Most of us have had that feeling of relief at encountering something familiar when we are in a new situation. It could be a party you attend with a friend or spouse where you don’t know any of the other guests. You meander nervously around making small talk until you suddenly find yourself in a conversation about something you enjoy. Blessed relief! Something you know something about. And suddenly the pressure and discomfort lift, and the time flies by. You can enjoy the party and meeting some new people. Rescued by the familiar.
Those familiar and well known things seem to become most important to us when we are the least comfortable with our situation or surroundings. A favorite song at just the right moment or seeing a familiar restaurant chain in a foreign country can give us a sense of being a bit more grounded and allow us to continue with a bit more confidence. It’s a part of life that we gravitate to almost automatically. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that this same phenomenon can apply to our dogs too.
We can sometimes be mystified at why our dog won’t perform that new trick we taught them or is suddenly behaving nervously towards other dogs. Unfamiliar situations, environments, or encounters can put our dogs on edge. Reassuring our dogs isn’t as simple as telling them everything is alright. Dogs are naturally non-verbal creatures. But even our calm demeanor and protective posture can only go so far in helping our dog feel more relaxed. How can we help?
I know what I like, I like what I know
Studies done with both children and the elderly have shown that familiar surroundings and favorite objects can contribute to an overall sense of well being. Like the child that carries a favorite doll everywhere they go, our dogs may also benefit from having a favorite toy with them to keep them calm in new situations. The sense of familiarity that a favorite toy may bring can be an important coping mechanism for a dog under stress.
One of the favorite tools we use with our dogs is both an object and a place – their crate. From the time they first arrive in our homes, our dogs are given their crate to sleep in. It is filled with a warm, soft bed and whatever toys the dog seems to be enjoying at the time. During the days, we practice going “In your home!” and rewarding with food treats for being in the crate for even a few moments. We repeat the process several times a day, gradually increasing the amount of time we leave them alone in the crate. Repeated exposure to their “place” with positive and comforting results is important. Most importantly, we never punish them by putting them in their crate. We try to keep their feeling about their crate positive.
We like to compete in dog agility with our dogs and this frequently involves us travelling to new places for trials. Having crates for our dogs provides them a “home away from home” where they can be comfortable and relax away from all of the hustle-and-bustle of the trial environment. Letting our dogs rest comfortably in familiar surroundings between agility runs helps them to be more focused and perform with less anxiety. It’s a technique that has paid dividends for us not just in agility situations but also while travelling to visit friends or staying in hotels.
Familiarity is not just about places and things, it can also be about routine and repetition. We all have something we can call a “lifestyle”, those small things we do with regularity. Our meal times, our laundry days, our favorite coffee or tea, and our hobbies and past times. Those things that we do frequently and do well. Getting an opportunity to do something we know and do well can also be a source of relief from stress.
For example, I happen to be pretty good at cooking on a barbecue grill. It’s something I do a lot and I enjoy it very much. When my wife and I attend summer parties, I often find a way to help out at the barbecue because I am uncomfortable in large groups. The ability to do something I am good at and know well helps to ground me and make me feel more comfortable in a new situation. Not surprisingly this is also true for our dogs.
We all have behaviours we have trained and practiced hundreds and hundreds of times with our dogs. ”Sit” is a fairly common one. When our dogs seem to get anxious or upset, we almost instinctively ask them to “Sit” to calm them down. And frequently, it works! Somehow that “Sit!” cue penetrates their fog of upset and anxiety, and they plop their butt down and look at us to see what’s next. Once again, it is the familiar that comes to our rescue.
Familiarity is something we have to build for our dogs. It doesn’t come with them when we bring them home. In our family, we are deliberate about what we will use for our dogs’ comfort triggers. We carefully train up the crate. We will play with our dogs using particular toys that they enjoy. And we will teach them easy-to-do behaviours that we reward them for very frequently. What we are really doing is creating what psychology calls Conditioned Emotional Responses. We are deliberately helping our dogs to have a positive attitude toward the crate, the toy, or the behaviour we teach them. It’s a deliberate investment in something we know we will use throughout our dogs’ lives.
Dogs can develop Conditioned Emotional Responses to any number of things and those responses can be either positive or negative. For example, if we frequently force our dog into the car only to take them to the vet for a scary examination, the dog will likely develop a fear of riding in the car. The other side of that coin is that if we frequently take our dog in the car for short rides to the park where we have fun and throw the ball, then she will come to like the car and want to jump in every chance she gets. She has been conditioned to expect something good when the car is involved.
A Comfortable Dog
Lots of little things can add up to stress a dog. A dog that is fearful of children and doesn’t like being crowded can tolerate either one – being with a child or being in a tight space with a human. But if this dog found itself in a small space with a child, its anxiety would be heightened and there may be a greater chance of it acting out stress. The pressure of both of these factors becomes too much.
Having our own positively conditioned tools can help offset this negative equation. In our example above, the dog might be willing to ignore the child in the small space if his favorite toy is available to make him more comfortable. Similarly, if the child asks the dog to “Sit” or do some other well known behaviour and rewards the dog, its anxiety level may go down as well. Knowing that we have tools to ease our dogs stress makes training and managing in new situations much easier. Just a small dose of the familiar can be the just the thing to bring our dog back down to earth so that we can work with them.
The good news here is that those Conditioned Emotional Responses can happen even if we didn’t know we were creating them. We all use “Good dog!” or some variation and it almost always gets a tail wag. It’s a positive association for the dog. Or perhaps for your dog it’s a pat on the head or going for a walk together. Our dogs all have more than a few positive associations with us and the things we do. We can use those things to help our dogs feel more comfortable.
It is much easier to work with a dog who is feeling comfortable and confident than one that is nervous and on edge. Having an awareness of when our dog is uncomfortable gives us the chance to bring in the familiar to help them feel more at ease. It could be a game of tug, asking for a few well rehearsed behaviours, or even spending a few minutes safely napping in their crate. It could be just the reset your dog needs to feel grounded again and it can help them be the dog you know they can be even in those new or difficult situations.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available -
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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