things is hard. It’s hard for humans, too. Therapeutic services abound these days for that very reason.
For anxious dogs, it’s important that we work at low intensity levels of emotion. On the other hand, if your dog is barking and lunging out of frustration, research shows that this step probably won’t be that effective. We can’t convince our dogs that squirrels aren’t exciting, after all.
Any dog training programme that requires your dog to engage with triggers works at this stage in the process. It can be a very powerful tool for negative emotions. It may even be a necessary part of our dog’s training programme.
Even so, it’s a delicate part of teaching emotional resilience because it can make dogs worse rather than better, so it needs to be handled sensitively. This is especially true if our dogs’ barking and lunging is rooted in desire, frustration or lack of impulse control.
#6 Disengage when prompted
Most of us have one thing in common if we live with dogs who bark and lunge. We just want them to stop doing it when we ask. We want them to stop paying attention to whatever it is that’s bugging them or exciting them. Then we want them to carry on with something else.
The ‘something else’ is why we need to start teaching separately in #1. What is that something else you want your dog to do? Have you practised it widely so that you’ve got an almost perfect response every time you ask?
Say for instance, you just want your dog to keep walking by on a loose lead. Can your dog walk by lesser distractions on a loose lead? Could they walk past a dropped sandwich if you asked? A particularly delicious smell if you asked?
This is why it’s vital that we are clear about what we want our dogs to do instead. Then we need to practise it widely wherever we can.
There are lots of ways we can teach this. We could teach them a ‘leave it!’ cue. We can simply teach them to recall to their name when we ask. We could teach them a ‘look at me!’ cue or a ‘watch!’ cue. We also need this behaviour to be really simple and really clear. Consistency is vital here.
#7 Disengage unprompted
Unless we plan on prompting our dogs every single time they’re distracted, we probably would like our dogs to do it themselves sometimes. After all, none of us wants to be walking an ancient dog who needs us to watch them the whole time in case we need to tell them to ignore things.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dog who just disengaged of their own volition?
It would be much less work for us!
Like all the other skills, this is one that is best taught separately. After all, if your dog can’t pay less attention to things in your home, then they will struggle in the outside world which is much more distracting.
Setting up teaching environments in the home can be as simple as noticing and rewarding our dogs every time they disengage their nose, eyes, head and brain from interesting things or new things they see. Simply putting out five or six new items of fairly low value to our dogs can give us the perfect environment to reward them every time they pull their nose away.
My dog Lidy has many bad habits. She once spent six hours searching for a rat in the woodpile. As you’ll see in the video, she disengages volitionally and when prompted from things in the environment that grab her attention.
We get what we practise. If we want our dogs to be able to disengage their attention, we need to teach them how to do that. We also need to make sure it is rewarding.
#8 Reduce attentional focus on triggers over time
As our dogs learn to be more emotionally resilient, we will often find that they naturally spend less time focusing on triggers. After all, if your dog knows they are safe, they don’t need to pay all that attention to noisy dogs over the fence. If they know that they don’t get to chase the squirrels or the cars, then they’ll find other more rewarding things to do.
We can help this process along through careful use of rewards. In general, though, it is often a process that the dog needs to be in charge of. After all, we can’t get in their brains and start digging around in there! As our dogs learn to be more emotionally resilient, they also learn to cope better by themselves. This process is known as self-regulation. Self-regulation is often our goal because it means that we have truly equipped our dogs with the skills to manage their own emotions. Management removes all choice from the dog.
Having to support our dogs all the time can also get tiring. This is especially true if they have many triggers. When we’re helping our dogs learn to manage what to pay attention to and when to pay things no mind, it relieves the pressure on us too.
#9 Direct attention elsewhere without prompting
Back at #4, we were doing all the support. We’re prompting the dog and giving them busy work to keep their focus away from exciting or fearful things around them.
As in #8, it’s ideal if our dogs start to internalise that practice and actually find things to do themselves without prompting. After all, I hope as a grown-up adult, you’re not still relying on the older generation to help keep you busy on Christmas Eve because it’s all simply too exciting! When you’re very excited or you’re worrying, it’s very normal to learn to find things yourself to keep you busy.
