Be Calm To Keep Your Dog Calm

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.

Honey the golden retriever sits near Christmas tree.

If you’re calm while I’m lying under a Christmas tree after all the times they’ve fallen on you, you’re not calm. You’re dumb.

Calm With New Things

My golden retriever Honey is timid. Not freaky scared. Just a little uncertain with new things.

We worked hard to socialize her to strange situations when she was a puppy. But we’ve faced some challenges introducing her to riding in our bike cart or walking on a ramp.

Honey the golden retriever puppy rides her bike cart to work.

Let me out of this thing

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.

Honey the golden retriever avoids stepping on a dog ramp.

Okay, if I squeeze myself into this tight spot, I can just grab the liver treats without stepping on the ramp.

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.

Dogs do it too.

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.

Honey the golden retriever overlooking Cayuga Lake.

I might think about being scared of heights if I weren’t still tired from making the climb.

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?

 

 

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Comments

  1. What a great message! We’ve never had a dog who was afraid of fireworks or thunder and I’ve sometimes wondered if it was because we don’t react to them either. But Toby is a little afraid of people and I think it’s because when he’s a therapy dog he developed an aversion to having his head touched by strangers, which made me tense, which made his problem worse – a downward spiral that ended our therapy dog work.

    • Your experience in therapy dog situations reminds me that lots of people love dogs but few understand them. Very few, if any, dogs like being patted on the head.

      I’m sorry his experience made you tense. But the good side is that you love Toby so much that you don’t want to see him being subject to something he doesn’t enjoy. It just speaks to your bond.

  2. You are absolutely right. I have an extremely fearful dog – she’s a rescue and she came to me terrified of her own shadow. Giving time, and keeping calm yourself is so very important. Giving them space to make their own decisions too I’ve found really helps. It’s been a matter of trial and error for us, but we’re getting there.

    • When we were fostering the extremely fearful Cherie, our trainer told me, “When you think you’re going slow enough, go slower.”

      Fearful dogs are challenging. But it’s so wonderful to see them grow and learn to trust us. So yes, being calm and giving them space is crucial.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Cora.

  3. I may have shared this story before, but once someone suggested singing a song (in your head) when you see another dog as a way to make sure you stay calm and don’t tighten. I’m always chattering away or singing when I walk BD so thought this would be a brilliant idea. It worked like a charm until I forgot the words of the song and then started to get a little worked up that I couldn’t remember the words to the tune which I was supposed to sing to help me relax!

    • Bwa ha ha! So make sure you know the words before you set out on a walk, eh?

      BTW, I had a friend who used to sing Jesus Loves Me out loud on the subway in the wee hours of the morning. No one bothered her because they thought she was crazy.

      So if you worry that BD or Mity won’t defend you in a dangerous situation, your singing might have another benefit. :)

  4. This is so important when it comes to reactive dogs as well. I have 3 huskies and one is reactive where she will growl at other dogs. Only ever on the leash. After much research a few years back, I learned that I was half the problem. When I realized she was this way, I would start getting worried and/or tense whenever I saw another dog on our walks because I knew what was going to happen. After my research, I did my best to keep calm, and not make the leash all tense, and it does truly help.
    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

    • I remember well those days of walking a reactive dog. I don’t have that issue with Honey. But I have been frustrated when other people pull their dog when they come up to Honey. I just feel like they’re creating potential for a bad reaction.

      But as I always say, it’s easier to train a dog than a human.

      I’m glad to hear you’ve seen results from staying calm on the other end of the leash.

  5. Blueberry only looks to me in certain situations. An example is one time early in the morning, she was barking in the yard and I went out to see what was going on (she is not a barker, so when she does, I take it very seriously) and as soon as I came out she looked at me, and up at the owl that had the nerve to be sitting on the telephone pole. Once she saw I noticed the owl and wasn’t worried about it, she relaxed and knew I had the situation under control. For other things though, like loud noises, she’s not a fan of them. I know it’s important for me to keep calm and I believe that’s helped her keep calmer than she was when I first adopted her, but she still doesn’t enjoy loud noises. At least now she knows that I will keep her safe and away from the causes of those noises.

    As far as dogs approaching her – I usually defer to her to gauge the other dog’s mood as it approaches her. She never ceases to amaze me. She once automatically sat down and lowered her head when two VERY boisterous labs came bounding towards her, barking and carrying on. Even though I was tense and ready to beat the labs back with my walking stick – she knew exactly what to do and remained calm. I sometimes think she’d make a better human than I do. 😉

    • Interesting that Blueberry wanted to tell you about the owl. Honey sometimes does with when a particularly interesting dog walks by the window outside.

      Blueberry sounds like she has amazing dog-sense. Not all dogs do. You’re very lucky.

  6. Torrey especially looks to me. But loud noises freak her out, and i think they always will, no matter what I think. My mom always tells me that both my dogs are so calm, because I am. I think that’s true.

    • Definitely true that being calm won’t stop a fear. It can only keep it from being worse.

      But I can see your calm spirit influencing Torrey and Roxy.

