Welcome to part three of my five part series on keeping your dog happy. In part one I talked about How to Keep your Dog Physically Healthy If you missed part one you can find it here.
In part two, we dove into how to Keep your Dog Intellectually Engaged which you can review here.
Today we cover how to Keep your Dog Emotionally Safe which is vital because a dog who feels emotionally unsafe will suffer in all other categories to the point of even self-harming. I don’t say that to frighten you but to be clear that a dog’s state of emotional wellness is just as impactful on his life as it would be if he were a human.
Anxiety, depression and other types of emotional distress lower the quality of your dog’s life dramatically and can also lower yours as anyone with a dog with severe separation anxiety or fear related issues can tell you. Dog anxiety is on the rise in the U.S. because of our cultural norms around dog rearing. This article from the New York Times will give you some insight into why that is.
If you believe your dog suffers from anxiety or depression, please see your veterinarian. There are medications and lifestyle changes that can help. This article covers keeping a well dog emotionally well and addressing instances of fear vs. serious ongoing anxiety. For more severe problems, seek the help of a veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.
Your next step would be to work with a positive trainer in your area who has experience working with these issues. For a list of positive trainers, visit the Victoria Stilwell Academy page (if you are in New England, you will see me listed).
Although it is a big responsibility, please do not feel overwhelmed as keeping your dog emotionally well is not as difficult as it sounds.
Here we go…
Part Three: 5 Ways to Keep Your Dog Happy
Keep your Dog Emotionally Safe
Dogs are sensitive creatures who experience many of the same emotions as humans do. Dogs can feel happy, scared, proud, jealous, angry and sad. Because they are intelligent, yet live non-independent lives, it is the responsibility of their human companions (that’s you) to ensure that they always feel safe and loved. This important responsibility falls to you for a couple of reasons.
As smart as they are, dogs do not always understand the complexity of the modern world and can feel terrified by things you may only see as annoying such as the sound of workers digging up a sidewalk with a jackhammer. Just this morning, my dog Jake was frightened by a man holding an umbrella. This is a great example because it shows how nuanced your dog’s perceptions are. Jake knows what an umbrella is and is generally not afraid of them when we take rainy day walks. So why was he afraid this time? Today, the man with the umbrella was different. He was standing still rather than walking, the umbrella was huge and the man was not. To Jake, this made him different because it was unusual. Perhaps he saw a giant black circle with legs monster? Regardless of what Jake thought he saw, he interpreted it as new and scary.
How did I know he thought that? Jake slowed his pace and lowered his head parallel to his back. I told him it was fine and just a man with an umbrella and kept walking. This is usually all it takes. My confidence that all is well generally calms him and will often do for your dog as well.
Dogs will take their cue from you unless there is more fear going on as was the case with Jake today. Jake was more afraid than nervous and began to growl quietly as we kept walking. When I heard him growl and realized he was more frightened than just a bit nervous of a new sight, I stopped. We crossed the street and I continued to tell him it was fine using words he knows (person with umbrella).
Still, Jake wasn’t convinced. This is highly unusual and may have been due to not being in our own neighborhood (unfamiliar territory) and/or the rain (changes the sounds and smells) or something about the man that made him smell different (he was smoking for example). We could have just kept going because everyone was physically safe and this is often a good choice. Rather than do that, I engaged the man in conversation from a safe distance so he would say hello to Jake. Once Jake realized we were in the presence of a mere mortal man and not a terrifying monster, he was fine.
Why is this important? It’s important that Jake – and your dog – feel comfortable when out and about. Going for walks is often a dog’s all time favorite thing in the world and that’s certainly true of Jake. Neither of us wants our walks to become events filled with potential danger. Because our dogs are generally leashed when out in public, they can’t choose for themselves how to deal with their fear. A dog’s first impulse when scared is to run and hide. If your dog is scared while tethered to you by her leash she can’t escape so has to default to her other option in the “fight or flight” scenario which is to fight. This is why many scared or anxious dogs bark and lunge at other dogs or cars while on leash and why Jake growled in the example above. His growl is what we trainers call a “distance increasing” behavior. It means, “hey, I’m scary – grr, grr – go away” and is used when a dog feels he can’t escape a situation. Behaviors like growling and lunging may seem like the dog wants nothing more than to fight but what he really wants is to look scary enough that what is frightening him runs away.