This also gives our dogs more autonomy. Instead of giving them things to do that might not be that appealing to them, it allows them to choose for themselves.
The key question we can ask ourselves here is what our dogs were doing before the trigger came along? If our dog was merrily walking along, sometimes stopping to smell stuff and have a pee, then that’s the kind of stuff we would like them to go back to.
It’s never our intention that our dog shouldn’t feel able to pay attention to distractions.
Looking, listening and sniffing are all normal behaviours. What we need is a dog who can notice things and then move back to what they were doing. The more they can do this without us prompting them, the better.
#10 Choose to ignore distractions
Right now, I have my phone sitting pinging away beside me. I am choosing to ignore it, scintillating as the latest gossip may be. I’ve got stuff to do – like writing this article!
When we voluntarily choose to ignore distractions, we are mindfully and effortfully selecting what we pay attention to. I hear the sounds of my phone, just like I can hear my neighbour’s dog barking as I type. But I am deliberately choosing not to focus on them.
But how can dogs do this?
Can they also select what to pay attention to and ignore distractions?
Of course. They’re doing it when they’re barking and lunging at a dog instead of listening to you. In that case, you’re the distraction. If you’re calling your dog back and they’re not paying attention, they are selecting what to pay attention to.
In scentwork, when a dog is choosing to follow one odour and not pay attention to others, they are showing us they can do this very skill. If you’re sitting at home watching television and your dog is ignoring the loud bangs and music in an action scene in favour of chewing their bone, then they’re selecting what to pay attention to. The bone is important; the television is not.
We can aid this process by giving our dogs interesting things to do and helping build their attentional focus by practising activities such as mantrailing and scentwork. These all stretch our dogs’ concentration and focus.
#11 Unprompted focus on other activities
#10 goes hand-in-hand with another skill: focusing on other things. As you saw in the examples above, we can make it easier for our dogs to ignore the unimportant by giving them other things to focus on instead. Here, we are leaving it to the dog to make the choice rather than prompting them or giving them requests.
It’s like two sides of the same coin: ignore the irrelevant and focus on the relevant.
In fact, many of our dogs who bark and lunge have been focusing on things that we wish were irrelevant. Of all the things they could pay attention to, they often pay attention to the one thing they don’t need to. For anxious dogs, they may focus on other dogs or strangers even though they are very far away.
Learning to pay things no mind is easier when you’ve got better things to be mindful about.
#12 Tune out from distractions
When we’re very engaged in an activity, we often find that we have tuned out the irrelevant. We may find that we are so engrossed in what we are doing that it takes a lot to even get our attention. For my dog Heston, who struggled as a youngster with cows, he got to the point in life that once a cow stuck her head over the fence and mooed at him and it was only then that he noticed the herd right there at the gate.
Right after, he went straight back to sniffing the ground for hares and deer. The cows were as irrelevant to him as cowslips and daisies. They might as well not have been there.
This is the final stage of emotional resilience, where we are so used to the world that we barely notice it. We’re in the zone. Unlike kids at a funfair, whose attention is grabbed by every single attraction, we are focused and calm, able to prioritise. We can pick what we choose to pay attention to. We can also tune everything else out.
It’s up to us to help our dogs move from a life of reactivity to one of adaptation and resilience. It can be challenging to consider how we can help our dogs move from step to step, especially when there are hundreds of programmes promising to help.
In reality, it’s much more simple in many ways.
We also need to remember that the importance of these twelve factors is that they are flexible. We don’t reach #12 and we pass into the Twelfth Circle of Enlightenment and Doggy Zen. There will be times, even with a dog who is mostly #12 and coping alone that we’ll need to step up. Health changes things, for example. When we’ve had an upset, that can also sensitise us to the environment again. Changing scenarios can also make us sensitive to things we thought we’d got used to.
As long as we look to our dog and ask what support they need, we should be fine! Over the next few posts, I’ll be unpicking the most important aspects of these twelve steps to give you more support.
To find out more
Check out this article about anxiety
You can read this article about fear
You can also read this article about frustration
Check out this video on Youtube about anxiety
You can check out this video on Youtube about fear
You can check out this video on Youtube about frustration
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