When our dogs appear nervous or scared, our first -and natural- response is to comfort them. What this usually looks like is that we coo and sweetly tell them that “its okay”, “don’t worry”, “don’t be afraid/nervous”, etc. Telling a person that “its okay” and “don’t worry” can help the situation because a human can understand this verbal communication and often times saying these things has a good chance of helping, especially if the person saying it is calm and confident.
With dogs, however, they pay much more attention to our body language and the energy that we are projecting because to them, a different species than us, this is the natural way of communicating and interpreting their world.
How Our Dogs Read Us
Because dogs are social animals and developed over the millennia to work not only alongside humans but also to look to their humans for guidance, instruction, and care, they have come to read our body language, tone of voice, and energy much better than we have evolved to read theirs. They are often very in tune with their owners and can read their non-verbal cues very well.
Let’s lay out a likely, familiar scene:
You come to the groomer to drop off your dog for their spa day and your dog tries to go for the door to leave instead of going toward the grooming area, shakes, appears nervous/scared, or doesn’t seem happy about being here. Your voice gets high pitched, or consoling, as you reach down to pet, pick up or console your nervous dog. You begin to say things like “its okay”, “don’t worry, its alright”, “I don’t know why he hates coming here”, “he’s so scared, poor baby”, etc. During this time, your dog is still nervous, scared, shaking, or has become more so as your moment of leaving is fast approaching and emotions between you and your dog start to run a little higher.
Did you know: roughly 90% of “fearful” or “nervous” pups who “hate coming to the groomer” walk back calmly with a staff member once the owner is out of sight. Why? Because the staff member is calm and confident, and the dog is mirroring the owner prior to leaving and the staff member after the owner leaves.
What We Are Telling Our Dogs
In the above situation you did the correct thing in consoling your dog, your fur-baby, and offered them comfort and security in a moment of anxiety/fear, right? Well, if your dog had been a human, yes you had done everything correctly, however, you are not comforting another person and dogs will read this situation a bit differently.
What you are telling your dog in this situation, despite your verbal consoling, is “you’re right, you should be scared”, “this is a scary situation”, “I am so sorry this is happening”, “Oh god, this is so stressful”, “I am also anxious, so you’re right to be”. Your “comforting” is translated into praise(reward for doing the “right” thing), your words are confirming your body language which are both saying that this is a scary place, despite our best human efforts. Often times, by telling our dogs “its okay” or “not to worry” causes them to worry more.
This ends up leading to a dog who believes, because we have taught it to, that the groomer (in this example) is a very scary place to be; that you may never come back; that you are also nervous, scared, anxious about this situation so they also are right to feel this way. Over time and repetitions, just like with any training, your dog’s perception of the negatives associated with being dropped off can escalate and become worse with time.
What Dogs Need From Us
When our dogs are unsure, nervous, or scared, they look to us for guidance to find out how they should act or feel about a situation. They do this by looking at our how we behave and conduct ourselves in those moments, not by what we say verbally. What they need in this moment is to look up and see calm, confidence that is unbothered by the seemingly “scary” situation this way they can mimic how we present ourselves. They are looking to us for the “right” way to respond to this situation, and how we react they will often deduce as the “correct” response.
If we act nervous, anxious and/or fearful, our dogs will react and mimic our own energy and behavior. If we act calm, confident and collected, our dogs will attempt to react and mimic our own energy and behavior. The more opportunities our dogs have to practice the behaviors we want, the more opportunities to see you calm and confident, rather than in an over-excited, consoling mindset, the quicker and more relaxed they will become to the situation.
Our dogs want to mirror our behaviors. Over excited, consoling behavior can appear like panic or fear, especially to a dog who is already in that state of mind.
What To Do
- Take a couple of deep breaths. In and out. Slowly
- Hold the lead short but relaxed. Do not apply unnecessary leash pressure.
- Stand straight and act confident.
- Let your dog go through the motions without a reaction from you.
- When your dog looks to you, let them see you as calm, confident, and in control of the situation.
- Hand the leash to the staff member and walk away.
- Remind yourself that just because your dog seems scared it is only because they are unfamiliar with this as a positive experience, so you need to make calm and confident a more familiar, and thus a more comfortable experience.
What Not To Do
- Do not console your dog.
- If you see that your dog is very nervous or anxious, do no touch, pet, or talk to your dog.
- Follow the “what to do” above, and ignore the negative feelings/behaviors your dog appears to exhibit.
- Remember that being calm and confident in the situation is unfamiliarand your pup needs more practice for it to become familiar with the new, calm behavior.
- Remember that by not reacting, though it is difficult, you are actually helping your dog gain confidence and gain more trust in you as well as the situation.
- Do not have a large emotional “good-bye”, this can lead to panic and unintentionally feeding into their insecurity/fear.
- If you feel you must say “good-bye” say a quick “good-bye” while handing the leash over and then leave.
- Do not make a big deal about you leaving, this only increases the stress to both the dog and yourself.
Until next time, lets use this new year to “Get a New Leash On Life.”