Adaptability is the key to your dogs success
Survival of the fittest means being the most able to cope and succeed in the environment it finds itself in. Every day I see resilience in the animals at the Humane Society of the South Platte Valley where I work. Most have been either displaced from their environment after being relinquished, found or basically captured and moved into the shelter. After the first two days something happens in these animals. They start thinking and moving forward. Dogs in particular and incredible at moving forward. They quickly realize that people are the key to their livelihood and not only do they accept the staff and volunteers but they actually for lack of a better word, fall in love with them. There is a clear gratitude and appreciation when they are pet, fed and taken out for walks. These dog’s bodies wiggle in anticipation and they radiate joy with ever single interaction.
These shelter dogs could teach most owned pet dogs a thing or two about strangers. I help people every week with their dog’s who don’t tolerate changes to their environment like new neighbors, people coming in the house (to visit), or a new baby being born.
When we as trainers encourage socializing dogs at an early age we are trying to create more resilience in dogs ability to perceive change and cope with stress and neophobia (fear of new people, places and things). Animals rely on this stress reaction which feeds a defensive drive to keep them alive. If we able to convince our dogs they are safe and secure in a multitude of different environments they will be more suited for changes and shifts in their environment over time.
Habits are created by dogs the more they perform motor pattern behavior but these habitual behaviors often rely on environmental cues to be triggered into action. The trouble is pet dog owner’s tend to think of behavior more as personality traits than conditioned responses based on past successes and failures. I hear things like “he is stubborn” or “she’s an alpha” sorry our dog is a “jerk”. These social constructs are used to justify and explain behavior as it is perceived by the owner but it only hurts your chances of helping your dog. If you internalize the behavior by saying, “my dog doesn’t like dogs because he is dominant” you take everything from your dog and discredit the most important aspect of the behavior. YOU HAVE SIGNIFICANT INFLUENCE ON YOUR DOGS BEHAVIOR. Did I make that clear enough?
All behavior is conditional, meaning if the conditions of the environment were to change, the behavior itself would change. If your dog barks at every dog it see’s you can influence a lot of the environmental cues to help your dog learn what you want him to do when he see’s dogs. If your dog reacts to the sound of dogs walking past your home, decrease his access to the front of the house or decrease the ability to hear it with audio sound in your home (radio, tv, sound cubes, white noise). If your dog reacts when he see’s dogs… well it’s not that simple. Observe if he reacts at 10 feet, 20, 30 feet away from the other dog? Does he react at the same distance if he is in a new park versus in your front yard? Probably not, figure out what your dog can tolerate. Then you can build a positive association working just at the boundary of what he can tolerate.
Don’t subscribe labels to you dog’s behavior because it will keep you powerless and thinking you can’t change it for the better. Dog love to please us if we have a strong relationship. Don’t be stingy. If your dog does something great or surprising tell him how wonderful he is with your voice, pet and if needed high value food rewards. If you dog hates the sight of dogs, try giving him hot dogs when he see’s dogs from 30 feet away. I bet he starts to pay attention to you when you are out on your walks.
You can also train through play. Play releases bonding hormones and naturally increases your desire to work through cooperation. Free play can help with problem solving, release of energy, develop strategies, regulate arousal. Stop thinking of the dog daycare or dog park as play for your dog. That’s more like taking your dog to the bar, he is more likely to get into a fight or fixate or trying to mate than build good habits that will help you train your dog. If you dog is obsessed with dogs on your walks, stop going to group play environments, it is hurting your relationship with your dog. GO PLAY WITH YOU DOG! Find an activity you can do together. Cooperative play is the way.
Dogs are social creatures. Although they are canids by species today’s modern dog is more a part of the human pack than the dog community. If your dog gets to play with a TRUSTED dog friend who they see regularly they get positive social connection not meaningless. Socializing your dog with a group of stranger dog’s creates stress and defense drive. Friendships come when dogs feel they can raise the energy and relax together. They need to be able to regulate the stimulation. The worst form of play is what people seem to think dogs need today which is “stranger pack play” or going to a dog park or dog daycare and hoping this will make our dogs more social and easier to manage. The truth is the opposite. If you take your dog on a regular basis to this form of play environment they will have a harder time regulating stress hormones, feeling safe, making dog friends and they will lose the most important aspect of the human-animal bond which is playing with their owner. The more you take your dogs to these play environments the less likely you are to participate in play with your dog. Sadly you will sacrifice the most authentic part of the human-canine bond for these artificial experiences with good intentions and bad results.
Your dog is a resilient, sensitive animal who is capable of change. Are you? Go out and work with your dog. Dedicate a few focused minutes every day to something that will bring you closer.