Hang out at a playground long enough and you’ll eventually see this: a running toddler falls. At first he’s surprised. Then he looks up to his parent.
If the parent stays calm, the kid goes to play. But if mom looks upset, the kid starts bawling.
Your dog is like that toddler.
And if you want your dog to be calm, you need to be calm yourself.
Calm With New Things
My golden retriever Honey is timid. Not freaky scared. Just a little uncertain with new things.
Luckily I don’t worry about Honey reacting to loud noises like thunder or fireworks. Because I never react to thunder or fireworks.
I don’t startle easily. It’s probably just because I have slow reaction times. But it sure has benefitted my dog.
We were lucky to have two mild thunderstorms in the spring when Honey was a puppy. I remember her looking to me at the first clap of thunder and settling instantly when she saw I looked unconcerned.
But the real test happened New Year’s night. I don’t usually take Honey to places that will have fireworks. But she was outside with me when we hosted a ten-minute New Year’s party on our street to watch the year change on the Ithaca College towers.
A few minutes after the lights changed, someone set off big firecrackers nearby.
Honey startled a little bit. But I stood there quietly while my neighbors cheered.
Honey got no cues that the firecrackers were anything to worry about. So when they happened again a few minutes later, she barely noticed the crackling sounds.
Dogs Look To Us For Calm Cues
Remember my toddler story at the top? When a child looks to a parent for clues about whether something is worrisome, scientists call it social referencing.
It’s why we need to stay calm and reassuring when our dogs are likely to get scared because they’ll look at us for cues.
It’s not easy. Especially when you’re walking a reactive dog. It’s only human to allow your vigilance to become tension. But you’ve got to find some way to calm yourself. Or your tension will communicate itself all the way down your leash and into your dog, making all your training and management just a little less effective.
There Are Limits To What Calmness Can Do
Some of you live with very frightened dogs and right about now you want to stick a fork in my eyes because I have no idea what you’re dealing with.
Well, I do have some idea because I’ve fostered some extremely fearful dogs.
I also know that there are limits to what remaining calm can do. Some dogs become instantly crazy-scared and they don’t have time to see how you feel about something before they go running to escape whatever frightened them.
But it’s still important to stay calm when your dog feels mild fear. Because working with a fearful dog is all about giving them a secure base and allowing them to slowly (and I mean S L O W L Y) gain confidence. And to your dog, you’re their secure base. Or at least that’s what you should be.
And let’s face it, getting a little Zen in the face of the scary things of life isn’t bad for us either.
So relax. Take it easy. And stay calm.
If not for yourself, then for your dog.
Your Turn: Have you noticed your dog looking to you for cues for how to respond to something strange or scary?