When fear strikes, distract

It is unfortunately that the idea that we can reinforce fear in our pets is still so prevalent.  Frankly, nothing can be further from the truth. Think about this:  Fear is an emotion, involuntary for the subject feeling it, so how then can we make a dent on it by consoling our pet? This is an important message because many, many dogs can do with less distress and fear if we realize that we CAN influence how they perceive their environment with our behavior, and as such help them cope better. But that is way different than us reinforcing their fear.

If it was so easy to override or even eradicate fear just in how we interact with our dogs, the world would not be full of dogs that are fearful of people, other dogs and a myriad of situations. Fear is also adaptive; it is there to keep us out of harm’s way- in other words hardwired in us and every other living animal.

So, let’s look at some prevalent situation where the idea that we are reinforcing fear still abounds: We take our dog to the vet, the staff tells us that our dog does much better when we are not around. It is indeed less “fearful”.  What is this all about?  I can argue that it is so much easier for staff to do their job behind the scenes sort of speak, without the owner interfering and telling them how to do their job.  However, is there some truth to the fact that the dog appears less apprehensive when the owner is not around?

The research will surprise you!  I just learned in one of my continued education webinars, about research done in the context of pediatric clinics and how young children react to their parents cues in relation to the event. Some findings are similar in dogs.

This is what the study found:  When parents had an expression of concern this cued the child that something bad was going to happen to them.  If the parent consoled the child using phrases such as: “it’s okay,” “you will be fine” etc.  the child took a reason to be concerned or afraid as well.

In addition, it was not only what the parent might say to the child but the tone of voice used.  If the parent used a lower (opposite of high pitch, singsong) intonation, the child did not take this as a cue that something bad was eminent. Moreover, the children did much better when the parents gave the child instructions instead of consolation such as:  lower your arm, put your sleeve down etc.  Of course, if the poor overwhelmed parent (or clinician) looked concerned the child would be concerned too. So, it takes more than intonation, apparently.

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But get this: above all, children did much, much better in the concern realm (not in how much pain they felt) when they were being distracted!  Ah, bingo!  If the parent and the clinician were able to switch gears and instead of consoling the child they distracted the child, the child did not get tipped off to the concern the parent felt.

Does all this sound familiar with our dogs??? Well as a matter of fact, there is also research done in dogs that points to similar findings as in the pediatric clinic. Let me elaborate:  Even though we will NOT reinforce fear in our dogs when they are already feeling afraid, dogs, as any highly social animal do take cues from other social animals- in this case us, as to how we are experiencing the event. I would argue, but I can’t say that there is research to back my claim, that the more bonded the dog is to the person, the higher the level of influence one can have – for better or worse. It is quite likely that this is in effect what is going on at the vet’s clinic, when we are told that our dog does better without us.  We have a history with our dog that the vet staff does not have. Because of this, our behavior will influence our dog’s behavior greatly.  Of course, just as in the case with the clinician and the children, if the staff can also “act” matter of fact this will aid the dog in not taking in cues of danger from another social animal thus making it for an easier experience.

How does this work in the day to day life with our dogs?  I will give you an example:  Rio had to have a major operation yesterday – you will hear much more about it in future posts.  When we arrived at the clinic which she had visited twice before, she began to shake and was making attempts to exit via the front door.

Of course, I was crushed!  I began by giving her some simple directions such as, sit and down as I was filling in her paperwork.  Once I finished, we walked towards the sitting area. Here I gave her some pats and encourage her to look out the windows.  The area was empty, except for a man that was waiting for his own dog.  Rio jumped on the stoop and made her way all the way looking out the windows.  Perhaps she was looking for another escape route! (LOL).  I noticed that she was not shaking at this point but more than anything exploring and engaging with the outside surroundings.

If you have worked enough with your dog and he knows a couple of tricks- and a trick could be anything frankly, you can ask your dog to engage in the trick (s) when he is concerned.  Of course, it is mandatory that your dog really enjoys the trick and has been reinforced in the past for performing it.  The other advantages of doing something like this when concern strikes, is that your dog is being successful (and who does not want to be successful doing tricks right?) and when dogs are successful their confidence expands- nice!

Just like with the young kids (not sure the cut-out age of the children in the study) dogs as well as many other species such as horses and cats, respond differently to our tone of voice.  Dr. Patricia Mc Connell wrote her PhD thesis on this very same topic. Her research points out to the importance of tone and inflection in communicating (emotion) to our animals.

The take home message then, is to be really mindful of what you say to your dog- avoiding phrases that your dog already associates with “trouble” such as “you’ll be fine,” “it’s okay” and instead speak gibberish or engage in phrases that are positively meaningful for your pup such as:  Yes, soon we can go for a walk…   or “where is Deuce???”

Also, mind your intonation (skip the baby talk please!) and instead use a lower tone of voice versus a high-pitch, singsong intonation.

What I have personally found works best is to act (yep, and you will have to fake it till you make it) really matter of fact – as if you are clueless to the events unfolding, coupled with taking deep breaths, walking with a loose body yet confident body language while you engage your pup in some fun activity or just plain distractions. If your dog is really afraid you might not be able to distract her from what she is already feeling, however I urge you to give her some support by engaging with her in the most neutral & matter of fact performance you can muster. Dogs do take cues from us ALL THE TIME. So being mindful in how we are responding in stressful situation for our dogs will influence how they perceive the situation.