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Be Calm

I recently read a blog post saying that in tense or exciting situations, the handler should be calm. This will help the dog to be calm. It’s a simple statement and I agree with it. Unfortunately, simple isn’t necessarily easy.

Some people stay calm when their dog is tense because they simply don’t recognise the tension. Ignorance is apparently bliss! Others genuinely feel calm and confident that nothing serious will happen.

Being calm is easy if you’re feeling calm. It’s nigh on impossible if you aren’t.

Just as dogs’ temperaments vary, so do humans’ temperaments. Some people are a lot more edgy and sensitive than others. Experiences vary and just like dogs, people learn different things about different situations. The person with the unflappable temperament or someone who has never experienced serious tension in a situation with their dog may find it hard to understand how hard it is to ‘be calm’ when you absolutely aren’t!

The way our brains work means that emotions travel more quickly than thoughts. We ‘feel’ before we ‘think’. This means that, just like our dogs, if we have learned a situation is unsafe, we will react emotionally. Adrenalin will surge, our heart will race and we will do any number of small things that show stress; like gasp or tense our bodies. Then we’ll notice what’s happened to us. Unfortunately the dog may have already noticed.

So how can you ‘be calm’ when you aren’t?

Here are suggestions I’ve found helpful. Use some or all. The more you use, the more progress you are likely to make.

1. Fake it. As soon as you notice your tension, try to undo all the tense signs. Relax your shoulders, release the held breath as normally as possible (avoid gasping) and keep breathing. Maintain a steady walking pace and speak normally. Try to do what you were doing seconds before, when you genuinely felt calm.

2. Teach yourself and your dog some strategies to use in a tense situation. When you build confidence in your team’s ability to cope, staying calm becomes a whole lot easier. Leslie McDevitt wrote a book called ‘Control Unleashed’ which includes numerous ideas for teaching a dog to handle and eventually even enjoy difficult situations. These strategies include an emergency U turn to avoid risky situations, teaching the dog to take a breath, and LAT (look at that) where the dog learns to glance at the worrying thing and then back at the handler. She also advocates the Relaxation Protocol (developed by Dr. Karen Overall.) I recommend the book, it’s incredibly helpful and very supportive of trainers struggling with their dog’s behaviour issues.

3. Sing! Yep, sing! Launch into Happy Birthday or something silly which will help both you and your dog relax.

4. Note all the things you do which stress your dog and teach him/ her they mean GOOD THINGS are coming!

For instance, I accidentally taught my reactive dog that when I called her at the park, there was probably another dog approaching. She would stop and rigidly scan the environment. To get past this I had to repeatedly practise calling her for nothing and rewarding her when she came.

I had to do the same with a collar hold. At home holding the collar was no problem; at the park she’d learned it meant ‘stranger danger’. I also discovered that away from home, high pitched praise meant ‘trouble’ to her, so I had to work on that too. So much unwanted learning, so easily and accidentally taught <sigh>.

Identify all the things you do which worry your dog; then do them when everything is just fine and give the dog delicious treats. He/ she will begin to connect goodies (rather than stress) with your weird behaviour. When a troublesome situation hits, your dog will react more positively to any tense behaviour you may show and you will have taught yourself to respond to the dog in a way that helps you both. Confidence is as much of a self fulfilling prophecy as tension is.

I hope these ideas may be of help. Good luck!


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