To advocate means to support or promote the interests of another. As a trainer, I’m always encouraging my clients to be advocates for their dogs. To me, this means putting the physical and emotional well-being of your dog before your own needs. This includes protecting your dog from injury, from other dogs, and from other people. It also means that you may need to speak up for your dog in a variety of situations; after all, your dog can’t speak for herself! Also, being your dog’s advocate builds trust between you and your dog. I want my dog to trust that I will only put her into situations that she can comfortably handle.
Here are some important foundation skills you need to in order to promote and maintain your dog’s physical and emotional well-being:
Understand Canine Body Language
Learning how dogs communicate, both with their voice and their body language, is an invaluable skill. Take the time to learn and understand the frequent signals that dogs display. It’s important to learn the nuances of that language, especially as it relates to stress signals, so that you can accurately read the dog’s body language and then draw a conclusion as to what your dog is feeling. Stress develops from an inability to cope with a current situation. By understanding and observing your dog’s body language, you’ll know when to intervene or how to change the environment to reduce your dog’s stress.
Make sure you look at the dog’s entire body, as individual signals have different meanings depending on the context of the situation. Begin first by observing and noting each individual signal you see the dog display. Once you’ve noted the signals, you’re better able to draw a conclusion as to whether it’s a stressful situation for the dog. Breed characteristics can complicate the dog’s message, as can docking of tails and/or ears, so please also take these into consideration.
For more information about how dogs communicate, see “Learn to Read Your Dog’s Body Signals,” WDJ August 2011, and Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff (Dogwise, 2005).
Develop Situational Awareness
Whenever I am with my dog, her well-being comes first. With my dog, I’m scanning the environment for things that could adversely affect my dog, so I can change direction or adapt appropriately to protect her.
It’s not unlike walking with a small child through a crowded street fair; you need to steer clear of strange (stressed!) dogs, people who have had too many alcoholic beverages, broken glass on the street, and so on, all the while pointing out the beautiful handicrafts for sale, the talented juggler, the aroma of delicious food, the harmonious music being played by an enthusiastic band . . . I’m not saying you should be trying to create an inauthentic world for your dog (or toddler) – just that you, as the adult member of the team, have a responsibility to filter your dog’s experience of the world so that she isn’t unnecessarily traumatized by things that are beyond her ability to comprehend or absorb.
Manage Your Dog’s Stress
There’s not one of us who hasn’t passed the tipping point of our own stress threshold. Imagine this scenario: You get up late. You have a flat tire on the way to work. Your boss makes a snide comment when you enter the office. When you get home that evening, your significant other is fussy about something you forgot to do days ago. That’s enough to make any of us to lose our good humor!
Multiple stressors can compound the stress your dog feels, too. As you understand dog body language, you’ll begin to see how different situations may affect your dog. Is she happy? Is she uncomfortable? Is she scared? As your dog’s advocate you may need to intervene or change the environment to help your dog.
Here are five things you can do to help your dog be more comfortable in a specific situation:
1. Assess the situation. Look around and attempt to determine the stressor or stressors that are causing your dog to feel uncomfortable.
2. Increase distance between your dog and the perceived threat. Sometimes distance alone will help your dog become more comfortable.
3. Be prepared to remove your dog from the situation if increasing distance didn’t help. Don’t be tempted to make the dog endure an uncomfortable environment. Doing so can increase stress and also exacerbate the dog’s behavior.
4. Change your dog’s opinion about the thing that made her uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s a small child and the dog hasn’t been around children. Instead of a dog thinking, “A child is a scary thing!” you want her to think, “A child is a good thing!” Counter-conditioning and desensitization is the appropriate way to accomplish this and is very effective when implemented slowly and consistently over time.
5. If you feel you’re in over your head, call a dog behavior professional who is skilled in positive techniques to modify canine behavior.
For more about managing a fearful dog’s stress, see “Fear Aggression” (this issue) for more information.
Putting Advocacy Into Practice
Now that you have an understanding of the foundation skills, let’s look at the various places to use them:
Advocating At Home
No dog should have to be fearful or apprehensive in his or her own home. As my dog’s advocate, I have learned to offer a polite “no” response to well-meaning friends who ask if their dog can accompany them to our home. Not all dogs immediately enjoy an interloper in their own home and it’s much more fun to visit with my friends without worrying about how our dogs get along. Besides, we have cats in our house, so I don’t trust unknown dogs around our furry felines.
Turnabout is fair play; even if your dog has always interacted well with new, unknown dogs, you should leave your dog at home when visiting the homes of friends or relatives who have pets. Why stress your friends’ or relatives’ dogs in their own homes? They may not respond well, which would be unfortunate for them and your dog.
If you have dogs (or cats and other pets) who don’t get along well, you may have to make some difficult decisions about whether they should live together or not – or, at a minimum, take dramatic steps to stringently manage the flow of traffic in your home so they don’t have any opportunities to harm or terrorize each other. No one should have to live in fear in their own homes, either. As much as it would pain you to miss them, consider rehoming whichever pet or pets have the best capacity for a happy life elsewhere.
For more about the potential need to rehome a dog, see “Multi-Dog Household Aggression,” WDJ April 2010.
I have such appreciation for those who foster dogs. But if you decide to become a foster home for a needy dog, please keep in mind that your ultimate responsibility is to ensure the comfort and safety of the current dog or dogs already in your home. A constant flow of new dogs in and out of a home can be extremely stressful to family dogs. I’ve seen more than a few family dogs develop stress-related behavior issues because of the barrage of new dogs coming and going. As your dog’s advocate, carefully consider if fostering is right for you and your dog.