Because your dog has little choice in these scenarios due to being on leash, the onus falls to you to make the right choice for your dog. I often compare dogs to children as much of how we think of small children benefits our understanding of your dog’s role in the family. However, when it comes to things that are scary, we often try to show or convince the child that there is nothing to fear. We may even find the situation amusing when a baby screams bloody murder when put on Santa’s lap. That doesn’t work for dogs. Your child will eventually understand that Santa isn’t scary but your dog, as smart as she is, doesn’t have that intellectual capacity.
If your dog is simply being cautious by hesitating before passing a large box that isn’t usually on a particular corner, the approach of showing your dog that the box is just a box and not something to fear can work great. I do this with Jake often.
However, if your dog is barking and lunging on his leash, he is way past the point of reason and can not be convinced that what he fears means him no harm. Had Jake been lunging at the man with the big umbrella, I would have quickly turned and walked away in the other direction. Trainers call this state of intense fear reaction being “over threshold” and I usually compare it for clients to having a panic attack which is a state during which you really can’t think rationally.
In these cases it is up to you to get you and your dog a safe distance from the thing that is causing intense fear in your dog. Ideally, when you see something your dog is afraid of, like another dog or the garbage truck, you would go another way so that your dog never reaches that over threshold state. When it comes to fear, it is ALWAYS in your dog’s interest to stay “under threshold,” i.e. the state in which they feel far enough away from something they fear that they still feel safe.
It is from the safe distance of being under threshold that you can employ training to alleviate your dog’s fear. Yes, it is possible to reduce and even eliminate the fear of something, like other dogs, in your dog through desensitization, counter-conditioning, treats and patience. Here’s a great explanation of these terms if you want to learn more.
One of the things I work on with all my dog training clients no matter what behaviors they are trying to change or teach is building confidence in their dog. Confident dogs have less fear and more emotional well-being than fearful and anxious dogs so anything you can do to build your dog’s confidence is recommended. Here’s a free online course from one of my favorite trainer’s on ways to build your dog’s confidence.
Some things you can try today to get started are:
Training – when your dog engages her mind and learns something new, it builds confidence. Even practicing behaviors with your dog that she already knows and giving praise/treats will help build confidence. You can work on/train basic behaviors or tricks. Any work on new and existing behaviors will help build confidence. You can also choose to work with a professional trainer on basic/trick behaviors and/or directly working to alleviate your dog’s fear.
Do things together – which deepens your relationship with your dog which builds your dog’s confidence (and yours). The more you and your dog hang out together, the better you will be at reading her emotions which will help you recognize her emotional state in any situation so you can act to help her feel safe. Check out the enrichment ideas from part two of this series for activities to do together.
So, this article is a little long and intense but the message is simple! Learn to recognize your dog’s emotional state and ensure that he feels generally happy and well-adjusted just like you would with a human child
Post any questions that come up in the comments and I’ll answer them for you.
In the upcoming weeks I’ll share articles on numbers 4-5 of How to Make Your Dog Happy which are:
- Keep your Dog Feeling Loved
- Keep your Dog Well Trained
In the meantime, observe your dog’s emotions, spend time training and playing together (see the article on enrichment for ideas). Your dog is a remarkable creature (and so are you!). Your relationship is important and can be one of the most fulfilling you will ever have. Keeping your pup feeling emotionally well is part of your journey together.
I’m putting all of these articles into a nicely formatted ebook that you can use for reference. To be sure to receive that when it’s ready, subscribe to my mailing list. You will also receive weekly emails (on Fridays) with tips and resources for you and your dog as well as access to our free online resource library.