Noella is nervous. She is in an unfamiliar public park, surrounded by children and dogs and other scary things she aggressively chases away. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is about to lose her anchor of security, the familiar person who has lovingly fostered her for about a year. The new person bends into nonthreatening positions and carefully tosses treats just behind her, soon to take her away into a different world. I am that new person and I’m uncomfortably conscious of the ways I’ll be turning Noella’s world upside down.
The three of us – loved anchor person, stranger person, and Noella – walk through the urban park and into the city. I keep my eyes on Noella’s body language and adjust my distance, gestures, and voice when needed so as not to add to her stress (and risk a bite). On paper, Noella’s anchor is doing many of the things that exacerbate overreactivity. She is pulling and tightening the leash, strictly controlling Noella’s movements. She is saying a lot of no’s. Judged by this description alone, Noella’s stress level would be expected to go through the roof. She should either be shutting down or preparing to explode.
Except that her stress signals decrease when her anchor pulls her close. Her muscles and eyes noticeably relax when she looks at her person, as she does often. Her person’s English words are variations of “no.” But Noella doesn’t read the dictionary and hears only the gently calming tones. Her person’s movements are smooth and further softened by a wide, stretchy harness at the end of the leash. She is proactively leading Noella to people- and dog-free pockets in the public traffic, keeping watch for Noella’s (and everyone’s) safety. On paper, she is doing some of the “wrong” things. In real life, she has created a relationship of loving respect. In real life, she is her dog’s advocate and safety anchor and her dog knows it.
Humane and effective training/therapy for fearful overreactivity to the unfamiliar will never include forcing the dog to suffer in terror. It won’t include harshly “correcting” the dog as he tries to get his need for safety met in the only way he currently knows how. A scared dog needs safety. Our job is to prove to her that we can be trusted to reliably provide that safety. Our job is to use all of our senses to protect her from psychological harm at the same time we are carefully guiding her to release her fears and expand her world, always at her pace.
Watching the dance between Noella and her person reminded me that “no” is just an English word. As are “hey” and “ah-ah.” To a dog, it’s the tone that gives the relevant information. Our “no” tone is usually a punishing mix of irritation and controlling urgency which undermines safety and trust. One of my dogs looks away from me when I say “honey.” What a sweet English word. What tone do you think I’ve been using for that sweet word when I see her engaging in a behavior I dislike? Her lowered look away prompts me to think before I react and start patching the crack I created in our relationship foundation.
On paper, we trainers can give you x number of steps to teach a behavior. One, two, three, do this, avoid that. More important is the relationship you have with your dog and that nuanced information doesn’t conform to Easy Peasy Quick Tips for the Perfect Dog in 30 Minutes recipes. If your intention is to guide and nurture, it will come through in your voice, expressions, and body language. If your intention is to control, it will come through in your voice, expressions, and body language. Guess what your dog is really paying attention to.