These three concepts are covered on my initial call with every potential client regardless of their training needs, whether it is a brand new puppy or a dog with severe aggression. Our focus will differ depending on each situation, but in my opinion, any program is incomplete if it does not consider each of these concepts. In this article, I will dive deeper into the first pillar.
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about safety is the idea of physical safety. All parties involved need to be physically safe, from the dog to the owners to house guests and the general public. We need to be mindful of what is required to keep all parties safe during interactions, and this involves planning ahead. When working with new puppies, it may be as simple as making sure a home has been “puppy proofed” by removing tempting but dangerous things that may be chewed on like cords or poisonous plants, or preventing access to areas of the home where injury could happen for a clumsy puppy like a flight of stairs. For the dog who has multiple bite incidents, the scope of what is needed to keep all parties safe is considerably larger. It is important to think about and be aware of all the circumstances that may arise where a physically dangerous situation may occur. Once you are conscious of these scenarios, you can move onto the next pillar to manage the situation.
Emotional safety may not be as obvious, but it is just as important as physical safety, and the two are most definitely tied together. Though a situation may occur where a dog is not in any physical danger, yet they are still afraid. Think about watching a scary movie. You are not in any real danger when you are safe at home watching a movie on your couch, but you still may feel scared just the same. Just because you are not in any real danger doesn’t make that feeling of being scared any less true. Humans at least have the ability to recognize that the movie cannot actually harm us, but even though a dog has never actually been vacuumed up, the vacuum is still a scary beast that must be avoided at all costs! It is important to make sure that all parties involved not only ARE physically safe but FEEL safe. This goes for the dogs as well as the humans.
Many behavior problems arise when a dog does not feel safe. From hiding under a bed to outright biting, there is an enormous array of behaviors that dogs do to let us know they are uncomfortable or stressed. As the guardians of these dogs, it is up to us to recognize these behaviors and take the necessary steps to restore a feeling of safety to the dog. If we do not take these steps, dogs may become reactive to certain situations or people, and this reactivity can quickly become self-reinforcing if it achieves the desired outcome (typically, distance between the dog and whatever is upsetting him). This can result in an increase in intensity and frequency of the undesired (from a human’s point of view) behavior. If allowed to continue, these behaviors can become a habit, pattern or a ritual.
Lapses in safety can have potentially long-term behavior consequences, and may even be life-threatening (to both humans and dogs). We need to reassess safety continuously: are we using the right tools? Are we using the right training approach? Are we observing stress and threshold levels? Above all, are we listening to what our dogs are telling us through their body language? Acts of flight and aggression are almost always associated with a build-up of stress, either due to fear or frustration. There is an obvious escalation, and our goal is to be proactive with interrupting this sequence of events before it leads to an incident that can have long-term or dangerous consequences.
Are You Listening?
With rare exceptions, dogs will communicate when they are uncomfortable with a situation. It is just up to us to be able to recognize their signals. This short video gives excellent visual examples of 11 subtle behaviors your dog will do when stressed. Once you know what to look for, you will know when your dog is stressed and then can stake steps to alleviate that stress.
Next month, I will be talking about those next steps when I discuss the second pillar: Management.