Why relaxing is just as important as keeping your dog busy
Loki and I have just returned from a very intense week learning and training, including a full day of assessment. More about that another day (need to find out if I passed, first!) As well as lots of classroom learning for me, it’s also been a fantastic reminder about the impact of different experiences and situations on our dogs’ emotions and how that in turn influences behaviour.
While we were away, I was able to see just how well Loki was able to cope when encountering different things that he’s not come across before. He appeared to manage well with a fair amount of new experiences such as the hotel reception and busy foyer, the almost life-sized statue stationed right next to the poo-bin that we ‘met’ in the dark on the first evening, voices from the corridor and other rooms; and even the revolving glass doors.
To be fair, the revolving doors were fine until he spotted one of his doggy friends the other side of the glass and decided he was going the opposite way. I opted for the ‘normal’ side door after that! And I say he ‘appeared’ to manage, only because his external behaviour did not obviously suggest he was uncomfortable, excited or fearful.
However, there were some things that didn’t go down too well with him, which caused an avoid/escape response. One was a noisy party in the hotel bar as we passed, the other was the air brakes intermittently hissing on a large coach standing outside the hotel. Of course, this gives me information and options for future training. I could spend time visiting the local bus station, getting him used to the sound of coach engines running and air brakes hissing. However, when I consider that Loki is highly unlikely to encounter coaches and buses in his day-to-day life, there are other more pressing things we need to work on in our training, so I will just ensure that I make a mental note and help him as best I can, should we be in that situation in the future.
What is more important though, is that his response to the party and the coach did not happen in a ‘bubble’. Let’s not forget that he had already been away from home for 3 days when he physically spooked at these things – and although he may not have wobbled or got visibly excited at some of the other experiences, they will all have contributed to his overall emotional state and ability to take things in his stride. Being in new locations, meeting new people, having a change in routine and the actual training itself will all have contributed.
Imagine you are on your way to visit a friend and come across some roadworks and temporary traffic lights. They delay you by less than 2 minutes and then you are on your way to a pleasant evening and think no more about the lights. However, if you meet those same traffic lights on your way to work when you are already late because the alarm didn’t go off, have spilt tea down your clean shirt, have an important meeting that morning at a venue you’ve never been to before, and someone pulled out in front of you at a previous junction – you are unlikely to remain as calm as you did when visiting your friend. So your response to the same set of traffic lights is likely to be very different in the second scenario.
And the same is true of our dogs. For dogs who don’t cope well around other dogs or people, this cumulative effect when encountering the things (‘triggers’) that lead to unwanted behaviours is almost always at play. This is also why some people find the dog’s unwanted behaviour ‘unpredictable’ because it doesn’t always happen. Invariably, with a little bit of detective work, there is a pattern such as ‘he’s OK with the first dog we meet, but it gets worse as the walk goes on’.
Whilst the body’s response to things encountered during the day is instant, it takes much longer for all those bodily chemicals to return to a balanced, relaxed state, so every additional encounter or experience during that ‘reset’ phase contributes to an increasingly emotionally aroused dog, who will find it harder and harder to make calm, sensible choices and not over-react or revert to unwanted behaviours, that have perhaps worked for him in the past. And there are certainly some dogs whose owners inadvertently keep them permanently in that head-space, because society dictates that ‘good’ owners walk the dog 3 times a day and play ball and train tricks in between times.
The lesson here is to recognise that everything, exciting or scary, is contributing to that cumulative effect. Our role as dog owners is to ensure the dog has opportunities to relax, experience calmness and recover, by reducing their exposure to their triggers or ‘the world’ in general when necessary. Some dogs will need help with ‘enforced rest’ such as popping them in a crate with a stuffed chew toy.
In Loki’s case, as you can see, no such help is required!! He has slept for almost all of the last 3 days, and I don’t plan too much excitement, training or new experiences for another day or so.
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