From “At home with the dogs of kona’s touch” series celebrating APDT’s Train Your Dog Month and winner, best social media campaign.
Human: “It’s pouring out, I can’t see a thing, I’m lost. I don’t CARE what we have for dinner. I may never eat again. All I care about is my life, my future, surviving this mess of traffic. MAKE IT GO AWAY!”
Dog: “Ruff ruff RUFF RUFF Lunge lunge, snarl GROWL ruff ruff RUFF RUFF Lunge LUNGE snarl growl ruff ruff RUFF RUFF RUFF RUFF MAKE IT GO AWAY!”
If there’s one thing we share with dogs (and I believe there are many), it’s the ability to be overwhelmed and afraid for our survival. When we don’t know how to control it, that’s when it gets loud.
I’ve been thinking lately about dogs and threshold. Let’s talk about going over threshold. It is the invisible line in life that takes you from rational thinking to pure emotion. It is the “straw that’s breaks the camel’s back”. It is the line that we cross between feeling control or out of control. In our dogs going over threshold overrules their ability to learn and they can’t act on what they already know.
In the human form of going over threshold, I believe we can all relate. (See above, the rantings and ravings of the Human). I am reminded of an experience that has affected me greatly. It was a clear and scary moment when I went over my threshold. It reminded me of what going over threshold may be like for our dogs.
I was driving home from a dog training seminar years ago. It was a particularly tough day. I made (what I thought) was a fool of myself with the speaker in front of 200 people. My challenged body was searing in pain, I was exhausted and starving. I looked forward to getting home. I was driving along when I realized I was lost. At the same time it started pouring and got very dark. The phone rang. It all happened at once. It was before ear pieces so I picked up my cell phone. When I heard my partner’s voice I said, “I am totally lost and I can’t see a thing”. Not knowing I was serious since I never get lost, she said, “do you want spaghetti or pizza for dinner.” Normally those words would have me dancing, but I didn’t even hear it. I lost it, very loudly, about how I couldn’t begin to think about food and I was lost and it was pouring and dark. I continued with I didn’t know where the !@*% I was. I ranted about the windshield wipers and the standing water and how I couldn’t see the signs and how I was probably going the wrong way and I would never get home. She asked gently if there was any way she could help me and I went off again. I was louder. Ruff Ruff, Lunge Lunge. One more time she asked about pizza and spaghetti and the words flew by me like they were French. I said I had to go, the phone was putting yet another stressor on me and I had to concentrate.
I started to breathe, I slowed down and soon I recognized a street and knew how to get on the right path again, literally and figuratively.
I imagine that ride every time I see a reactive dog “lose it” at the sight of another dog, human, or anything that can make that particular dog go over threshold. As with humans, it’s different with every dog. I was “out of my mind” and so is a dog who is barking and lunging at another dog. Neither of us can think straight. Learning to breathe and practicing to use my mind at its best, gave me the ability to stay safe until I could get back to point. If we can think about how we feel when we are totally stressed and overwhelmed and how we get out of it, perhaps we will be better able to relate to our canine friends. This can give us a deeper understanding to helping them with their stress. We can see why keeping them under threshold is so essential. It makes fleeing the area or having the stimulus leave much more important. Still the dog and human will have hormones and adrenaline running through the central nervous system, but at least it won’t be getting worse and therefore, will take less time to settle. With our human brain we can think of better ways to help our canine friends better deal with being over threshold, or of course the first choice, keeping them under.
Once we learn the skills to deal with stress, it is our job to teach our dogs in their language. We attempt as humans to learn everyday. Hopefully we do. We need to be more proactive in our teachings. Dogs can’t read and practice themselves. They can go to their teacher, us, and they are often more than willing to learn. We need to teach them skills. We need to learn the skills for ourselves. We can use our minds to control the effects of the stimulus and then we can teach our dogs in a way they can relate.
I didn’t do well that night with the stressors of the day. I yelled loudly because I was scared. I believe now, years later, I could do it better. For sure, I wouldn’t be on the cell phone and neither would the dog.
If you have a reactive dog, the most important action you can take is to keep him “under threshold”. Contact a professional positive dog trainer to implement a training protocol for your dog. Never let a trainer use force or fear to modify behavior. Working on skills to help your dog raise his comfort level in stressful situations is one of the best gifts you can teach your dog.