Next, let’s look at safety. This has to do with the need for an orderly, predictable world that is within one’s control.
A dog’s sense of safety comes first and foremost from you, their human. Your dog needs to know that you will meet their needs. They need to know that you would never deliberately hurt or frighten them; that you will not allow anyone else to hurt or frighten them; that you will not put them in situations in which they can’t cope. And, that if things get too much, you will step in, and make them feel safe again.
YOU need to be your dog’s greatest advocate. Even when that means taking the risk of offending someone, and telling them that they can’t say hello to your dog, because your dog is frightened of children, or men, or strangers. Or asking them to call their dog back because even if their dog is ‘just being friendly’, your dog doesn’t like it. Beware- these are the very people who can be very forward in trying and convince you that your dog ‘just needs to get used to’ whatever it is that’s frightening them- this advice is unhelpful at best, and a recipe for disaster at worst. ‘Flooding’ a dog with something they’re afraid of may cause them to eventually shut down and stop reacting, but that’s not the same as learning to cope or conquering the fear. Dogs need to be slowly re-introduced to things that frighten them, at a level they can handle, through a process of desensitisation and counter-conditioning. Finding a positive, reward-based trainer to help you with this can be a good idea.
Another point on fear… There is a myth circulating that fear can be reinforced, and that if you comfort a frightened dog you are encouraging it to be frightened. Patricia McConnell has written a very good piece on this, which can be found here.
Scientific studies have found that while petting a frightened dog doesn’t reduce the negative chemicals in the brain, it does increase the positive ones. So if your dog is frightened, feel free to calmly stroke them if they’re happy for you to do so. If they just want to hide, that’s also fine.
The second aspect of this need for safety is related to the dog exercising some control over their own life. Traditional dog training talks about ‘controlling’ your dog. People often tell me of their need to ‘regain control’ of their dog. The dog’s need for feeling in control of his life is usually ignored.
When you think about it, the lifestyle a lot of dogs live is very similar to the lifestyle of prisoner. Someone else decides where and when they can go out, when they eat, what they eat, where they go to the toilet, quite often, when they can go to the toilet. We decide where they sleep. We choose their bed. We choose who they interact with and when. Most dogs have very little free will, and not having autonomy over one’s own life is stressful! To add to this, a lot of dogs are crated for much of the day and night, meaning they can’t even choose to stretch their legs!
One of the pieces of homework I give to the human half of my puppy class participants is to give their dogs five choices before the next class. Most of us make 5 choices before we even leave the house in the morning- what time we’ll get up at, what we’ll have for breakfast, what we’ll wear, if we’ll make lunch or buy it, get the bus or walk… But invariably, people struggle to come up with 5 choices for their dog to make.
It’s ok to give your dog back some control. It won’t make their behavior worse, and it won’t make them think they’re in charge of you. But it will contribute to them feeling safer and more in control of their own life. And I don’t mean that you should let them dictate your entire life- just some of their own. When I’m giving this piece of homework, and get met by blank faces, I suggest people think small. Think about the things that are important in your dog’s life, and give choices around those things. Things like:
Walks: Let your dog decide the route of your walk from time to time- you may be surprised! Not all dogs favour the park. Some like busy city streets, with lots going on, and lots of smells to enjoy. Some like back roads. Mine love the local graveyard- it’s got lots of wildlife, and the associated smells. It has grassy bits and overgrown bits, and there doesn’t tend to be too many other people or dogs there- hard to find such places in London!
If your dog always goes to the park on a walk, they might go there out of force of habit. Before you try this, you may want to bring them to a variety of different places over a couple of weeks so they get used to the idea that there’s more out there than just the park.
Food: If they’re getting a treat, give them a choice. At first, they might just choose the first one they see or smell, but with time they should get more discerning!
Beds: Give your dog a choice of places to sleep. As I mentioned in my article on sleep, dogs are polyphasic sleepers, so it’s nice for them to have beds to move between. Try having beds that are raised, ones that are under tables, couches, etc. for when they need a den to escape to, ones in different rooms. Ones with fleece covers for when they’re feeling cold, cotton covers for when the weather’s warm. Outside beds, indoor beds.
Interactions: Imagine if you were forced to interact with everyone who wanted to interact with you. That sleazy man in the nightclub… chances are you have ways of politely avoiding this sort of encounter! You probably don’t make eye contact with the sleazy man, and keep your distance. It’s not that you want to be rude, you just don’t want that particular interaction, and as a human, you have the freedom to avoid or minimise this sort of interaction. Now, imagine a very unobservant person has you by the arm… the sleazy man comes over and the person who has you by the arm says ‘oh, look at this nice man coming over to say hello… give him a kiss!’ and seemingly oblivious to your protestations, holds you in situ.
I’d imagine that’s what it’s like if you’re a dog. A lot of humans expect their dog to politely engage with anyone who wants to talk to them, whether that’s an over-zealous child, or a towering man roughly ruffling their hair, or a dog with no manners who won’t get out of their face. Think of how stressed you’d be if you never knew who you’d be forced to allow touch you next?
If left to their own devices your dog, like you, would try to politely avoid encounters they didn’t want. They’d look away, lick their lips, move away (for more on dog body language see Turid Rugaas’s book on calming signals- details in my post on dogs and books).
But when they’re on the lead, they can’t do that. So, guess what? It’s down to you!
Learn to read your dog’s body language and to tell when they’re not comfortable with an encounter. A lot of dogs are endlessly patient with other dogs and humans invading their space uninvited, and some seem to positively enjoy attention from anyone at all who’ll provide it! Others are alright with human encounters, but not with canine encounters or vice-versa. Some are afraid of children or certain breeds of dog. If you don’t think your dog is going to welcome an encounter, get him out of the situation. Cross the road, form a barrier between your dog and make his excuses (he’s just had an operation, he wees on people he doesn’t know, etc.), or tell people straight that your dog isn’t comfortable with other dogs/children/men.
You can also get ‘I need space’ jackets or bandanas from the Yellow Dog Campaign for your dog to wear. Clients I’ve suggested this to have found that most people pay attention to these, or that it at least causes a moment’s hesitation before the offending party swoops in for the kill, which you can use to create some distance.
If your dog knows he can depend on you to enforce his choices and save him from these stressful situations, think how much nicer his walks will be, and how much safer he will feel.
And remember… Fear is one of the leading causes of aggression in dogs, so don’t put your dog in situations that frighten them, and if they do have fear issues, get professional help from a positive trainer or canine behaviourist as soon as possible.