Behavioral First Aid

rest ice compression elevationOver the past 30 years I have taken numerous first aid classes to complement my work leading recreational, outdoor travel groups. One of the texts, The Outward Bound Wilderness First Aid Handbook, in its first chapter called General Principles in Wilderness Medicine, includes this statement: Anticipating and controlling the development of swelling is one of the most important aspects of treatment in wilderness medical care.

The reason this is so important is that swelling and inflammation can produce pressure on tissue, veins and organs, and affect their ability to function effectively. Entire limbs can be lost due to the lack of adequate blood flow and should lungs or brains swell a patient can die. When limited by resources to deal with a medical emergency, managing inflammation as best as possible, may save a life or limb until sophisticated medical care is available.

While attending the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants conference this weekend in Rhode Island I had the opportunity to speak with a number of skilled and inspirational trainers. One told me that when she begins her work with a reactive dog she asks the owners to avoid putting the dog in ANY situation which provokes the reactivity for 4 weeks. During that time the owners are working on basic training and obedience skills to prepare for introducing the dog to situations which include its triggers.

This approach makes sense for a variety of reasons, and is also recommended for dogs who are fearful and are not necessarily reactive. It’s like anticipating and managing the swelling in a medical emergency. Further provocation of a dog, whether their response is to become aggressive or flee, is only likely to maintain or increase the amount of ‘inflammation’. Ignoring this can begin to compound the problem, and as with physical injuries, there can come a point at which healing becomes difficulty or impossible.

We need to compare the risks with the potential benefits when choosing treatments. When dealing with behavioral challenges controlling the factors that cause irritation and inflammation is a low risk treatment with a potentially high benefit outcome.

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12 comments so far

  1. ettel on

    Excellent point. I think it’s also important to point out that after a particularly stressful encounter, it’s a good idea to give the dog and yourself a break for at least two week before resuming normal activities. When my dogs were attacked in January, aside from the physical healing that needed to happen, we all needed to heal emotionally, and that meant a LOT of down time and nothing terribly exciting for a while.

    I really like your use of the swelling idea in behavioral terms.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t think that many of us realize the duration that stress hormones can linger and if there are repeated episodes on a routine basis, they don’t get the chance to return to baseline. Not good in the long run.

  2. nobuko on

    My Shiba Inu, after a trip away from the city during which he experiences very few fear-inducing situations and has a lot of fun outside, does so much better for a couple of days. He’s more confident and relaxed during the walks. He even manages to chase some leaves sometimes. Too bad it only lasts for a little while. Back in the city, UPS trucks roaring by, squeaky old cars pulling in and out, constructions, etc. all contribute to his chronic “inflammation” to come right back.

    We always wonder how he would have turned out if he had been adopted by someone in a countryside where he has much more fun and much less stress daily. Would he have been a much braver dog…?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Whether he’d be a ‘braver’ dog is probably relative to situations anyway. Sounds like he’d be less stressed and that can translate into improved learning and skill development. If we are unable to create the environment the dog needs, we are lucky enough to have medical science to turn to so our dogs don’t need to suffer 😉

  3. Lizzie on

    Another splendid post Debbie, and as always let your dog be your guide as to how much ‘pressure’ or provocation he/she can tolerate. Outings for both dog and owner should of course be enjoyable, but if the stress levels overtake the joy then it’s just not worth it.

    This has been one of the most important lessons I have had to learn about living with a fearful and reactive dog.

  4. Deborah Flick on

    This is great advice. I’m wiser now than I was when Sadie was a puppy 4.5 years ago. I’m with you 100% about fearful dogs and keeping them below threshold so they can get some confidence and skills under their belt, ah, collar, before encountering triggers.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Live and learn as they say. Helps when we all have some confidence and skills under our respective belts and collars 😉

  5. Stacy Braslau-Schneck on

    I like to tell clients, if you don’t prevent the reaction during the initial training stage, you’re “Mopping up the floor without turning off the faucet”!

  6. sara on

    I’ve been trying to introduce my fearful dog to a petsitter, gradually, before we go on vacation. I thought things were going well. The sitter told me my dog was getting more “comfortable” each time. Then, I read your book and realized she mistook comfort for learned helplessness (my dog looked exactly like the photo of the dog in your book).

    Today, my husband was home from work, during the hours when the petsitter usually visits, and Oreo was hiding in our bathroom, inconsolable, shaking, and refused to come out or eat (highly unusual behavior around my husband). Took several hours for him to come out.

    Obviously, we realize we put our dog in a situation he wsn’t ready for and feel horrible that he now feels scared in his own house, even when the petsitter isn’t here.

    Behavioral first aid is beginning now. Thank you for your book & this post. I needed it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Don’t be too hard on yourselves. We all have things to learn. Hopefully your petsitter is into the process as well.


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