JRT lounging on sofa

Feeling safe

Question: My highly sensitive puppy mill rescue dog reacts fearfully when I reprimand my other dog or when I’m irritated about something not even related to her. How can I get her to understand that those situations are no threat to her?

That’s a paraphrase of a question I received in person yesterday from a man who loves his dogs and clearly wants them to be happy and comfortable in his presence. I only had time to give the pithy answer–stop fussing and cussing–which I did not give because how unhelpful is that? What I did was ask him more questions and send some tips and links in an email later.

To put it simplistically, dogs are about as intelligent as an average two-year-old child, according to researcher Stanley Coren and others. They have little ability for abstract thought. Fortunately for them, they do not stare out the window, ruminating upon moral and philosophical dilemmas. They stare out the window scanning for movement of potential prey or other material objects of interest. They are practical, survival-oriented beings who think in terms of threat/no threat and food/not food. (Also like a two-year-old human, “not food” does not preclude consumption!) It’s our job as adults to communicate with dogs (and toddlers) at their level of understanding.

We can’t expect dogs to follow our line of reasoning. We especially can’t expect them to think when they are overcome by fear. Have you ever seen an adult try to talk a toddler down from that red-faced terror crying when surprised by a huge, surreal face of a clown looming over her? She cannot understand in that moment that the garish giant is trustworthy and only wants her to have fun. If you surround her with clowns to “get her used to them,” she’ll be even more terrified. If the clown-monster tries to give her a cookie, she’ll probably scream. All she wants is distance from the scary thing and to feel safe. So what do you do? Give her distance from the scary thing and help her feel safe.

When your dog shows you that she is afraid, no matter how illogical it may seem to you, first accept that she is afraid. Next, change whatever you can in her environment to help her feel safe. Does she need distance from the scary thing? Do you need to soften your body language into something less threatening? So many gestures and expressions that are benign or even friendly between humans are threatening in dog language, such as direct gaze, stepping toward the dog, approaching head-on, leaning over the dog, reaching toward the dog, and quick movements. If the scary thing is something that is not easily eliminated or is something that is limiting her world in an unhealthy way (e.g., fear of car travel), you can help her transform that fear into happy anticipation through classical counter-conditioning and systematic desensitization.

I have been in the same situation as the person who asked the original question. I’ve not always had the most patient responses to software issues or being bounced around customer support phone trees, repeating information before being suddenly disconnected. While my buddy, Nicki, has been heard snoring in my lap while I ranted about some news story, two other dogs will react with fear to any verbal expression of anger. The intended target of that anger makes no difference to them.

I could have shut those dogs out of my home office. I could have begun a slow, careful, long process of counter-conditioning and desensitization. What I actually did was change my behavior so those two dogs could feel safe around me. Even in the midst of tech repair instructions that turn out like Aunt Harriet’s recipe for her famous mincemeat pie. (This tastes like shoes and socks. What did she leave out?)

toy rat terrierIt was not easy. I had to learn to be internally aware and make a rapid choice for calm the instant I felt my chest or throat tighten. I had to remember to breathe comfortably deeply and teach myself different stories to tell about my current experience or, better yet, drop the story altogether. The day I was asked the above question was day two of a website issue that I’d worked and worked to solve without success. My sensitive little Ani (also a former breeder mom from a puppy mill) slept peacefully on her blanket pile by my desk chair the whole time. It would have been easy to behave irritably, but it was too important to me to remain calm and curious. Ani and I were both spared the stress we could have experienced. And I eventually fixed the website issue.

All of that is to say that my recommendation is to be kind to your own body, breathe, and lean toward curiosity and acceptance of the present moment. Certainly it’s a challenge, but the benefits for you and your dog are worth it. Less adrenaline-charged stress for you, more feelings of safety for her.

I will bet that this person can also forego the reprimands for the other dog with no ill effects. Using positive reinforcement, teach the behavior you want instead and ask for it when it’s learned to fluency. When possible, intervene before the undesired behavior occurs and ask for another learned behavior. Manage the environment so the behavior doesn’t occur or use distraction if necessary.

Our dogs are here to help us change our behavior, too.

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