Improving Tolerance Around Triggers

I focus a lot on reading your dog’s arousal levels, to ensure that your dog A) is not becoming sensitized to stimuli in the environment and B) is able to behave and think and learn (a stressed brain — excitement or anxiety — doesn’t function well).
When you are working on helping your dog learn to self-regulate around triggers, reading your dog’s arousal level is essential. You want your dog to be under threshold. You allow your dog to approach the trigger (increase the intensity of the trigger) until your dog reaches the threshold distance (the smallest distance where your dog is still able to be “under threshold”). After spending a bit of time at that distance, you retreat from the trigger (lower the intensity of the trigger) and give your dog some recovery time. How much time do allow your dog to spend at the “threshold distance”? The answer is “just enough but not too much.” LOL And the answer will differ depend on your dog’s nervous system that day at that time in that situation. How much time do you allow your dog to spend at a low intensity distance for “recovery time?” The answer is “not too little” and you need to read your dog’s subtle body language and know your dog well to know if he/she needs more time for his/her nervous system to recover.
And remember that the last half of the class may be very different than the first half: your dog’s nervous system might be getting overloaded after 30 minutes of the class (or less for some dogs). We like to hope that the longer the exposure time, the more the dog will become used to it, but this isn’t always the case. The dog’s nervous system gets tired just like ours does after a long period of stress.
And we always want to err on the side of caution to avoid the opposite to our goal — we don’t want to SENSITIZE the dog to the trigger, which can easily happen if we are setting our hopes and expectations too high. This is often the case if we find that the dog doesn’t seem to be improving.
So, here’s a little tip:  
 
When you are setting a goal, make the goal about your dog’s arousal level, not about the distance or duration. 
What I mean is that if you are thinking “I’m going to see if my dog can pass by that trigger at distance X” then your focus is on “distance X” and you may be inadvertently setting your dog up to fail (or to become sensitized to the trigger). If you change your thinking to “I’m going to see if my dog can maintain an arousal level of 2 as we pass by that trigger” then your focus is on the dog’s arousal level. The distance your dog needed at that time will be noted by you for future encounters, but that distance is not the goal.

Dog Training Tip: Helping your Dog in an exciting environment

Some environments are very stimulating to a dog.

  • places new to your dog
  • places where your dog experienced something very intense (intense for your dog)
  • windy days: wind stirs up scents and can lead to a bit of sensory overload
  • rain or humidity: moisture increases bacteria growth and leads to an increase in the amount and intensity of the scents. This can lead to a bit of sensory overload.
  • places with lots of things happening
  • places where there are “triggers” (things that trigger a reaction in your dog

We cannot change the environment to make it less exciting for a dog, but we can control our dog’s access to it.

  • let your dog have more time sniffing and exploring an area before proceeding to a new section.
  • retreat to an area where your dog was previously calm to let your dog’s nervous system recover a bit before heading out to a new section. Sometimes it’s good to have a “home base” area where your dog is calm, and then head out in one direction and then back to home base to relax, then heat out in a different direction and back to home base. Another way would be to start at A, walk to B, back to A. Recover. Walk to B, then to C, then to B. Recover. (B has now become home base). Then walk to C, then to D, then to C. Recover. (C has now become home base).
  • the more time your dog spends in high arousal, the weaker his/her nervous system. Recovery periods can help, but you may need more frequent breaks and longer breaks. This analogy might help: think of your dog’s nervous system as a pot of boiling water on a stove. If we keep the pot just below a boil, it can begin to boil quite quickly.  If you turn the temperature down for short periods, you can prevent the water from boiling quickly, but eventually it will boil. Sometimes you can take the pot off the stove for a bit to let the water cool and then put it back on the stove again. Sorry if you don’t cook and this analogy is meaningless. LOL
  • Start very easy for your dog. Give your dog lots of distance from the triggers — it’s much better to start too far away and then get a bit closer than it is to start too close. Once the dog goes over threshold, the stress hormones are flowing (no way to stop them) and the nervous system will be significantly weakened for some time (maybe hours or even days if it was really intense). Boiling pot analogy. If you start with room temperature water, it takes less time for the pot of water to boil than it takes for that pot to return back to room temperature.
  • Just because your dog hasn’t “boiled over” yet, doesn’t mean your dog can handle more. Be sure to err on the side of caution. After “close calls” and “intense challenges” that your dog successfully passed, your dog will need recovery time.
  • Figure out if there is a less intense time to go to a location. Perhaps there is a time of day when there are fewer of your dog’s triggers around. Maybe your dog will be better able to self-regulate and make good choices if your dog has had a good nap, or a training session, or a play in the yard, or a full tummy, the day after daycare, or anything BUT the day after daycare — whatever it is that works for your dog. You are the expert of your dog. Be a detective and see what you can do to change the situation to help your dog control his/her own behaviours.

Remember, we can’t change our dog’s emotional state. We can control some of the things that influence our dog’s emotional state and we can help encourage some emotional states and discourage others. The rest is up to the dog. It must be at the dog’s pace.

Please read the short piece on how emotions drive behaviours.

