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17th April 2019

Dog in the wild

Life is a Challenge

Life is a challenge for dogs, humans and all other species

How and what we teach our dogs can leave lasting impressions. We know that dogs learn by association, but the power of those associations are often underestimated. The primary aim for any dog, human or other mammal is safety and many of the social associations that are formed, revolve around individual safety. The environment plays a large part in the shaping of those associative links. We cannot wrap our dogs in cotton wool and forever shield them from what’s in the big wide world out there, but we can take a systematic approach in bringing them up or in introducing a dog to a completely new routine and living environment.

Social skills are exactly that, skills, and it takes time to develop them and a building of confidence to be able to use them. That applies to any dog of any age when being introduced to a new routine or life.

Max Muir

A common myth about confidence is that treats given in an environment where the dog may be unsure help to create a positive association. That’s not entirely true. It takes good observation skills to note a dog that is under-confident, concerned or over cautious about a life event or situation. When fear levels start to rise, the giving of treats can be detrimental to what it is that you are trying to achieve. There is a time and place for food training.

A common scenario is when a dog is socially fearful or apprehensive in the presence of unfamiliar dogs that we train a ‘Look at me’ behaviour rather than focus on the dog. As other dogs are closer and heart rate starts to rise the dog finds it increasingly difficult to cope. This physiological change affects the digestive tract and switches the dog on another mode of thinking, namely safety. Treats do not assist emotions in this context. What the dog is struggling with is lack of choice and ability to have any control over the situation. It’s inherent in wild canines to have a strong flight response to the first signs of danger, we work with this in a domestic sense through habituation and social proofing to build social confidence in our dogs. That takes time and attention to the early phases of development in young dogs. It is also relevant to older dogs that may be experiencing the effects of old age and conditions that come with it.

Here are 5 top tips I offer to consider when socialising and raising your dog for the first year of life.

  1. Never force social interactions – give them the choice to help allow socially acceptable behaviour to develop. Choice is most important in developing confidence and coping skills and directly allows them to use their deep-rooted inclination to ‘be safe.’ This is the same with rescued and adult dogs, establish and develop trust before you start making their choices for them.
  2. Don’t force dogs to do what they don’t want to do, dogs, like kids, need to grow up. I’m referring to strict obedience in places where your dog shows natural concern for its well-being. Training does not teach a dog to cope, only to do what it is told to do. There’s a difference.
  3. Develop a good observational awareness and be conscious about the dog you have, what its likes, dislikes and preferences are. Give lots of outlets to develop their activity loves and strengths. That’s a super confidence booster for them.
  4. Never punish curiosity. If your dog shows an interest in something you may find repelling, you may well be stoking further valued interests in something you are trying so hard to stop. Often your dog will show interest in something, satisfy its curiosity and then move on.
  5. Challenge the quality of mental stimulation you give your dog. Exploring new things in the environment wires the brain and builds more brain cells. Cells are built by stimulation through the senses. Help your dog learn new things, not the same things again and again such the same old toys and challenges. If your dog is not playing with toys or puzzles any more it’s a clear message that you need to get more creative.

A dog with safety in mind prefers to absorb an environment through choice rather than be forced into it. Dogs are bred to be social but that can be damaged by traumatic experiences they feel are out of their control. Sometimes with the right approach high level fears can be worked with successfully if the dog is allowed the time and choice to develop adequate coping skills. If it is a young dog it needs time to grow up and develop emotionally. We can’t expect total obedience and compliance from dogs that are growing, developing and learning. Our expectations must consider their age and motives as individuals.

If a child is exposed to all possible things they will meet in life, in small portions so they can cope and develop until the age of 12 years old. They are likely to handle most of life’s challenges from that point onwards. Children have individual levels of resilience and coping with stress. They also have individual ways of showing that the demands on them outweigh their ability to cope, some may withdraw, become very emotional, or angry in a situation. Building resilience needs a supportive relationship, exposure to the right environment, time, patience and care, teaching them that it is okay to display their emotions as opposed to shutting them down, and an environment that challenges and builds their frustrations and confidence levels to cope with solving problems.

Often the failure to change a behaviour lies in the approach to deal with it. Learning to cope with life is different to training. Training is useful and has its place once certain criteria have been met but first a dog needs to learn how to cope, it needs the time to develop and grow. If a dog is emotionally unstable then it needs to learn coping skills, not training per se. Any good training or development programme will have that in mind, but be aware that once safety has been jeapordised, it can be a long road ahead, stressed dogs have bad memories and don’t learn well. The goal is to get stress levels down and start the road to recovery, a little at a time, to take on life’s challenges again.

John hood
April 17, 2019 at 9:09 PM

This blog coincides with my experiences with my own and other dogs really good blog

    May 13, 2019 at 11:33 AM

    Glad you enjoyed it, John.

Patricia Dorsey
January 7, 2020 at 7:23 PM

Max, thank you for the insightful article. I’m now beginning my second year with the 4-year old Belgian Malinois that I adopted. Arjun was extremely fearful of both people and dogs. He now lives in a quiet home, has had three months of private home lessons, and monthly group lessons to get accustomed to being near others. He’s calmed greatly and now we’ve started a program with Zen Dog in Los Angeles to slowly introduce him to other people and dogs. A step-by-step approach and wonderful to witness his progress. Pat


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