Don't stress about stress


What do you do about a dog with separation anxiety? Reactivity to other dogs? Reactivity to people? Resource guarding? Nervousness around kids? Fear of bicycles, scooters, skateboards, walkers, vacuum cleaners, or an endless list of things that are common to us but absolutely alien to a dog?

Use them!

These things are all pretty common stressors for dogs and can make the lives of pup and owner alike far more challenging than they need to be. Instead of trying to limit a dog’s exposure to anxiety-inducing objects and situations, I think it's a far better plan to leverage that stress into an opportunity for growth and the development of confidence.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that you should just throw your dog toward anything and everything that freaks them out. Whereas exposure to some stress can be a positive thing, too much can be a problem so it’s important to strive for balance. These issues should be handled with care and an eye toward avoiding over-stressing your dog.  With that in mind, there are a couple things any dog owner can do to keep from exacerbating the problem.

1. Know what praise is, and use it appropriately.

Most people are aware that saying "good boy/girl" is a form of praise. Not everyone is aware that petting, patting, and massaging is too. Every time you offer a well-meaning touch to your dog, you are communicating to them that their current and preceding behavior is correct and they should respond to that situation the same way next time. Which leads me to…

2. Don't console

Look, I know that Spot loses his mind every time he hears thunder, but you can't hug it away no matter how hard you try. This is really just an extension of number one but the point bears repeating - don't praise a behavior you don't want repeated.

3. Hire a trainer who uses "yes" and "no" in equal measure.

This is the self-promotion part. If you find yourself in the hands of a trainer or behaviorist whose suggested fix for separation anxiety is that you never leave the dog alone, I'd suggest canceling that check and getting back to reality asap. There is, of course, no one right way for every dog/human family but the amount of damage I've seen from attempting to ignore-away problem behaviors puts me pretty firmly in the belief that every dog needs to have the word "no" as a part of their vocabulary. When we work with praise and correction in balance we're able to actually help our dogs understand right from wrong and empower them to make the right decision. With that comes growth, confidence, and a much happier, healthier dog.