Your Dog’s Emotions Drive Behaviours

In any dog training situation — whether in a formal dog class or on a walk in your neighbourhood — it is essential to assess your dog’s emotional state. Is your dog finding the experience pleasant, and is your dog under threshold? If not, your dog will begin to show more “unwanted behaviours” and your dog will find it difficult to learn.

Many (I would argue most) unwanted behaviours are a product of stress —distress and/or eustress (e.g. happy excitement). If your responses to your dog’s behaviours add to his/her stress, it’s unlikely that your dog’s behaviours will improve and they are likely to become worse.

Emotions drive behaviours. If you suppress the behaviours, the emotions still need to go somewhere (often resulting in worsening of behaviours or new unwanted behaviours). Avoid using training methods that are designed to suppress behaviours; instead address the underlying causes of the unwanted behaviours (e.g. distress or extreme eustress).

This often involves controlling your dog’s access to the environment, rather than trying to control your dog. Don’t force your dog to “get over his/her fears” but instead use gentle exposures; don’t let your dog move into a new area or closer to the “object of interest” unless your dog’s arousal levels are below threshold.

To effectively read your dog’s emotional state, you must become fluent in canine body language, especially the signals your dog prefers to use. If you can become aware of the very subtle signals your dog uses when stress levels are relatively low, you can help your dog before he/she begins to show the unwanted behaviours.

Understanding Your Dog: Dog Body Language

Dogs use many signals to communicate and these are often used in combination. It would be unrealistic to ask people to become fluent in complex canine body language, but learning to recognize a dozen signals is a reasonable task and can make a world of difference, especially in situations where children are involved.

Illustrations of dog body language indicating stress.

Videos of dog body language: Part 1 ; Part 2

Every dog is different and each will have signals they favour more than others, but listed below are twelve common signals dogs use to indicate stress (i.e. excitement, confusion, anxiety, fear). Some of these behaviors are deliberate signals to others, some are physical responses to stress, and some are used to self-calm. When you see any of these, take note that your dog is probably under stress and you may need to intervene on his/her behalf to prevent problems.

Closed mouth
Look away or turn away
Lip licking
Half-moon eye or whale-eye (white of the eye is showing)
Shaking off as if wet
Yawning when not sleepy
Breathing changes (holding breath or begining to pant when there is no temperature change or exertion)
Increased hair loss and/or exfoliation (dander)
Meticulous grooming or frequent checking of body part
Scratching
Excessive salivation (when no food is present)
Sniffing

What can people do to manage a situation when a dog is stressed? In many cases, the dog will require extra distance and time to adjust to whatever is causing the stress, sometimes needing to be removed from the situation entirely. If children are nearby, the dog should be moved immediately to a safe distance. Many people make the mistake of assuming that because a dog isn’t growling or using other obvious signals of distress the dog must be fine with a situation.

In her book Kids and Dogs: A Professional’s Guide to Helping Families (2009) Colleen Pelar highlights this problem and suggests dog owners think of a traffic light analogy when reading their dogs.  In her experience, many dog owners describe their dogs as being “fine” with something yet what she sees is that the dogs are showing early warning signals.  She points out that there is a difference between enjoyment (“green light” signals) and tolerance (“yellow light” signals), and that a dog’s tolerance can quickly be exhausted and cause him to start using “red light” signals.  She cautions adults to intervene immediately upon seeing the dogs giving “yellow light” signals.

Many dogs have learned to stop using subtle calming signals and jump quickly to more extreme signals like lunging, growling, barking, and even biting.  In many cases dogs have learned to do this because the subtle signals aren’t working for them: the “scary thing” goes away only when they use the extreme signals – signals that read as aggression. Dogs don’t generally start off this way but become “growly” when the humans around them haven’t been picking up on the lower level signals of stress and dogs are put into difficult situations: the dog is pressured to continue to let the child lay on him; the dog is required to get closer to the other dog before he is ready to do so; the dog is forced to be held by a stranger.  Dogs eventually goes over their thresholds and this is when humans finally seem to pay attention and intervene.  The child is removed from the dog; the other dog gets farther away; the stranger stops holding the dog keeps her distance.

To complicate this problem, many people also make the mistake of scolding or punishing dogs for using warning signals like growling, lunging, and barking.  They address the symptoms rather than the cause. The problem with this approach is that the dogs learn to suppress their signals and people think the problem is solved, when in fact what they’ve created are dogs that bite without warning.  Sometimes it makes more sense to people if they consider a similar situation for a young child: if a child is scared of something, then scolding or punishing will only increase the child’s anxiety.  Instead of scolding or punishing a dog for growling, lunging, or barking, people should look for the causes of these behaviours.  The dog is giving information about his emotional state and this is where the training should focus; a positive reinforcement program of desensitization and counter-conditioning will help change the dog’s emotional responses to the “scary thing” and as a consequence, the growling, lunging, and barking will no longer be necessary.

When people learn to read their dogs better, their relationship with their dogs can only improve.  Dogs will learn to trust their people more, their reactivity will decrease, and as a result, people will want to spend more time with their dogs.

Owners of over-reactive dogs or dog owners who want to prevent their dogs from becoming over-reactive (e.g. adolescent dogs) can contact me if they are interested in taking a class.