Please note, all my dog training articles are now being published at naturaldogblog.com.
So we’ve talked a little bit about our dogs and the prey/predator dynamic at work in their lives. One of the central premises of Natural Dog Training is that our dogs feel the world and respond to that feeling, long before they have a chance to “think” about what’s happening. That’s why all that training you’ve done can just fly out the window when your dog is confronted with a particularly stressful or stimulating situation – they just do what FEELS right, in the moment, and what feels right generally has more to do with finding prey (as a way to release the tension) than it does with listening to what YOU have to say about the situation. What WE have to do (and this is pretty much THE POINT of all of the dog training posts on this blog) is insert ourselves into the feeling-response cycle, so that what ultimately feels “the best” to our dogs is to be interacting with us whether the atmosphere be as calm as a lazy summer afternoon in the park, or as chaotic as a walk through downtown during lunch hour.
First things first – here is an easy way for us humans to think about how our dogs feel the world:
- Our dogs are like a big receiver, picking up the “vibes” of the world as they are out experiencing their environment.
- Those vibes either flow right through our dogs (that is, they perceive something and just let it go), or they are stored within our dogs as stress.
- The stress is “potential energy” waiting to be released. This is nature’s way of “charging the battery” within our dogs. It takes a lot of effort to hunt for prey (especially if you’re trying to get a moose), and so this stress is a storehouse of emotional energy for those moments.
- When things get intense, a relaxed dog gets more and more focused, and will ultimately make prey as a way of dealing with the intensity of their experience. A tense dog will find some way, any way, to deal with the excess energy.
- The more relaxed a dog is, the more emotionally “healthy” they are. Opportunity Dogs need to learn how to stay relaxed at higher and higher levels of stimulation.
Now let’s talk about each of these in a little more detail, so that you really understand what the heck I’m talking about.
1. Our dogs are like a big receiver, picking up the “vibes” of the world as they are out experiencing their environment.
Think about it this way. Our dogs (and we) have senses – 5 that we know about, and who knows how many others that we haven’t yet been able to quantify. Out in the world, our senses are bombarded with stimulation – so I’m calling all of this stimulation, both measurable and unmeasurable, “vibes”. At the most generic level, this is simply an exchange of energy – the world gives, and we receive. In natural dog training, we call this “emotional energy” – and it is this energy that rules our dogs lives. It rules our lives as well. As Kevin Behan would say, imagine little “emo-tons” (like protons and neutrons) bouncing around in the world. You meet a new person, and before you can make any sort of intellectual judgement about that person you get a “gut feeling”. That feeling is the feeling of emotons smacking you in your many varied emoton receptors, all throughout your body.
(quick digression: In her book “The Molecules of Emotion“, Dr. Candace Pert talks about how our experience of emotion actually comes from the release of neuropeptides throughout our body as we experience the world. And in fact, it turns out that ANY cell that has a receptor for a given neuropeptide can actually PRODUCE that same neuropeptide. What that means is that a “gut feeling” might, in fact, actually be originating in your gut BEFORE your brain has had a chance to process ANYTHING!)
The important thing to recognize here is that your dogs and your experience of the world is, at its core, a raw emotional experience, with chemical reactions that occur long before your mind has works its diagnostic magic. As humans, we have emotional experiences – THEN we come back around “after the fact” and label them as “happy, sad, angry, frightened”. Our dogs just HAVE the experiences. When we talk about emotional energy, we are talking about this core, pre-labeled emotional experience.
2. Those vibes either flow right through our dogs (that is, they perceive something and just let it go), or they are stored within our dogs as stress.
You’re walking through the park with your dog, when suddenly a squirrel darts across the path right in front of you. That squirrel is putting out little squirrel emotons, which are registering in your dog as a feeling. Your dog starts to get all stirred up inside, and pulls on the leash (you do have your dog on lead in the park, right?) to get at the squirrel. You have a good hold on the leash, though, so the most your dog can do is pull, pull, pull, until the squirrel is out of sight. Or maybe you keep on walking, dragging your dog along until they forget about the squirrel. All that energy stirred up by the squirrel is unresolved at this point, and will be stored up within your dog as stress, waiting for another opportunity to be put to use.
Flash to a similar day – park, squirrel, etc. One difference – THIS time you have a tennis ball in your hand, and your dog is REALLY into the ball. The squirrel makes its appearance, only when you notice your dog perk up you get your dog’s attention with the ball and, once you’ve seen the squirrel is safely up the nearest tree, you throw the ball in the opposite direction, with your dog tearing off after it in a game of fetch. You play fetch for a minute or two, then grab the lead and keep walking. In THIS situation the emotional energy stirred up by the squirrel has been resolved through the flow of the game of fetch, and there is little or no residual stress. As you repeat this exercise, your dog learns that playing fetch with you is “what it feels like” to chase that squirrel. Ulitimately, when your dog sees a squirrel and feels the initial feeling associated with that, looking to YOU to resolve the feeling (through fetch, or, even better, some moose-like activity) becomes automatic. Make sense?
