I see a lot of nervous and anxious dogs in my work and while these emotional states often negatively affect a dog’s mental health, fear has an important function. Unless the fear is so ingrained that it becomes a phobia, it is adaptable in that it helps both humans and animals avoid or neutralize danger.
The fear response comes from one of the oldest developed parts of the vertebrate brain: the sympathetic nervous system.
The main function of this system is to stimulate a physiological response in response to a perceived threat. The sympathetic nervous system releases hormones in response to stress, causing an adrenaline rush. This activates the “fidget, freeze, fly, or fight” response by increasing blood flow to the body muscles, increasing blood pressure, increasing heart rate, and stopping digestion to prepare the body for action. How humans and animals react to this onslaught of chemicals will either get them out of a bad situation or go deeper into it.
The value of the choice
One of the best ways to help an overwhelmed dog is to:
- Try to understand their perception of a situation
- Certainly give her more autonomy and choice about what to tackle and what to avoid.
Dogs trained in a criminal offense have very little control over their lives, but even dogs that are taught in a humane way can be constantly micromanaged by their human carers.
Choice is valuable. When dogs are in control of where to move, who to interact with, and what to avoid, they become more confident.
While the dog falling on the end of the leash looks bad, think about how you would feel if you were attached to someone who made every decision for you and put you in situations that made you feel anxious . It’s no wonder leash reactivity is a common behavior problem in dogs, as people fail to realize that being tied to a leash inhibits a dog’s ability to act naturally.
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The art of avoidance
Avoidance is one of the most powerful skills to teach your dog. Advocate your dog by telling your guests to avoid interactions unless your dog makes the decision to interact with them. If your dog doesn’t like guests, make sure they have access to a safe space such as a room or a specific area in a room that is a restricted area to humans.
This may seem really easy, but it relieves so much pressure and gives dogs time to make their own decisions about who to greet or avoid. If you are out for a walk and your dog is uncomfortable being around other dogs, by practicing avoidance and walking the other direction, you can help reduce the pressure he is feeling.
Taking the time to observe their reactions to these situations will make it easier to understand what your dog needs in certain situations. This is easier if someone else is handling your dog while you watch his body language and understand what he is trying to communicate.
Let your dog decide
Make a list of what your dog likes and what choices he makes in different environments:
✤ If your dog finds himself in a situation he doesn’t want to be in and tries to practice avoidance, let him go.
✤ If she decides to go to her bed when there are guests around, give her the space to sit down quietly and give her some time to herself.
Think of all the ways in which you can give your dog such a choice. This will get easier if you think a few steps ahead and ask yourself how your dog is doing in different situations.
Once your dog understands that he has the freedom to take away from something when he needs it, you will see a positive change in his behavior. The dog that has the courage to walk away is much easier to handle than the dog that reacts aggressively. Practicing avoidance builds self-confidence, and repetitive experiences will help your dog be more satisfied with the decisions he makes.