By Saro Boghozian, Expert Family Dog Trainer
Now that you have learned how to relax yourself, it is time to help your dogs to relax. Before we do that let’s find out what causes dogs to get anxious or stressed and also what the signs are of a stressed dog?
Dogs get nervous, anxious and unbalanced for many reasons which ultimately cause them to become unstable and unhappy.
The most popular reason is an apparent, yet very important one, which is simply the fact that a dog lives with a human. Dogs and humans live in a different order. The concept and the goal of life for each are very different.
For thousands of years, humans lived just like the animals and by many aspects of existence humans are living the way they do today. The style humans live today is completely different from the way they used to live thousands of years or even fifty or twenty years ago.
Dogs’ ancestors used to live in the wild thousands of years ago. Today’s dogs have been bred and customized for human needs. Throughout the years they have also evolved and changed. Most dog breeds of today are different than they were even fifty years ago. They have been modernized and have become a new animal although still embracing some of the canine instincts. Humans and dogs have different animal characteristics when it comes to life yet we both are animals. We both have evolved to a completely different species of animals and unfortunately we don’t communicate the same way or have the same value of life. This is the first reason why a dog is stressed. Many dogs adequately live with humans but may not be happy or stable especially if the dog is not the right match for that human. For this simple reason you need to be vigilant about maintaining and controlling your dog’s stress level.
Secondly, human’s may not give clear understandings or directions regarding what the dog’s role (I will have a separate article about the role of the dogs in future) is supposed to be when living with human. This means if a dog does not clearly understand what it’s to be and what it’s to do, then it will likely be stressed.
Let me give you an example. Many people want to have a dog that will be protective but also be a family dog. Although some dogs are not assigned to be protective dogs, they are given the position unknowingly and unwantedly by the dog owner. The reality is that these two – protection dog and family dog – are very different, independent, unique positions for a dog. Dogs can’t manage two things at once. It is also very hard for the dog handler to manage those two positions and for an average person or family, it is impossible. There are some special people and dogs that are able to make it happen which are mainly found in police and military forces.
The reason why it does not work out and it becomes confusing and stressful for the dog is because you are asking the dog to be aggressive in certain situations yet be very calm in other situations. These are two very different emotions or behaviours to teach a dog, plus manage and maintain so it becomes very complicated and confusing. The handler also needs to be on top of the dog constantly while working, training and maintaining the dog all day and night. Very few dog lovers and owners are dedicated to that level.
So, being clear of what the dog’s role must be is very important for the dog. The dog needs to know:
- Is it a companion?
- Is it a family member?
- Is it a guard dog?
- Is it just a dog?
- Is it a lap dog?
Once the role has been chosen, the dog needs to practice that role only and instructions need to be clear and concise.
Now comes the third part; teaching human rules to a dog that lives in a human society. Humans think that dogs know exactly what to do automatically just by living with humans. The fact is that most dogs are not familiar with human rules and need to be taught. Not knowing these rules means the dog will make many mistakes and then ultimately be punished for those mistakes; the result being a stressed dog. Let me explain this with another example in the form of a Q & A.
Why jumping and wagging tails is sign of stress?
One thing that you need to realize is that excitement in a dog is the beginning of a stressful state of mind if it is not controlled and managed properly. It will lead to many behavioural issues if it is not managed which will lead to even more stressful situations. This is because the dog has practiced excitement on many occasions and has not been taught to control its excitement level. Dogs celebrate with excitement, jumping and wagging their tails.
If excitement is practiced properly, it won’t be harmful but if it is done in an extreme way then it becomes a behaviour that can be harmful to both the dog and others. Excitement is a celebration and we want the dog to celebrate but in a more subtle way.
For humans it is normal or even it is a sign of happiness or satisfaction when a dog jumps on them or wags it tail enthusiastically. I understand it looks cute and sweet and it makes you feel good that your dog cares about you so much but the reality is that it is not a suitable behaviour for the dog to practice constantly, whether it is jumping on human or other dogs, unless it is in play form or managed.
Dogs on the other hand don’t like it when other dogs jump on them either. Most puppies will jump on adults and adult dogs will correct that behaviour, but humans interpret it either as cute, funny or even blaming the adult dogs for being aggressive when correcting the puppy. Excitement is the reason why a dog jumps on other dogs and people in the first place. Excitement at a certain level is acceptable and it is fine but as long as it is brief, it is manageable or celebrated in a different way. What I mean by that is as long as you can stop the dog’s excitement right away, it is not a very negative act. But in many cases no one is capable of stopping the dog right away so the dog never learns to stop or even slow down or better yet, learn to control its excitement level.
Dogs should learn that jumping on anything is not a good thing to do unless they have been told to do so or if it is in a play setting. The dog’s biological parents would have taught the dog this rule but since they are not around, the human has to take over this role of teaching and setting rules. The human has to teach that jumping (along with many other rules) is not tolerated neither on human nor other dogs in human society. But the dog needs to replace the jumping with something else, which may be with a sit command. That is teaching rules and giving a clear role to the dog. Now you are saying; “instead of jumping on people, sit in front of them”.
Relaxation in a dog is created by understanding it and infusing all the needed rules in the dog’s world throughout its life.
Finally, once the dog is clear about its role and how it is supposed to participate in human society, then comes the last part which is, providing the dog’s five common needs (exercise, training, socialization, care and affection) which have to be satisfied on a daily basis. This is to reinforce the rules and maintaining a healthy life for the dog.
