Trust between a handler and dog is the cornerstone of our teams’ effectiveness. This translates into effective teamwork.
10 steps that will help a handler and dog develop a sense of trust and security:
1 > Socializing the dog at an early age is critical, but it’s also important to keep exposing him/her to all sorts of people and dogs throughout his lifetime.
2 > Taking the dog out to different places and exposing him/her to all sorts of situations helps the dog develop confidence and adaptability. The more restricted the animal’s world, the more he’ll be likely to feel anxious when small changes occur in his environment.
3 > Desensitizing the dog to anything that we notice he/she can be afraid of. Avoiding a fearful situation instead of working on it can result in the dog generalizing the fear to other areas. The reverse is also true. Overcoming a fear in one area can help the dog generalize to another area.
4 > Avoiding punishing the dog through the use of aversives. There are many effective ways to diminish unwanted behaviors without scaring or hurting the dog.
5 > Engaging the dog’s mind. When the dog applies himself to processing information, whether through training (like in shaping) or any activity that requires him to think, he’s less likely to be focused on his anxiety.
6 > Developing our own confidence as a handler. Since dogs are very sensitive to our emotions, it’s important to display a calm and confident attitude.
7 > Respecting thresholds. When we push the dog through his thresholds where he’ll be likely to experience the unpleasant emotion again and again, we’re also sensitizing him to the situation, thus making that emotion more likely to occur in the future.
8 > Allowing the dog to get out of fearful situations. Providing the dog with a place to hide or to move away from something scary is critical so the fear can subside. In the same way, standing up for the dog, interfering with a person or dog about to invade his space also allows the dog to feel safe as you’re watching out for him.
9 > Avoiding overprotecting the dog. This may seem like the opposite of the previous point, but we can go too far in trying to protect the dog and if we’re anxious ourselves of the outcomes of certain interactions, we can trigger or contribute to the dog’s anxiety. Simply tightening the leash a little may very well set your dog on alert.
10 > Developing patience. If we’re pushy or frustrated, the dog is likely to build up anxiety and become resistant or shut down. Patience is essential to allow the dog to process the information presented in front of him.
Stress, anxiety and fear play a critical part in the wellbeing of our animals as they do in our own lives. Applying ourselves to reducing the opportunities for those emotions to develop may make the difference in the dog’s welfare. We can all benefit from reducing those emotions in our life. It’s not always easy to be mindful of what affects our dog’s emotions as well as our own, but the more we apply ourselves to it, the easier it gets, for the benefit of all.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D