Changing Your Dogs Emotional Response

Simply wanting your dog to respond differently to sights and sounds is not enough.  In the last Blog, I talked about having a plan, going slow and being in a good emotional place yourself.

Please keep in mind, when your dog becomes afraid or anxious his emotional state is responding to one or more triggers in the environment, which will cause a physical response.  The better you can read your dogs body language the more success you will have in desensitizing him to his triggers.  What do I mean:  desensitization is defined as the diminished emotional responsiveness to a negative or aversive stimulus after repeated exposure to it. It also occurs when an emotional response is repeatedly evoked in situations in which the action tendency that is associated with the emotion proves irrelevant or unnecessary. Desensitization is a process primarily used to assist individuals unlearn phobias and anxieties. 

For example, you may see your dog respond by barking and lunging at a trigger, however before this, look for signs of stiffness, body freeze, standing tall on toes, closed mouth with a hard stare, ear twitching, sniffing high in the air, whining, pacing or beginning to bark.  These are also, your dogs physical responses to his unsettled emotional state.  I believe with training you will get better at responding more quickly and thoughtfully to your dogs change in body language.

Now think simple, maybe even fun!

Two games you can use to desensitize your dog to a trigger:

1. Find it:  In this video you will see a slightly reactive Miniature Pincher playing a fun hunting game in the grass we call “find it”, while a boy moves slowly in the distance.  To teach your dog to play find it, simply take a few pieces of your dogs kibble or treats, show him the food, say “find it” and toss the food near you on the floor.  Repeat in the quiet of your home where there are no distractions.  This Miniature Pincher knew how to play this game several weeks before we added the trigger of a child talking and moving about in the distance.

How do you measure success?  Notice the dog alerts to the child and the handler quickly continues the game.  The dog does not go over threshold with any barking or lunging.
IMG_23412. Fetch:  Many dogs love to play fetch with their owners and this game is often begun in the home or the dogs own back yard and is rewarded by lots of enthusiasm from the handler.  Taking this fun game and playing it with your dog at a distance from a trigger can be a great way to desensitize.
In this photo you see a yellow lab in the back ground playing a fun game of fetch with his owner while two other adolescent dogs are playing nearby.  While the proximity is quite close, this yellow lab has had a great deal of training and focus work.  Initially, you would begin at a distance from the trigger and be aware of your dogs body language so you can keep him engaged in the game as soon as he alerts to the trigger but before he actually reacts.
I hope this blog gives you some motivation to change your dogs behavior and not just shock it. I know there are many dog trainers who will happily take your money to stop unwanted behavior, however adding punishment to a stressed out dog is simply shattering his nervous system and breaking any relationship you thought you may have had with him.