  7. Noise sensitivity is an interesting issue. My first corgi Dylan had no fear of thunderstorms and he actually LOVED fireworks. We would take him to the shows and he would gleefully (and noisily) watch the display, even tracking them high into the sky. Wilson came along and again no fear of thunderstorms. YAY! But fireworks bothered him and he wouldn’t take his evening walk if he heard them go off in the neighborhood somewhere. Then came Jimmy, and in the beginning, no fear of thunderstorms. I was like, YEAH! Another good dog…..but at around age 2, Jimmy started to freak out when he heard thunder. He obviously wasn’t picking up on it from Wilson or me (who thought he was fear-free), but it just started and grew worse. (I have read that herding dogs have the highest incidence of noise sensitivity, that it has a genetic component, and that it often kicks in at young adulthood. Hunting dogs are much less prone to it as no one is going to breed a hunting line that freaks at the sound of gun fire.) Jimmy is PETRIFIED of fireworks, just one pop while out on a walk and that’s it! He drags me home. The funny thing is he listens for anything that “might” be a firecracker (during July esp. when it’s peak season). If he hears something hit the bottom of an empty dumpster, he will immediately look me in the eyes to see if I have a reaction. He definitely checks with me to see if he should be scared. I would bet he can read me well enough to know when I am faking calm.

    • Not fearing loud sounds is definitely the odd characteristic to breed for. After all, it’s smart to be scared of a nose that could kill you. And fireworks do sound an awful lot like semi-automatic weapon firing (says the woman who woke up to gunfire outside her house and asked, “what? fireworks?”).

      I saw the herding breed sensitivity in Zoe, our Australian Cattle foster pup. It’s the first time I’ve seen a dog so sensitive to mild, distant sounds.

      I can see how you couldn’t fake a calm reaction for Jimmy. Dogs are better at reading people than we are at reading ourselves.

  8. YUP!! In fact today’s post was exactly about that. Delilah now looks at me when she sees another dog on our walk. It’s the best feeling.

    • That’s wonderful, Jodi. It’s such a beautiful thing when we get in synch with our dogs during something that’s tough (and walks are major distraction factories).

  9. Doesn’t always work, but calm and relaxed is always the best way to keep a situation from escalating.

  10. Great advice! Sometimes your dog will get nervous anyways, but like Emma said, your energy can help keep a situation more so under control.

  11. Very well stated. The pup I have was selected by the breeder because she had a calm personality as a puppy. I can get rather anxious, so having to remain calm for the dog has been a good learning experience She can get a bit hyped up at play time, but like you said if I act calm with loud noises or new situations, she looks at me as to how to act. Fireworks don’t bother her usually, but there were some exceptionally loud ones at New Year’s that made her quiver a tiny bit.

  12. Actually, in most situations, my dogs will look to us for our reactions to new things, and most of the time, they will blow things off. They’re pretty confident and well-rounded. However, if Bunny hears fireworks, the bets are off. She looks for one thing, and that is getting home. If we are at home, she will curl up with us and generally be fine, but outside, it’s not happening. It wasn’t always this way, but as she’s gotten older, it’s become worse, and it’s that one noise in particular that is a trigger for her.

  13. It is so true that dogs look to others for leadership. Unfortunately, in my house, Meadow looks at Leah, (who has always been noise phobic too), and when Leah reacts, so does Meadow. (What does that tell you about the leadership in our household?)

    But I agree about trying not to react to triggers that we know our rescues came with, like cars on the road, noises, etc. I also try being calm when I want them to just calm down from excitement. Like settling into their spots at meal times. It definitely helps. It takes Toby a few dozen tries to REMAIN in his spot. But it helps. LOL!

    As for having a puppy, that’s definitely the easiest time to instill these reactions (or lack of reactions), and you’ve obviously done a great job with Honey. In fact, I’ve always said that if I ever do breakdown and get a puppy, I think I should leave it at my friend’s house (who has three stable goldens), for the entire week surrounding the fourth of July, so the newbie wouldn’t learn fear from my dogs.

  14. Good advice – we’ve learned this lesson well with our two…Jack can be anxious, so if I’m anxious his anxiety goes up and Maggie, our little fearful pup will just freeze at anything too scary…everything has to be more of a game for her…happy excited voices kind of rest her brain and she can move forward.

  15. I don’t like thunderstorms and neither do my dogs. Go figure. I try to be calm, and I’ve learned to just take the dogs and go downstairs where I feel more relaxed. But they are also fearful of things that I’m not, like wind, so at least it’s not ALL me. Sheba, my only dog who loves all other people and dogs, is fearful of odd inanimate objects (like boxes when I tried to do nosework games with her). At least those are easy for me to work with her on!

  16. Your analogy with the toddler is spot on. Haley always looks at me when something out of the ordinary happens, to gauge my reaction. If I stay calm and don’t react in a stressful way, she normally stays calm as well.

    Some of us have calm personality types and others are highly energetic or get stressed very easily, but dogs seem to respond better to calm energy.

  17. It took me FOREVER to figure this one out. Now, the dogs can be driving me nuts, but I manage to stop, take a deep breath, and then direct them so they know what I’m asking them to do. It makes all of our lives easier :)

  18. That is so true. Early on though I read a book that explained when all else fails, just breath aloud and on purpose. It really works for me.