Can Resilience Be Taught to Dogs? Part One
Can Resilience Be Taught?
Can dogs be taught to recover quickly from stress?
More than just teaching specific behaviors, training is about helping dogs best adapt to the lifestyle of humans and providing enrichment. Dogs do not have the opportunity to make choices the way we do, so it is our responsibility to provide them with opportunities to play, sniff and be dogs! Dogs have to learn to live in cities, spend a lot of time exploring the world while on a leash and live by our many human rules; which are often taking away from their natural behaviors.
Training is about helping dogs have everything they need to live their best lives.
We owe it to them to provide the enrichment, exercise, skill building and training that they need to be healthy and happy.
There are a number of natural skills and traits that we should look for in dogs and if they do not have them, we should be working on the lacking areas. Even though the genetic make-up can not be changed, training workarounds can help. If a dog happens to be a part of a breeding program and they lack important traits, the breeder should ask themselves what they are doing for their breed and for the future of companion dogs if they breed an unstable dog--respectable breeders are the ones who ask just that; helping to preserve our healthy, companion dogs.
Resilience is one of those important characteristics for dogs. With so many trainers, vets and groomers; including myself, working hard to educate on cooperative care, it's easy to overlook the fact that we can not control everything. It is important to train our dogs for things like vet care so that the dog does not find the procedures stressful, but it's also important to remember that we can not protect our dogs from everything.
Having the expectation that one bad event will ruin your dog is going to cause unnecessary upset for you as well as impact how your dog experiences the stressful event.
We should train our dogs for life and help them experience as much as we can. We should also reward resilience in our dogs and be prepared for things to happen that will stress our dogs out.
Dogs can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. Animals are supposed to bounce back.
Hunting dogs will stand by their handler not flinching as the gun is fired. Guardians of livestock will take down intruder animals without fear. Dogs will demonstrate impressive resilience on their own, so how can we help them to be resilient as pets?
I want dogs that will walk away with a vet tech into the back without becoming fearful. I want my dogs to bounce back if they get run up on by another dog. I realize that I can't control the environment. My dogs are bound to experience stressful events, but I want them to bounce back the way dogs do.
My dogs are going to experience things that they don't like. They are going to encounter things that scare them. They are not going to have one hundred percent fear-free lives because that is unrealistic. If my dogs can't bounce back, it is my responsibility to figure out the best way to help them, get over it.
The complex question is, can resilience be taught?
Dogs learn long before they are on their own with their own people. Puppies are being shaped from day one. We now know that the way the mother experiences life will greatly play a role in how the puppies develop. Is she nervous or aggressive or friendly and solid? How does she respond to people?
Genetics also play a role as well as the dam's life experiences. The wonders and complexity of breeding is far outside the scope of this post but the point is that there are many factors that make dogs who they are, with probably many more that have not even been discovered.
What do you do if you do not know the history of your dog? What if you adopted a dog that had a poor upbringing?
Firstly, how do you know what a dog has experienced and how they experienced it? To move forward with any dog, my advice is to let go of your dog's history when you are in a training mindset. This can be hard, but you will be helping your dog more than you know.
Dogs are mind readers.
Your dog is picking up on things you are doing that you have no clue about. Your scent, your hand movement, your muscles, your posture, your eye gaze and the list continues.
Your dog is reading your mind.
If you decide that your dog is terrified of large dogs, all of a sudden it becomes true! You see a larger dog, your dog “reads your mind” and your dog reacts.
If you are out with your dog and there are some loud crashes at a nearby construction site, will your dog become startled? Being resilient doesn't mean not experiencing a flash of fear, it is about how quickly your dog can move on from it. Again, your dog will read you. If you are worried about your dog, your dog will worry too.
To further complicate matters, let's talk about the fact that it is said emotion can not be reinforced. Behavior can, but emotion can not.
Remember when they used to say, don't coddle a nervous dog? Now, more and more trainers will tell you to go ahead and comfort your nervous dog because fear is not a behavior, it is an emotional response.
Every dog and every situation is different. What one needs, might make matters worse for another.
But what is fear? Is a dog truly stressed or going through a natural process of experiencing a potentially negative event and bouncing back on their own?
Again, our own feelings will play a role.
Do you believe resilience can be taught?
Future posts will give specific ideas on helping your dog be confident, resilient and solid in all kinds of situations, but this post serves as a place to start and to get you thinking.
To me, resilience should be encouraged and rewarded by giving dogs choices to naturally respond. For example, you are at the park and your dog gets startled by a passing car backfiring. What does your dog want to do? If your dog already jumped up in fear and then did a nice full body shake as if he just came from a swim, and now he is sniffing the ground, keep the leash relaxed and follow your dog. He has his own process and he is totally fine!
We should try not to form our own opinions on how our dogs experience things due to their amazing ability to pick up on our cues. If you think your dog is afraid of the vets, terrified of any breed of dog that has hair over it's eyes, and absolutely hates motorcycles, then chances are your dog is playing mind reading tricks and agrees with you every time one of these things is encountered.
We should work hard to properly socialize our puppies as well as give adult dogs as many life experiences as we can without flooding. Give your dog chances to experience life. Know that there will be things that your dog finds stressful. If something stressful happens, don't shelter your dog. Let your dog shake it off and move on. This does not mean to flood your dog either. Trying to expose your dog to everything he might find scary to help him get over it quickly will have dangerous consequences. Remember, we want your dog to respond naturally whenever we can and flooding would not allow for this.
Although genetics, breeding and proper care and handling of the litter will contribute to a resilient dog, that does not mean that a rescue dog or a dog with unknown history can not be helped. In fact it is quite the opposite. Dogs are amazing. We are the ones who worry when oftentimes, dogs are ready to shake it off and move on.
Believe in your dog. Let your dog be confident and oftentimes he or she will surprise you.
A Note on Aggression:
Please keep in mind that none of the ideas or thoughts in any of these posts are meant to encourage or educate handling aggression, fear aggression or other serious concerns without the assistance of a trainer. Resilience is going to be a part of understanding the behavior of an aggressive animal but this should not be addressed on your own.
Train Your Dog!
Well trained and socialized, companion dogs have jobs. A part of the MJ's Pet Training Academy mission is to encourage family involved dog training. Train your dog every day and give your dog something to look forward to with you. Nothing compares to the bond you will build through training. Obedience, scent work, tracking, whatever it may be give your dog a job!