Dog behavior is extremely intuitive. They get the majority of their information from the world through smells and inferred information. They communicate with each other almost completely through body language. It makes sense then that most of the information we give them is completely and utterly unintentional.
Our dogs are much more in tune with our energy and body language than they are with our verbal language. My favorite example to show my clients this principle is with Agility.
When you begin training agility with your dog, you become so much more aware of how your dog responds to your body. You can say “jump” all you like, but if your body and feet are pointed at the tunnel, that is where your dog is going to go.
As a verbal species, we get very wrapped up in the words we use and what we say to our dogs. It is a hard thing for us to comprehend that our dogs really don’t need anything we say to know what we want from them.
You can influence your dog’s behavior a whole lot more by simply adjusting your mood and body, than you can with words. This can certainly work to our advantage in training, but it can also work against us in certain instances.
Why does my dog freak out?!
The most common instance of this is in leash aggressive dogs or reactive dogs. As we become a more densely populated species, we see more and more dogs who suddenly lunge to the end of their leash, barking and snarling and scaring people and, most likely, their owners. This is commonly mislabeled as aggression.
More accurately it is called leash aggression, or reactivity. It is an unfortunate side effect of dogs being around each other more often, but in a more restrained fashion. It is something that a lot of us live with, including our entire training team.
I personally live with a highly reactive Border Collie/Cattle Dog mix named Oliver. He has taught me more about how my body language and emotions can influence dog behavior than any person ever has.
When we first started to experience Oliver’s reactivity, it scared me. I had never handled a reactive dog before, and I had no idea what to do. It made me dread taking him on walks, especially around our very dog-friendly apartment complex. Even when walking my non-reactive dog, I would start to get nervous every time I saw a dog.
My dogs, Oliver especially, really picked up on this. It got to a point where my anxiety levels would go up, and Oliver would immediately start lunging and barking. He wouldn’t even have to see a dog; he would pick up on my signals and know that there was something to be anxious about.
Emotions running high in people spells disaster for dogs
Emotions are a very difficult thing to overcome, but maintaining that control for yourself is crucial when you are working with your dog. If you become frustrated, odds are your dog will pick up on that and your walk or training session will be less enjoyable for both of you.
If you are nervous, your dog will probably soon begin to act the same. The best way to combat this, I have found, is to find some breathing exercises that help you stay calm.
Prepare yourself to be in these situations with your dog, and relax yourself as much as possible. If you are calm and relaxed, your nervous, excited, or even aggressive dog will likely pick up on this and have an easier time relaxing as well. There is, of course, a lot of training to go alongside that, but the very first step is handling your own emotions so that your dog’s are not amplified.
It is also very important to keep in mind that, just like us, our dogs are not always in control of their emotions. A lot of what we label as “misbehavior” is actually just your dog behaving like a dog. It is up to us to teach them to behave in a different way, and that can be extremely difficult if your dog is having a difficult time emotionally.
If your dog is having a very difficult time in certain circumstances, take note of what those are, and see if you can pinpoint the specific trigger that might be causing problems for your dog and correct or redirect their attention immediately every time. They may just be completely overwhelmed and unable to process what is going on.
There are currently ongoing studies into the cognitive abilities of dogs, that have proven that dogs have a very similar cognitive ability to a human child. Keep that in mind when your dog is overwhelmed and “misbehaving”. How can it be their fault, if they don’t have the proper guidance and or have no idea what to do with themselves?
There’s a solution for your dog and you
Once you are ready to begin training, it is typically best to start with a Private Lesson with a Certified Trainer. Your trainer will discuss the problems you are having during your first lesson, and develop a plan on how to move forward with you. Together you will agree on what best fits you, your dog, and your schedule.
You may end up doing a series of lessons or you may opt to have your dog attend Behavior Boot Camp, where they can socialize with appropriate dogs and work one on one with trainers. Whatever route you decide to take, the first step is taking a deep, calming breath, and setting up an initial session.
The good news is that our positive emotions can influence our dogs as much as our negative emotions. Your dog will be happier, more joyful, and loving as you increase the fun you are having, the joy you exude, and the happiness you display around your dog.
So remember to go out in the world and enjoy your dog. Have fun with your dog. Laugh with your dog. Live in the moment with your dog, and nurture that bond between you and them, this will help you turn the difficult moments into amazing learning experiences.
About the Author: Courtney Emken