You’re so predictable

cartoon of a dog wearing glasses lying on a lawn chair sunning himselfWhen a dog is afraid there is a rise of stress hormones in their bodies and brains. These hormones help the dog prepare to save their lives. They may stand stock still, flee if they can, beg for mercy or tell you in no uncertain terms, no means no. These are all responses to fear. These same hormones, if circulating in their systems routinely, can contribute to a variety of illnesses and diseases. It’s one thing to be scared every once in a while, it’s another to be scared most of the time. Bodies and brains don’t do well when they are stressed by fear a lot of the time.

One way to lower the stress a dog experiences is by helping them to figure out what is going to happen next. When I led adventure travel trips there were people who were fine being told what they needed to wear, bring or do with just enough advance warning for them to get themselves organized. There were others who preferred to know, in as much detail as possible, as far in advance as I could tell them, what was going to be happening in the near future. Not knowing was stressful to them. So, to the best of my ability, I told them. The people who it didn’t matter to would sometimes roll their eyes and I could almost hear their, ‘Oh chill out already’, thoughts when someone would ask me a barrage of questions about what was coming up. If something doesn’t matter to us personally, it’s easy for us to discount someone else’s concern about it. Since I was organizing a vacation for people I did what I needed to do to help my clients feel as little stress as possible.

Our brains do a great job of being able to predict things. It’s an energy saver. If every single time you experienced the same thing you had to ‘think’ about, to process it and decide what you were going to do, not only would you waste time, you’d be burning more calories, and efficiency is a keystone of success. Our brains are so good at it that it can be dangerous. Ever find yourself driving down a familiar stretch of highway and suddenly realize that you weren’t sure whether you had missed your exit or not? Your brain had become so good at predicting what to do next that you were driving without consciously thinking about where you were or what you were doing.

Helping fearful dogs learn to predict what is going to happen next can lower the stress they are experiencing. A dog who learns that a hand reaching out to them is going to be tossing a treat, doesn’t have to be startled and scurry away when they see hands moving. I use that same hand movement with fearful dogs to get them to move away from me when I’m going to do something I know will scare them. Things like getting up out of a chair or walking in their direction. The hand gesture, a sort of ‘no you go first please’ sweep of an outstretched arm comes to predict the startling event of me moving. Being able to predict this does two things, it tells the dog in advance to move BEFORE they feel scared, and by putting themselves a safe distance away from me, their fearful emotional response is lessened or eliminated. If I toss a treat to them at the same time they can learn that what was once a startling event is now a predictor of good things. If I don’t reach for the dog or put too much social pressure on them their overall fear of being around me decreases. This lowers their stress and can make it easier for them to learn new behaviors.

Luring or tricking dogs into doing what we want or getting them where we want, when the outcome is scary to them, is a sure fire way to confirm that we are unpredictable and the dog needs to keep their guard up. Help your dog feel less stress and anxiety by coming up with predictable routines and behaviors that helps them know what’s happening next. Everyone deserves the opportunity to chill out once in awhile.

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10 comments so far

  1. jordan142006 on

    Thanks for the input, that is excellent advise.

  2. Alyssa on

    I have definitely noticed that my shy boy, Cupid, does better with routine. It gives him a chance to relax and even improve.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You got it! Just being able to predict when something bad is going to happen lowers the stress animals experience. Once the bad event is over they are free to relax, knowing that they will have advance notice when the bad thing is going to happen again.

  3. Callie's Friend Pam on

    Thank you so much for your blog and your website. We just adopted a fearful dog from a shelter. Like so many, she’s spent most of her 3-4 years in a cage. I already adore her and realize it’s going to be a VERY long road. She lies on her bed in a corner and doesn’t move except when I walk her, which I’ve been doing a minimum of 5 times a day. And the walk is limited to up and down the back yard many, many times for anywhere between ½ hour and an hour. She becomes VERY uncomfortable if I try to vary it at all. She makes absolutely no noise and is not the least bit aggressive. The main signs she gives of being uncomfortable are yawning and licking her lips. I was very excited this morning when I put on my shoes (I do this in front of her in the exact same chair in the exact same way every time I’m about to walk her) and she sat up so I could put her harness on. Is there any way to know when to introduce her to other parts of the house? The furthest she’s gotten is the couch, which is in sight distance of her bed, and I actually carried her to it and she cuddled right into my lap (she was probably scared to death). Or when to move her food so she has to get up to eat (right now she scoots to it). I really appreciate the information you provide. I’ll be referring to it often for guidance!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Dogs like this are not only scared, they are unskilled. Their brains have never had the opportunity to develop the ability to tolerate novelty easily. Get your head around triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization. They comprise the foundation of all the work we do with dogs like this. I’d be focusing on your relationship with the dog, once the dog trusts you, you will be able to ask her to do things that might be challenging for her. This can take weeks or months, depending on you and the dog. Pushing a dog too much at this point, without really knowing how much they can tolerate and improve puts you at risk of pushing too much and causing more problems. I wouldn’t be worried too much about getting her around the house. That’s the kind of exploration and investigation that a dog can work up to, and it gives you information about how comfortable they are feeling. When they feel safe and comfortable they play and investigate.

      Check out the games on the fearfuldogs.com website. Keep her feeling safe and begin to play some training games with her. Training helps dogs make sense of us. It should be fun for the dog and all about getting good stuff, like food or toys.

  4. Callie's Friend Pam on

    Great advice. Thank you! She definitely doesn’t do toys yet. And barely does treats – I’ve tried dogs treats to lunch meat to hot dogs, and she’s only eaten a dog treat once (out of all of those). But she seems to REALLY like hearing, “Good girl, Callie!” We’ll work on games and I’ll just continue to let her move at her own pace and we’ll keep walking a lot. Thanks again.

  5. perthcyclist on

    we have a pretty firm routine in our house, which really helped Barbie settle in to home life, something she had very limited experience of…. now she tells us when it’s time to do something (get up, dinner, walks, bed). The routine was mainly necessary for toilet training purposes but it also helps with making them feel secure. She copes with changes in the routine fine now too since she’s been with us a couple of years.

    • fearfuldogs on

      These dogs do often build more tolerance and resiliency to novelty and as you did, providing a predictable routine helps get that ball rolling.

  6. Therese on

    Thank you for a wonderfully succinct explanation of how fear affects dogs. You have clearly defined the knowledge I have gained with my own dog.

    Jean Donaldson recently addressed 5 pathways of fear in “Oh Behave!” as follows: 1) Genetic; 2) Pre-natal environment; 3) Maternal behaviour; 4) Classical Conditioning; 5) Impoverished Early Environment.
    I’ve always known my dog’s fear was due to 1) Genetic; and, after reading the above can now add points 2), 3), & 4).
    There were, of course, other circumstances when she found it difficult to cope for reasons strictly out of my control (her health issues and a stay in hospital for operation) as a result of which she is reticent with other people and is most definitely uncomfortable when other dogs invade her space.. I observe her closely and do not put her in situations which might put her over-threshold, and as a result she is a wonderful companion, very eager and quick to learn; we have a fantastic relationship, we communicate all the time, both verbally & non-verbally and I understand her barks during our regular ‘conversations’. She trusts me implicitly to keep her safe and it is a joy to watch her body language when we are out together playing ball, training, doing tricks etc.

    Would you mind very much if I used your blog to explain to others the essence of a fearful dog ?? – with all credit going to you, of course!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your informative comment. Please feel free to share the fearful dog blog and fearfuldogs.com website. I created both to help people understand and therefore respond more appropriately to their fearful dogs.


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