As we introduce a dog or puppy to the world we expect it to function in, we want to send the message that life with us is good. You (the dog) are safe. What may seem a bit weird and unsettling is not a threat. To do this we must log (have the dog or puppy go through/experience) as many positive experiences as we can. In doing this, we will inevitably encounter things and situations that push the dog out of its comfort zone and elicit a fear response. How we handle these situations will have a big impact on the how the dog will handle stressful situations in the future. Experiences can make or break a dog. Many people, upon seeing their animal stressed and afraid, try to comfort them. This habit reinforces the opposite of what we want…a fearful dog. Some people swoop in, rescue the dog and exit stage left as fast as they can. With this practice the dog logs a negative experience, which is again the opposite of what we want. Some people, upon seeing the dog in distress, leave it to fend completely for itself. This practice, given enough time, could go either way depending on the volatility of the situation at hand and the individuals involved. Our goal is for the dog to have enough time to process the flood of neurochemicals and the shot of adrenaline that accompanies a fear response and calm down enough to think (as opposed to reacting and panicking). Then we need to stick around long enough for the experience to BECOME a positive one. The more opportunities a dog has to go through this sequence, the better its recovery or bounce back will be. In future new and stressful situations it will take less time for the dog to stop reacting and start playing or relaxing. Soon, with a plethora of positive experiences logged in, the dog will be less likely to react in the first place.
How can we help facilitate this process? Well, we can start by not shying away from mildly stressful situations for the animal. By starting with relatively mild stressful situations we stand a good chance of a successful run in a reasonable amount of time. If we put the dog in a situation where it is in way over its head, we may not have enough time to see the dog through to a positive result. We would walk away having logged only a big negative experience. It is our responsibility to size up a situation with our dog in mind. Whether by nature (genetics) or early nurture, dogs will vary in their tendency to be sensitive and/or reactive. We must also factor in the time, energy, and patience we have available.
We can also have an impact on how many interactions play out. For example when I introduced an 8 week old miniature schnauzer puppy to my very young at heart (like Peter Pan) 11 year old aussie, I chose a time when the aussie was a bit tired….after playing fetch. I chose a location where there was plenty of space to maneuver….outside. I started with a well-rested puppy and I had plenty of time to see it through. Upon seeing the aussie, the puppy (whose only previous experience with dogs was with miniature schnauzers…..its littermates and relatives) screamed intensely and hid behind me. I ignored the scared, pitiful puppy, took a step away, and set about loving on my aussie and exploring the immediate surroundings with her. Why? Because my aussie would prefer to play with the puppy rougher than what the puppy is ready for. By rougher, I mean rolling around, spinning, maybe throwing a paw the puppies way. The puppy could be bumped or steam rolled by a bigger dog that can hardly wait to play. I can help the situation by buying time for the puppy to process those distress neurochemicals. Little by little, when they sniff or come near each other (I give each exchange a few seconds and then I move on, sometimes distracting the aussie, when excitement levels rise) the puppy’s fear response gets smaller and smaller, eventually the puppy is seeking her out, then following, then chasing, then play bowing. They both enjoy a walk about through the woods. The puppy walks away with a positive experience. During our next walk about, the puppy is only tense when they are checking each other out. She is still a bit inhibited with her one-on-one play with my aussie, but is mostly relaxed, happy, and playful. Our next walk about is full of puppy butt-tucking and silly antics from both the 11 year old and the puppy. As the puppy now plays with a bit more reckless abandon, incidental contact by a rolling or spinning aussie is taken in context. Even if the puppy gets stepped on or bumped, it recovers quickly instead of jumping to, forming, and walking away with a “big scary red dog (or worse…any non miniature schnauzer) is bad news for me” attitude (which may have happened if those first few interactions were left unchecked). The next walk about, I add another aussie (this one is 15, mostly deaf, and bit grumpy at times). No screaming puppy. Based on her previous experiences, she is optimistic about this one. I manage their interactions in the same way….moving the old dog on before the excitement levels rise. Within just a few moments, the puppy is relaxed and playful. We have a lovely walk about. After the next walk about, they all do great even in close quarters/inside, but with no super highly coveted things (like food, rawhides, etc.) around….that scenario plays out a little farther down the road.
I have bounce back in mind wherever I take this puppy….a new floor, a new room, a park, in the rain. I try to plan ahead, allotting plenty of time for the puppy to get over any feelings of being scared, unsure, and vulnerable and start having fun. The more times I do this, the less time it takes for the stress to dissipate, the puppy to recover, and a positive experience to ensue. The puppy logs many positive experiences and develops excellent bounce back. As its ability to process this sequence of events improves, so does its confidence. Soon it is walking into new situations and sizing them up….expecting to have a good time. The puppy is becoming more optimistic.