10th May 2019
Dogs are born social, but social confidence can be destroyed if they feel overwhelmed and put under pressure where they feel their general safety is jeopardised. When dogs feel they are under constant pressure from the environment they become more alert and responsive to what is going on around them and less curious about investigating what surrounds them. It takes a lot of energy to be scanning all the time and if the dog is taken on regular routine areas it can anticipate and predict what can likely happen on a walk.
Does this sound familiar?
Curiosity in a dog is a sign of social health and well-being. The more you dog is inclined to explore freely the more the brain is working with full use of the senses. When a dog can do this and get the full benefit from an environment it copes with going into new environments much better. Stress also affects the amount of urination and elimination in a dog. Insecure dogs who feel increasingly vulnerable in their regular environment usually do not cope well with being left alone and have a deep need to be in contact with their owners and other familiar social groups. Being left alone in a kennel, room or garden for an under confident dog can produce highly emotional reactions to coping with having to be on their own for periods of time. Dogs that are left alone in this context and do not cope well generally have a powerful attachment to their owners and are not that curious when their human companions are out of sight. Once stress is produced in the adrenal glands and is activated regularly more stress hormones are produced when needed, hence the heightened reactions of being over aroused, afraid, restless and the emergence of higher degrees of displayed emotions.
Social brain cells are affected during this physiological change and the dogs that are under pressure are not good at solving conflict. Much of their confidence to diffuse a situation evaporates under stressful circumstances and they normally default to reactive behaviour in their effort to cope. They are also preoccupied and highly reactive to movement in the environment that they don’t have the time or concentration to be curious. They are busy staying safe by staying on the alert. That is very tiring work for a dog.
In my time in rescue over the last 18 years I’ve seen many cases like this, including one of my own dogs, that it was crucial to take the time and plan ahead to take measures in bringing down stress levels enough to observe less intense scanning of the environment and a deeper interest in the immediate surroundings. Once I started to see the signs of curiosity develop again, I knew we were crossing a bridge to greater improvement and I could work on low level introductions to previous environmental areas again. That’s why cases where dogs lose their confidence take time. It’s the same for owners. Owners of reactive dogs are continuously scanning their walks for potential danger and find the role of walking their dog very stressful. The stress from both owner and dog is infectious. The early and slow steps to progress are well worth the effort. Each dog is different and wired in certain ways. Each dog has learned something different from every experience. So has each owner.
Can a dog learn to cope and react differently to what it fears?
With the right approach, absolutely.
Are some behaviours so deeply entrenched that it will take years to change?
Yes, and the way through that is with careful planning. Where behaviours are extremely intense changes in lifestyle need to be made especially in the early going.
Will a dog ever be 100% cured by a behaviour training programme?
Each dog is different and where the behaviour has been triggered by acute trauma it is possible but not guaranteed. Some dogs may prove dangerous where this is the case, we are legally obliged to manage behaviour effectively for life. Safety is paramount. However, a reactive dog is not necessarily a dangerous dog, neither is a dog that reacts badly from a stressful situation. A reaction can simply be that, a reaction.
Dogs are curious beings by nature. Their primary objective is safe keeping. In domestic dogs they live in sometimes heavily populated environments with many breed types and it can be a lot to process in developing dogs. You can influence the level of your dog’s curiosity with working directly with your dog and also through choosing where you walk it. It’s my belief that you should train the brain and muscle development through confidence training before focusing on lung and cardiovascular exercise.
Work hard to assist in developing your dog’s natural curiosity. As dogs are natural detectives and scavengers much of that behaviour revolves around satisfying curiosity to existing and new places. If you have been working with your dog and you observe a reduction in reactive behaviour you will likely see an increase in your dog’s curiosity when out walking, and in your own. It’s a healthy sign.