How teaching anxious dogs what to do can help them feel less anxious

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Is your dog anxious?  In my position as a professional trainer, I see a lot of anxious behavior:  anxious behavior in dogs, anxious behavior in cats… even anxious behavior in humans whose pets are making them anxious!  The exact behavior varies, but the underlying issues are often similar.  Our pets lives can be stressful, and that stress can come out in funny ways.

Reducing anxious behavior

There are two main methods for reducing anxious behavior in dogs and other pets.  One is to change the animal’s emotional response, so there is less stress to begin with.  For example, you might give a dog a treat every time he sees a scooter, which helps the dog learn that maybe scooters aren’t so bad.  The other method — which in some ways is even more powerful — is to give the pet better behavioral tools for dealing with the anxiety-producing situation.

What I mean by “behavioral tools” is acceptable behavioral alternatives—behaviors that we humans can live with, and which also help the dog (or other pet) feel safer and more in-control. When you teach animals what to do (rather than working on punishing problem behavior), you give them something to focus on instead of the stress.  And that can lead to good results even in cases where the underlying stress isn’t going away.

Why don’t we do it in the road?

Here’s a human example for you, from my own life.  Recently, there’s been a construction project going on in my neighborhood.  I’m not entirely sure what they’re working on (which adds to the stress), but the project is snarling traffic in the area, and they’ve put down big metal plates that make me a bit nuts.  Each of these metal plates is massive and has ridges every four inches or so.  The ridges are raised, so when you drive over the plates, the steering wheel rattles in your hand, and your tires make what to me—a trained musician—is a really awful noise.  A few weeks ago, I realized I was stressed out every time I approached the area, because I knew I was going to have to deal with that awful rattle.

So I put my animal trainer hat on.  Avoiding the area was not a good option—it’s a route I take a lot—so I started to think about what I could do instead of focusing on the rattle.  After some thought, I decided I would act silly and make a rattling noise along with the car every time I drove across the metal plates.  It gave me something to think about other than the vibrating steering wheel, and it also covered up the rattling sound if I did it loud enough.

The result? I started to feel a little better driving there.  I still don’t love the metal plates, but my level of stress is tolerable.  I know what to do when I drive across the plates, and before I know it, the plates are behind me.  Making the noise is kind of fun, too.  My dread of the area is more or less gone (though I’ll still be happier when the road is back to normal).

You have a point here, right?

Yes, I promise I have a point.  And here it is: Imagine you have a dog who is uncomfortable around other dogs.  Every time she sees a dog on a walk, it makes her very anxious.  She gets so anxious, in fact, that she starts to bark and lunge.  So you teach her a simple behavior pattern:

When you (my dog) see another dog, I will say your name.  When you look at me in response to your name, you will get a treat.  Or if you choose to look at me before I say your name, you can get a treat for that too.  Now let’s repeat that, while continuing to walk on.  If you need me to, I will do this with you ten times in a row!

It’s as if we’re saying “I’m here to help you in your time of need.”

What are you teaching your dog when you do this?  You’re teaching her that (A) when she sees other dogs, treats appear.  This helps her learn to feel less stressed about the sight of other dogs.  You are also teaching her that (B) when she sees other dogs, she can focus on checking in with you rather than barking and lunging at the other dog.

I don’t know if I can ever make a dog who is anxious about other dogs feel completely safe and comfortable around other dogs (sometime trauma is permanent).  What I do know is that I can teach her something to do in that situation, so that she doesn’t have to focus on her traumatized feelings.  And I know that as she gets good at the alternative behavior, the problem behavior will lessen or even disappear.

The best results come from focusing on teaching behavior you like

Focusing on what you want your pet TO DO, rather than what behavior you want to stop, may seem like a small thing, but the impact of it can be huge.  Next time your pet does something you find distressing, stop and ask yourself this question: What could my pet do in this situation that would make things easier for both of us?  The answer is your next training goal!

Need help finding the right substitute behavior, or getting that behavior trained?  Book a session today!

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