Wednesday was a lovely warm day ahead of the storm and my friend/colleague and I went on another great outride with our horse riding instructor. We rode from the stables through the suburban streets on our way down to the beach. While it is a quiet “horsey” area, there were trucks delivering hay bales, dogs barking behind a fence here and there, garden services working on the manicured verges, people opening garage doors and reversing into the street and council workers with equipment in the road. Our instructor was in front and every time we approached someone who was about to pick up a large object, start a lawnmower or open a car door, she would call out well in advance and say, “Excuse me, please could you wait until we pass, so the horses aren’t frightened – thank you so much!” We would then walk past as far away from the “scary thing” as possible and not hang around any longer than necessary.
Now for anyone who has never ridden a horse, you may not understand what all this is about: Horses are flight animals (their default response to something scary is to jump out the way and run). Horses also weigh several hundred kilograms and a horse in full panic mode, is not easy to calm, even for an experienced rider. Horses are essentially “prey” animals (like Zebra) and so they are very attuned to danger and tend to have strong reactions to anything they have not encountered before – a plastic bag blowing in the wind or even a dustbin that was in a different spot the day before can cause a startle response and flight. When you are sitting on a horse and trying to avoid a hard landing on the ground, that could result in broken bones and other serious injuries, you do NOT want to mess around with putting your horse into a situation that triggers a flight response – even a startle response (stopping suddenly or darting to the side) can be enough to unseat a novice rider. The result is that you become extremely aware of the environment and PROACTIVE about avoiding situations that might trigger the FEAR system in your horse’s brain. When riding through the streets, you learn to scan everything – every driveway, every approaching vehicle, every person and what they might do or where they might move to next. You are forever anticipating and avoiding trouble and become quite brave about speaking up and asking people to wait or stop what they are doing to ensure your and your horse’s safety.
So, what has this got to do with dogs?
A big problem we find when working with dog owners, is that people are inclined to be REACTIVE rather than PROACTIVE. Because dogs are a lot smaller and we can generally hang on to them when they are on a lead, we tend to wait until our dogs react to a situation and then try to stop the reaction. Because people are seldom in real danger of physical injury when a dog on lead lunges and barks at a person or another dog, we are less motivated to avoid situations that trigger the FEAR system in our dogs’ brains. While horses are primarily flight animals, dogs may use several strategies when they are confronted by perceived danger: fight, flight or appeasement. When movement is restricted due to a lead “fight” (make a noise and look threatening) is really the only viable option. However, we have to keep in mind, that when our dogs lunge and bark, they are in the same “survival” mode as a bolting horse. If more people got thrown about and broke bones when their dogs reacted badly to something, we would be much more vigilant and PROACTIVE when it came to handling our dogs.
Instead, we see dog owners standing in class with their dogs at the end of the lead, while they face the other way having a conversation with the dog owner next door, totally oblivious of the fact that their dog is eyeing the dog on the other side and about to explode. We see dog owners walking their dogs past everyone and everything in the street and expecting their dogs to simply get on with it and over it and ignore all novel or potentially scary stimuli. We literally have people watching their dogs have a melt-down about something and stand there saying: “You see, this is what he does” without any attempt to remove the dog safely from the situation.
These things happen, because the consequences are not immediately serious enough for people to change their behaviour. However, as behaviourists and trainers, we know that the LONG-TERM consequences of putting dogs in situations where you trigger a “fight” response are extremely serious. Just a few of these are:
1. CHRONIC STRESS - every time the “stress” response is triggered, stress hormones rise – if this happens daily, these hormone levels stay elevated permanently and the dog will suffer emotionally and physically (stress literally makes us sick).
2. AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOUR IS LEARNED – every time lunging and barking appears to work ( and the dog just has to survive for the brain to register that the response is working), it reinforces aggressive responses as a good strategy for getting out of trouble.
3. THE PROBLEM ESCALATES – due to learning and/or increased stress levels, over time the behaviour can become more intense and generalise to other situations.
4. THE DOG-OWNER RELATIONSHIP SUFFERS – people end up not enjoying being out and about with their dogs and dogs end up distrusting their owners for putting them in unpleasant situations repeatedly.
5. THE DOG’S QUALITY OF LIFE DETERIORATES – aside from the stress and strained relationship with the owner, the end result of escalating reactivity is often a dog who can no longer enjoy outings, visitors, training etc and is left to his own devices at home in a limited environment.
We should all take a lesson from riding a horse: We need to be vigilant and PROACTIVE when walking our dogs or taking them into any social situation. We should be SCANNING THE ENVIRONMENT for potential problems - not in a neurotic way, but in a calm and responsible manner - realising that our dog’s emotional and physical safety is in our hands at all times, we need to AVOID potential problems, before they happen and we need to SPEAK OUT to protect our dogs.
If you have a dog that is reactive or uncomfortable (seems overly distracted, freezes or starts to “fool around”) in certain situations, don’t wait until they have a melt-down, they are chronically stressed or the behaviour has escalated to a point that you no longer want to take them out. Start being proactive about avoiding putting your dog in those situations and get help from a registered behaviourist who can assist you with a plan to manage your dog better and help him to feel more comfortable in the outside world.