Mama Sally: Many dog owners are very tender-hearted people who love their dogs deeply. And when storms hit, or something scary happens, the human side of us wants to hug our dogs and pet them and soothe them with a kind, soft voice. When I evaluate dogs, I often hear owners telling their dogs, “It’s okay” when they are scared. They all mean well. And if that were a child in that scared situation, it would be a very good technique to calm them and reassure them. The problem is, of course, that our dogs are just not human, no matter how much we’d like to make that happen.
If we truly say that we love our dogs, and we really mean that, then we have to come to terms with the idea that our dogs are just that: dogs. That’s the way that they have been created, and that’s the way that they think and process information. They just aren’t our “babies” no matter how much we can wish that to be the case. To me, one of the highest expressions of love is to accept someone just as they are…in the way that they were created. So in the case of our dogs, the highest expression of love that we can show, is to treat and accept our dogs as dogs. That’s a very loving and kind thing that we can do.
Rugby is a family member at my house. He absolutely is, and I love him like crazy. But, he’s a dog through and through, and I need to accept and respect him as such if I’m going to have a healthy relationship with him that’s meaningful to both of us.
So, when he’s afraid, I need to think about how he processes that information as a dog, not as a baby or human. When humans love on their dogs, and pet them and soothe them when they are afraid, they can actually make the dog’s fears worse, because the attention communicates the human’s pleasure with the dog’s behavior. In other words, humans end up reinforcing the fear with their positive attention, and their dog’s fears can often get worse as a result.
A better way of handling fears is to give the dog something else to do…a job for example. When Michael leaves every morning, Rugby goes into his meltdown phase for that big change happening in his world. Sometimes I simply pick Rugby up and hold him, not petting him or speaking to him. The closeness of holding him calms him. His Thundershirt has a similar affect, but I try to save that for other things, like outings, or prolonged stormy days, because it works better in those situations.
My preferred way of handling things at home, is to put Rugby on his placemat, and give him an additional job of catching kibble that I throw to him. He’s aware that his Daddy is leaving, but he’s so intent on staying on his placemat, and he’s so excited about catching kibbles, that he doesn’t focus on the fearful thing. He’s able to stay calmer, and I can legitimately praise him, because he’s working, and he’s earning that praise as well as the kibbles. Giving him a job and re-directing his focus has helped him manage his fear and stress in a more productive way. Now let’s see what Rugby has to say about this issue!
Rugby James: Well, the scary part of the day is right when I wake up, lotsa times. Usually, the Daddy is leaving purty quick after we all get up, what I doesn’t likes very much. Sumtimes the Mama just picks me up to calm me, but usually, I gets stressed for a good half hour, so that doesn’t always work very well, on account of she gots udder fings to do!
Mostly, the Mama tries to give me a job, sos I can focus on sumping else….like my piggies or she gives me sumping to do….like follow commands or do sum tricks. As long as she’s completely focused on me, this method is sumping I likes a big bunch, on account of I can stay focused on her when she’s talking to me and telling me what stuff I should do. She always tells me what to do first, in that “telling” voice, and then she sweet talks to me to let me know she’s proud of me and I’m doing what she wants. I likes that voice the best of all, on account of she’s smiling at me when she uses it, sos her eyes gets small and soft, and I know she’s telling me that she lubs me!
When all of this stuff goes on, what happens is that I forget to be worried that the Daddy is leaving for the day. I get so busy and so focused on doing sumping else, that I forget I was scared. And then….before I know it, the Daddy is out the door, and then I’m all good.
We do the same kinda fing for storms and fireworks, but I gotsa wear my Thundershirt for those, on account of they goes on a whole long time and I can’t focus on the Mama for that long. My Thundershirt helps me stay calmer, and then the Mama and the Daddy can do the stuff they gotsa do instead of just babysit me!!