Your dog should also be comfortable and safe from being hurt or scared by other humans in the house. Young children, teenagers, spouses, and elderly parents should be taught to be kind to and respectful of the dog. If anyone in the home can’t be trusted to be as protective of the dog as you are, then their interactions with the dog should be supervised, or the dog kept somewhere she can be safe from harassment when you are not there to supervise.
For more information about managing life with kids and dogs, see “How to Teach Kids and Dogs to Get Along From an Early Age,” WDJ May 2012, and Living with Kids and Dogs Without Losing Your Mind, by Colleen Pelar (Dream Dog Productions, 2012).
Protecting Your Dog at Parades, Parties and Outdoor Gatherings
While we may enjoy having our canine companions accompany us, many dogs aren’t comfortable at loud events unless they have been appropriately conditioned to enjoy the variety of sights and sounds at events like parades. If you’re unsure how your dog will enjoy a specific event, leave her in the safety and comfort of your own home or be prepared to create as much distance as necessary for your dog to feel comfortable. You may even need to leave the event.
Even when you’ve implemented the best training you know how, things can go awry. After four years of training and socialization with my dog, Willow, who had proven to very comfortable at a variety of loud outdoor dog sport and other public events, I felt she was ready to accompany me to one of our local, small-town parades. I armed myself with her favorite treats so that I could use the food, as necessary, to pair any new and unusual sights and sounds. I was thinking about marching bands, riders on horses – perhaps a fire truck!
Well, I hadn’t considered the possibility of a dune buggy club and 20-plus loud vehicles with their motors revving! As this parade entry grew closer, Willow began to panic and pull me away from the noise. We retreated 30 or 40 feet – but that was still much too close. When I offered her a treat, she looked away from me. My very food-motivated dog had stress anorexia! As her advocate, I needed to retreat with her to a more comfortable distance – which turned out to be a couple of blocks away, where we could sit together and observe the parade while enjoying yummy treats.
As much as you want to enjoy the event you are attending with your dog, if she’s having a bad time, prioritize her experience over yours. You may be sad to miss what you went to see – for example, getting to watch your neighbor’s kids in the marching band – but, trust me, you will be far happier if you don’t have to spend the rest of your dog’s life counter-conditioning her to get over (as just one possibility) her new fear of loud vehicles.
Help Your Dog Feel Safe at Vet Visits
Willow was always over her stress threshold within moments of walking in the front door of our former veterinarian’s office. When she came into our home as a puppy, I was determined to positively condition her to not only like, but love, the vet. Unfortunately, a chronic urinary tract infection that persisted for more than six months, despite treatment, caused her intense fear of that particular vet practice.
Because it’s easier to help a dog develop a positive association with a new location versus changing a negative association with a known location, I decided to switch vet offices. Willow is now comfortable going to see her new vet – especially because the new veterinarian also uses low-stress handling techniques! (See “Less Stressful Veterinary Visits,” WDJ March 2010.)
Few owners recognize signs that their dogs are stressed at the vet. By learning dog body language, you’ll be prepared to recognize stress in your dog at the vet and make the appropriate adjustments.
Observe the waiting room before you enter. Position yourself so that your dog has sufficient space. Take toys or food to keep your dog busy – and speak up if you feel your dog isn’t comfortable with a certain vet-handling technique!
Willow is more comfortable with me than the vet tech when restraint is needed for a blood draw. I ask to have the blood drawn in the treatment room rather than the back of the vet practice, or I ask to accompany her to the back where I can be the one to hold her.
You can also be proactive in training your dog to enjoy body handling, as well as getting your dog comfortable with restraint, a collar hold (if you have to remove the leash) and even a muzzle. If your dog has already learned to “love” a muzzle, it will be one less moment of stress should a vet need to use one.
Safe at Doggy Daycare or Training Class
It’s important to help our dogs learn to navigate in our weird human world. One helpful way to further her experience and education is to enroll in a positive training class with your dog. You’ll learn how to appropriately familiarize her with the variety of sights and sounds she will encounter in her life with you, and you’ll learn how to teach your dog good manners both inside and outside of your home. Training classes should be fun, effective, and build trust between you and your dog that enriches the bond between you.
There are many training classes and workshops available today, however, not all of them provide positive experiences for the enrollees. Please do the research to find a force-free, positive training class where the focus is on teaching the dog what to do, rather than on punishing unwanted behaviors. Interview the trainer and ask probing questions about the exercises that will be taught and what techniques and methods will be used.
If something doesn’t sound right or raises concerns, look for another trainer who will not only have your dog’s best interest in mind, but also listen to and address any concerns you may have along the way. And don’t ever use a training technique on your dog just because the trainer said to do so. You are your dog’s advocate. If you’re not comfortable with the situation, you have the right to say, “No, thank you.”
Workshops provide another educational opportunity for you and your dog. Unlike group classes, where a dog has the ability to become accustomed to the new environment throughout the length of the class (normally six to seven weeks), workshops are usually one or two days. A workshop environment with many handlers and dogs can be overwhelming. Some dogs adjust quickly, others may take a few hours, and others may not be able to adjust in the time allotted.
If your dog grows increasingly stressed in a workshop environment, as your dog’s advocate, it’s better to pack up and leave than force her to endure more than she can handle. Once your dog is secure and happy at home, you can return to the workshop and observe and learn without the worry of an uncomfortable dog at your side.
Use Your Voice for Your Dog
When you bring a dog into your home, you’re committing to a 10- to 15-year relationship with an amazing and wonderful creature who doesn’t have the ability to verbally speak and say “no.” It’s up to you, as your dog’s advocate, to ensure her well-being.
A passionate advocate for humane, science-based dog training, Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2, and a dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Instructor. She is the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina, with additional locations in Georgia and Florida. Lisa provides behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.