Understanding intense feelings.
Intense feelings come with a veritable flood of neurochemicals (primarily, cortisol and adrenaline) associated with stress and the fight or flight response animals experience when they are afraid. Most of the aggression we see in dogs is fear- or insecurity-based. Dogs (and most animals) view the world in terms of safe, potentially unsafe, and unsafe. When a dog feels unsafe and afraid, an increase-distance alarm goes off inside (fight or flight). With this comes a flood of neurochemicals associated with this emotional response and distress. A dog really only has 2 ways to accomplish this “increase-distance” directive. They can 1) move themselves (flight) or 2) move the root cause of their fear (fight). Every individual will have a preferred method of dealing with this “increase-distance” directive….either flight or fight. If and when its preferred course of action does not effectively increase distance or alleviate the distress, it will switch to the other option. This emotional response to fear, these feelings, have been a death sentence to many a dog. The distress emotions behind separation anxiety have cost many people thousands of dollars in damages to their household. Emotions are important. Teachable moments are not those that are laced with adrenaline and cortisol (think burglar in your house….shark circling you while you swim….bear circling your tent).
Identifying and being aware of potential triggers or situations that your dog has trouble with can enable you to plan ahead and be proactive with your management and training. Planning, being proactive, and putting the development of your dog first can help your dog learn to successfully navigate the world we live in with much less drama and stress. Success is the first step to building confidence. Try to identify what is hard for your dog. Be specific. Make a mental list. Does your dog have trouble with men? …men with beards? …people wearing hats? …people wearing glasses? …loud noises? …crowds? …other animals? …dog shows? …people coming into your home? …cars going by? …something else? Also, note that all things are a bit scarier by nature at night and in low lighting.
What can we do when we find ourselves and our dogs in WAY over our heads?
The alarm has been tripped….the dog has lost its mind….it’s committed to action. What now?
We can adjust/increase distance between the dog and whatever it is afraid of (which will help the dog resolve the “increase distance” directive it is experiencing). Also, know that time can change chemistry. Adrenaline dissipates…which can lead to a teachable moment. Adjustments of space/distance and buying time can give the dog an opportunity to succeed. Then think about how you can be more proactive in future similar situations to help set your dog up to succeed and actually benefit from the experience…without the fireworks. Future success will almost certainly involve some combination of management (good management can make manipulating those distances easy), leadership, and training (addressing underlying emotions, reinforcing better choices, and developing more socially acceptable coping skills). We’ll get into specific examples, situations, and considerations in future posts.