After you consider all these parts, you have a better understanding of why your dog may be stressed and you will be able to see that your dog will be more relaxed and will have the ability to focus on what it needs to focus on which is relaxation.
But what are signs of a stressed dog? Here are few:
- A dog that does not sit or lie down throughout the day
- A dog that shadows the human all the time
- Gets anxious when left alone or away from you
- A dog that pays attention to every sound and every movement that happens
- Barks at everything or minor things
- Pulls on the leash
- Jumps on people
- Gets excited easily
- Plays a lot of Frisbee or chuck it game
- Is reactive to loud sounds
- Marks (pees) constantly
- Does not stay on stay command for a long time
- Chews, barks and licks itself when left alone
- Shivers or growls when told to do something
- Gets aggressive towards other dogs and people
When a dog is in any of these situations or other stressful situations, a dog owner may automatically get emotional and either gets very (soft) affectionate or very angry and triggers a lot of things to go wrong. Both emotions are very extreme forms of reactions and will not allow the dog to relax. In order for the dog to relax you need to relax first (have a positive energy and be in a neutral, positive state of mind) so the dog can focus on your non-extreme energy level. You need to be the role model for your dog so it can focus on and take in information.
Let me explain this part with another example.
Imagine a dog that reacts to loud sounds – i.e. thunderstorms. When this happens usually the dog gets into a panic mode and shuts down or hides somewhere. The dog owner feels sorry and lets the dog go and hide or they chase the dog down to come to them so they can do something about it. The dog is either left alone to deal with the situation or the dog owner deals with the situation improperly, unknowingly stressing it over and over again. Some use rescue remedy or a product like a Thunder Shirt but I believe the effects are either short-lived or do not work at all. Also, when depending on a tool, it does not allow the human and the dog to work together on the issue generally and intimately. You can’t expect a serious issue like a dog reacting to a sound to be fixed quickly but I believe anything is possible if done properly. In many cases it requires the dog owner to be patient and invest tons of time on the matter.
So, how do you solve this situation? How do you relax a nervous, anxious dog?
First and foremost, remember the reasons that I mentioned above which can cause your dog to be nervous. Your dog needs to know how to deal with a situation like this and have a solution. You need to have a plan too. The dog needs you to guide it through the experience, especially if you already know that your dog will react to thunderstorms.
First, by training your dog all the obedience commands, you will open up a communication system with your dog to be more connected to you and be under control. Training will also allow your dog to relax. Once the dog is under control, you will need to be prepared for the situation. You need to have your dog on leash or ask your dog to allow you to put the leash on. You need to keep your dog with you and give the command of “sit” or “lie down” and then “stay”. Now the dog has to focus on following the commands rather than the thunderstorm and your job is to follow through the command. The dog needs to deal with the situation with you, using you and your energy and what you have communicated to your dog. You need to help your dog to replace the anxious feeling activity in its mind with some other positive physical or mental activity. You can use the command of sit and stay but you can also replace it with a game or a toy or some other activity that the dog really loves to do. You can’t be frightened of the thunderstorm and react to it either. The more you repeat this activity and have a positive outcome, the easier it becomes for the dog to deal with it and learn the new behaviour.
Does petting the dog and sharing affection with a dog in a nervous, anxious situation help?
Yes and no. Remember, petting the dog is a form of sharing affection physically and mentally which also translates to the dog that it is or has been doing a good job. So, to answer the question; yes, you can be petting your dog if the dog gets in a relaxed, calm, non-reactive state of mind but it won’t work if the dog is in a panicked and stressed mind set. If the dog is in stress mode and you pet the dog, you will agree with that state of mind and the dog will interpret as you support that behaviour. Instead of sharing affection, share knowledge and information with your dog so it can learn what to do next time rather than being spoiled by affection. When sharing affection or petting the dog in this situation, you confuse the dog and it won’t learn a new, positive behaviour.
In my opinion the best tool to de-stress a dog is when you work with the dog’s mind. The mind is where it produces the stress. The mind also controls the physical reaction of the dog where the body starts to join in which is the second level of a stressed condition. When both body and mind are combined, they sometimes produce a volcano of emotions which makes us feel really defeated and sometimes visually it looks really bad but once you know that it is just matter of creating balance in your dog’s life and in your relationship then you can create relaxation in your dog’s mind.
You can use the same method of relaxation in your dog with any situation but remember if a dog is not clear about its position, if your dog’s needs are not satisfied and if it is not completely under control of the human, it will be stressed. The stress can lead to many other behavioural issues. Many behavioural issues worsen the stress level of a dog which creates never ending situations in the dog’s and the owner’s lives.
Practice calmness with your dog in any situation that comes up. Do not excite your dog for simple reasons. I see many dog owners easily getting their dogs excited and propelling them to level ten in no time and then have a hard time bringing the level down to zero. Calmness can make your dog relax faster.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://www.jonahsark.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/saro-boghozian.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Saro received his expert dog trainer certification from The College of Canine Behavioural Science and is also a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers and does volunteer behaviour consultation with a number of dog rescue organizations. Saro’s play, praise and reward training classes are always in high demand as are his private one-on-one training sessions. Rather than using treats or gimmicks like shock collars, Saro’s training methods help owners understand how to use a dog’s natural intelligence to achieve success.[/author_info] [/author]