There is Nothing Wrong with Your Dog
Even as a dog trainer, from time to time, I catch myself slipping into the language that a dog who is exhibiting certain behaviors has a problem. This is an incredibly harmful mindset for any pet owner as it can lead us to think that there is something wrong with our dog. From our perspective this may seem to be the case, but from the dog’s perspective, what we may see as a problem, for them, is a solution. It is hard to think about, but keep that in the back of your head the next time Scruffy gets into the trash.
At Dog in Neutral we work under the premise that everything a dog does is emotionally driven. Our goal is to help dogs achieve close to a neutral emotional state, especially indoors. You know what this looks like: breathing, collected, not a care in the world. When something happens that emotionally heightens the dog, it is essentially knocked off balance. Something feels off, unsafe, or unsatisfied within them. Humans have this feeling too, in the most primal compartments of our ancestral brain, the sympathetic nervous system. For our ancestors it was the snake in the grass that ends up being a stick, for us it is the imaginary cop car we swear was hiding behind that billboard.
Have you ever left the house, gotten half way to work, and get that feeling that you left the oven on? You know you didn’t ever use the oven that morning but for some unknown reason there is a pit in your stomach and your inner monologue is in panic mode. You have an important decision to make, who is the bigger predator: the hypothetical fire burning your house down, or your boss’s disappointed glare as he calls you in his office to admonish your tardiness? While poring over your options, memories, decisions, and imaginary ramifications of our actions you may take a deep breath, tap your steering wheel anxiously, or scream obscenities in frustration. In this emotionally heightened state, these are the tactics you use to cope. By the way, this is normal, and there is nothing wrong with YOU.
Dogs don’t use ovens or have bosses, but they can certainly feel dread, panic, and fear of predators, real or imaginary — and they need to cope with those emotions. This is why going through the trash, or chewing up a shoe, or scratching up a door means there is nothing wrong with your dog, they simply don’t know GOOD ways to cope. This is the importance of training your dog in drive. Don’t just practice simple commands when your dog is calm and receptive. Equipped with the pushing movement, when Scruffy sees a squirrel, he will know that you are a better source of good feeling than chasing fruitlessly after that critter. Armed with a good bark on command, Scruffy will have a healthy outlet to deal with that scary dog rather than charging to attack. Indoors, good ol’ Scruffy will eventually find that collecting himself on top of his crate feels a lot better than panicking when the delivery man rings the doorbell.
Don’t yell or punish your dog with fear or violence. Don’t overwhelm it with loud “NO! NO! NO!”s and finger wagging. Some days may be frustrating but you cannot allow yourself to succumb to your base emotions. The consequence may be a new source of heightened emotion that your dog will have to cope with, and may do so in undesirable ways. Instead, forgive quickly and continue to work with the tools your dog was born with to make them feel satisfied and increase their emotional threshold so the next time that pesky squirrel runs past them, they look to you for answers. Allow the dog to be a dog and they will eventually come up with the best solutions to the emotions of fear, anxiety, and panic on their own.
There’s nothing wrong with your dog, rather you have to sometimes help your dog remember the coping skills it was born with to bring it back to neutral.