Emotional lives of dogs
When our dogs are fearful of something, there is such a fine line to walk in exposing the dog to the scary thing (flooding) or working through desensitising them at a much slower pace.
There is not enough information out there, which readily helps dog owners to understand what to do when their dog is afraid of something.
This could be other dogs on walks and still going for walks in the same area and hoping for the best. Whilst the poor dog is barking, lunging and reacting because they simply do not know what else to do, as far as they are concerned all of their body language communications has been ignored.
Other common fears are: fireworks, loud voices, visitors, horses, cattle, livestock, ducks and geese, dustbins, vehicles, brushes, mops, hoovers, beeping sounds, fly swatters - the list is endless.
So what can body language communication look like? A stiff body, tail tucked, a low wagging tail, slight cowering, major cowering, licking lips, yawning, piloerection (fur standing up), pulling away, moving in slow motion, hypervigilant, disinterested in food or toy, whale eye (where the whites of the eyes are showing), hyper fixed on the scary thing, furrowed brows and ears to the side or back. This isn't an exhaustive list nor individualised but these are generalised behaviours that we see.
So when these body language signs we know that something is wrong and that the dog is trying to communicate with us.
Then we have much bigger signs of communication, which is growling, snarling, snapping, barking, lunging forward, spinning on the lead, howling, frothing at the mouth, again this is not an exhaustive list but generalised to the behaviour we visually see and big communication that our dog is distressed. Unfortunately sometimes when the dog gets to this state, they can also misdirect their fear and bite the handler.
This is why it is so important to listen to dog body language as their silent means of communication before it escalates to the vocal sounds of communications.
Then we have the other extreme of owners who won't walk the dog unless it's dark and around midnight. Annie Phenix has actually written a book called the Midnight Walkers, called so because of owners who avoid other dogs and people.
This extreme, the extreme of total avoidance is actually the better option. The dog isn't frightened or startled or there will be minimal frightening interactions.
So where is the happy medium?
The happy medium lies with the midnight walkers as a starting point. This isn't to say you have to go for a walk at midnight. This is where your starting point lies of a safe environment without the scary thing present.
So for example this doesn't have to be on a dog walk, this could be the hoover that they find scary for example. Here is a visual instructional video as both an example and to help those who need it https://youtu.be/nI4BBEnACOs
I don't ignore that the dogs (hypothetically are scared of the hoover) I work step by step in a controlled way to help to overcome the fear of the hoover.
This is the same principle applied to anything that a dog finds scary, for example my youngest dog Zombie is Neurodivergent and he is scared of lots of things. One day he is scared of other dogs, the next day he might manage a small distance from them, one day he is scared of humans, other days he may try to approach them for a sniff.
Zombie is an extreme example of a nervous dog, but a great example of the extreme of nervousness and fear.
Here is an example video of what it is like to walk Zombie https://youtu.be/n7VwyF3-13s there is so much going on with his body language and he is off lead so that being a wheelchair user I don't miss any subtle language body cues. (Remember off lead dogs are dependent on the relationship and being able to have a solid recall, Zombie is also not reactive. He chooses flight and hides behind me or comes onto my lap (yes a Wolfdog trying to get on my lap) if he is frightened. These are only in extreme situations in the don't worry they're friendly and we have been blind sided by an off lead dog on the Park etc (it has happened to everyone at some point).
So this for example was an extreme of Zombies emotion to an off lead dog coming out of nowhere visible, no owner in sight and coming to me for protection and reassurance. In the video he was able to stand, observe and walk on.
Should the dog have charged up to him, this could have been a different story. However the point is to keep changing the emotion of how he feels to rude dogs and people. (Rude people attempting to fuss him without asking).
Another example is Diesel, who used to be afraid of clickers. We used the same process as the hoover to help him to combat his fear of the Clicker. Many dogs are noise sensitive and are afraid of clickers. However we changed the emotion to the Clicker by working slowly and methodically to change his emotional state towards the Clicker.
This is why in Behaviour modification we do not want to suppress the dogs behaviour as the dogs behaviour is a reflection of how they are feeling. Instead we want to change the emotion and yes this will take time, however the greatest and kindest thing you can do for your dog and the most powerful, is change your dogs emotion to something scary, not avoid it entirely (in context), not suppress it (punishment and aversive methods and tools), accept that your dog finds something scary. Then work with them with a Behaviourist to set a behaviour modification plan and change the emotional state.
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