Thursday July 8th
From a Dog’s Perspective
I have been thinking a lot about the uncomfortable positions we put dogs in unknowingly and how we can provide improved experiences for our dogs. While we love our dogs, we have clear expectations about how we believe dogs should behave. Many of these expectations do not allow dogs to display normal dog behavior or even what we would consider normal behavior for humans. Now hold on. Before you decide I am engaging in anthropomorphism (attributing human traits and emotions or intentions to non-human entities), hear me out. Frequently the behavior my clients want modified is quite simply, dogs being dogs. I oftentimes say, “This is normal dog behavior; however, I do understand it is not desirable behavior from a human’s perspective”. To carry that one step further, sometimes the behavior the dogs is exhibiting, would be normal for humans too. What do I mean by this? I had a client reach out because they were frustrated by their dogs’ reaction when friends or strangers entered the house. They felt like the dogs wild barking was over the top. We have all seen this right? A guest walks in the house, the dog goes crazy either barking with excitement, jumping up to greet the stranger or, barking uncontrollably with fear, lunging, and snapping. All the while the human is frustrated and yelling at their dog to “stop it, go lie down”. The dog is upset the human is upset and embarrassed. The guest probably didn’t enjoy it either, the classic, lose-lose scenario. There are many behaviors I can train a dog to do to assist in this situation. However, I also encourage my clients to take a step back and look at this from both a human and dog perspective. Let us start with the human perspective. Imagine, sitting in your home, relaxing, maybe watching tv and a stranger suddenly enters your home. You had no prior knowledge they were coming into your home. You would be a bit surprised and startled. You would start by asking loudly “Who are you, and why are you in my house?” Take it one step further, the person speaks a language different from yours. So now you have a stranger that has entered your home, unexpectedly, and they are speaking to you in a language you do not understand. The stranger gets frustrated because you don’t understand their language. You are still loudly asking “who are you” and maybe even scared for your safety. Feeling your heart rate rise just a bit thinking about it? This happens to dogs ALL. THE. TIME. Dogs are hanging out, a guest comes over, the dog of course was not expecting to suddenly have a person entering their home, they are startled and start barking. Dogs are often admonished for this barking at guests entering the home, labeled dumb, stubborn, or worse, aggressive to strangers. Yet interestingly, many people want a dog that will alert them to strangers entering the home, but only sometimes. They want the dog to know the difference between the “welcome” stranger and the “unwelcome” stranger, and act accordingly. Talk about setting a dog up for failure. Dog’s do not know the difference between a good or bad person, they know familiar from unfamiliar. And may even have the same reaction to both, but only the reaction to the unfamiliar is heralded as “good dog behavior”. How can we set our dogs up for success in this scenario? When you know a guest is coming over, do yourself, your dog and the guest a favor. Leash your dog up and meet your guest outside. Allow your dog the opportunity to meet this person in a neutral environment avoiding startling your dog. This is the perfect time to practice having your dog sit to be pet or greeted. Conduct your initial welcome to the guest outside and then together, all of you enter the home. Everyone will be much happier with the process. Your dog may still be excited to have a guest in the home, but they were not startled or scared. And it is possible they may need training on how you would like them to behave when guests come into your home. Training on “polite greetings”, “go to your mat” and stay”. Dogs depend on us to train them with love, and train them to know what to do in all situations. It is your job as a human caretaker to give them this information. Doing so allows everyone to be happier and you have avoided having them feel the fear of being startled. A win, win situation. In any valuable relationship we must manage scenarios and think about how everyone may feel in any given situation.
Let us take another common occurrence in most households-loud noises. Imagine yourself relaxing on the couch or your favorite recliner. You are just about to doze off and “BOOM” an extremely loud, unexpected noise scares the cool out of you. You jump up! Your heart is beating wildly! You ask loudly, “What was that!” The fear you feel is real. You have no idea what is happening. How could this have been avoided? This would have been an entirely different situation had you been able to prepare yourself for the loud noise. Again, avoiding the startle effect. Let us look at this situation from a dog’s perspective. They are taking a nap, resting peacefully. Suddenly they are shocked awake by the human innocently turning on the blender, garbage disposal, vacuum cleaner, or turning up the volume to blast their favorite song. Loud, everyday appliances we innocently turn on without giving our dogs any bit of warning. Add the startle and shock effect to the fact dogs can hear much higher frequencies than humans can. A young human with normal hearing can typically hear up to about 20,000 Hz (Gelfand, 2010, p. 166). Dogs can hear to 45,000 Hz (Heffner, 1983). Now dogs can learn to habituate to loud, everyday noises or there is risk develop a sound sensitivity fear. The physiology of a dogs brain can change when they are put into fearful situations on an ongoing basis. How can we avoid scaring our dogs like this? I am in no way suggesting we stop using the vacuum or blender and we all know our favorite song is that much better when blasted loudly. What I am suggesting is that we give our dogs warning, allowing them to prepare themselves for the forthcoming loud noise. What would that look like? As we have discussed in previous podcasts, dogs and humans learn in two different ways, through consequences which is operant conditioning and through association which is classical conditioning. I suggest we use classical conditioning to help our dogs prepare for oncoming loud noises. When your dog is awake, and alert, turn on music at a moderate level. Say the word “loud” and turn up the volume for just a second and then turn it down. Repeat this multiple times. This will help your dog start to associate the word “loud” with an oncoming sound or noise. You can even add a delicious treat into the mix. While the noise is on, give your dog a treat. We want your dog to associate loud noise with something good happening. The order of events is important. Say the word “loud”, wait one second and then moderately increase the volume, give your dog a treat, then decrease the volume. Once you have done this multiple times on multiple occasions, repeat the process with an appliance. Say “loud” and flip the appliance switch for 1 second, give your dog a treat, turn of the sound. Make this a part of your everyday activities. Anytime you are going to turn on something that produces a loud noise, be a pal, warn your dog. While they may not like the noise, they will appreciate the forewarning. As would you prior to any unexpected event. Set your dog and you up for success in all situations. If you are unhappy with any aspect of your dogs’ behavior, first ask yourself, why? Then develop a plan to help them. If your dog needs training, find a qualified, fear and pain free trainer to teach your dog what is expected. Teach your dog what you do want, and this will lessen the amount of time you are dealing with unwanted behaviors.
-Kathleen McClure with The Happier Dog is graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned a certificate in dog training and counseling. She is also a Fear Free Certified® and Separation Anxiety certified trainer with a BA in Psychology. Kathleen has worked with hundreds of families over the years to help them build the relationships they want with their dogs – and that always starts by realizing challenging or “problem” behaviors’ serve a purpose, pinpointing the purpose and devising a plan that works for both the dog and their human companions. Her life purpose is to create empathy for the positions we put dogs in and work with her clients to create your best-ever human-dog bond and relationship.