3. The stress is “potential energy” waiting to be released. This is nature’s way of “charging the battery” within our dogs. It takes a lot of effort to hunt for prey (especially if you’re trying to get a moose), and so this stress is a storehouse of emotional energy for those moments.
Given the section previous, this item should make more sense to you. The unresolved energy of the first situation is stored within your dog. That internal tension is waiting for release. Nature’s way of releasing that tension is through hunting – the prey instinct. In a sense there’s nothing “wrong” with this tension, because if our dogs are ultimately going to go moose hunting they’re going to need a lot of emotional reserve to handle the energy of THAT situation. However, practically speaking, we want to minimize the stress that our domesticated dogs are carrying around within themselves, and to give them ample opportunity to release whatever stress they DO have through tapping into their prey drive.
4. When things get intense, a relaxed dog will get more and more focused, and will ultimately look to make prey as a way of dealing with the intensity of their experience. A tense dog will find some way, any way, to deal with the excess energy.
Our dogs’ bodies are the physical instruments through which they experience the world. Pretend that your dog’s body is a water pipe, and the water that flows through your dog is the emotional energy that they experience as they interact with the world. A dog that is physically relaxed is like a really wide pipe – so they can handle LOTS of “water”. On the other hand, a dog that is tense is like a little tiny pipe – try to put the same amount of water through and the pressure builds and builds until – yep, it bursts.
So in the case of a relaxed dog, the more energy that you throw at them the more “into the flow” they become. They’re like all-star athletes who actually play BETTER when the pressure is on. In fact, the more energy the better, because it feels REALLY GOOD to be in the flow. Like a spinning gyroscope, they’re rooted in their center, and more solid the faster they spin. (OK enough analogies) When the time is right, they will spring into action and use their well-idled motor (I couldn’t help it) to zoom off after prey.
In the case of a tense dog – well, they are just the opposite. That energy doesn’t flow through them, instead it builds up like a static charge, waiting for the right opportunity to discharge. And the more energy that gets stored, the more tense they get, and the worse they feel. In fact, as that energy builds, they start to feel terribly UNSTABLE. Almost as if the world is spinning too quickly for them, and they need to react in some way to stop the world from spinning. Think about the “release” of submissive urination. Or, even more telling, think about your typical “dog-on-dog” aggression. Tension builds between two dogs until suddenly one of them attacks, and there’s all of this calamity until – BOOM – one dog ends up on its back with the other dog’s jaws around its neck, and all action stops. Still. Finally, some calm. Apart from the owners, who are typically freaking out at this point. Instead, they should be marveling at how they saw the tension-buildup – discharge cycle in action, right before their very eyes!
5. The more relaxed a dog is, the more emotionally “healthy” they are. Opportunity Dogs need to learn how to stay relaxed at higher and higher levels of stimulation.
So what do you do with the dog that’s high-strung and needs to learn how to stay relaxed at higher and higher levels of stimulation?
Here’s another analogy that Kevin Behan uses, which made perfect sense to me (so hopefully it will to you):
Imagine that you’re driving down the highway, going a cool and easy 55 mph. It’s Sunday morning and you’re out for a drive. It’s so easy to drive at 55 – in fact, you have a coffee in one hand, the morning paper in your other, and you’re steering with your knee. (Disclaimer: I am NOT advocating this behavior!) In other words, you’re perfectly relaxed.
Suddenly your cellphone rings, and it’s your personal assistant (what a nice life you lead!) calling to tell you that there’s a VERY important brunch meeting that you had scheduled for that very Sunday – and you’re about to be very LATE. So you step on the gas. Now you’re going 65, 75, 85, 95(!) – and you can really feel the tension in your body, as you grip the wheel ever more tightly. You’re pushing your car to go as fast as it can by the time you’re in the 105 mph range. Now what happens when…gasp, a cute little bunny dashes across the road? You’re so tense that you jerk the steering wheel to avoid the bunny, and next thing you know you’re in a ditch, wishing that you had looked at your calendar before you left for your Sunday drive. Plus…you spilled your coffee.
Contrast the tension of driving in your car at 105 mph with what a race car driver feels like as they drive 200 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic around the racetrack. They’re quite relaxed – in fact, they feel at 200 mph a lot like you felt at 55 or 65. 105 mph would seem slow to them. So while YOU were out of control at 105, they’re still calm, cool, and focused as the speedometer climbs. Hey don’t feel bad – most of us WOULD be out of control at 105 mph!
Are racecar drivers BORN knowing how to stay relaxed at 200 mph? Absolutely not! They gradually learn to drive at faster and faster speeds, taking time along the way to get comfortable with each increase in mph. One thing is important to remember, though – until you’ve driven 200 mph, and learned to relax at 200 mph, you will never be relaxed at 200 mph.
So when you take a tense dog and put them in a situation that is charged with emotional energy, they’re whiteknuckling the steering wheel at a breakneck pace down the freeway. Once we’ve recognized what’s going on, that our dogs aren’t “thinking” about these situations, but, rather, FEELING about these situations (and responding accordingly) our goal becomes:
- Identifying when the tension starts in an emotionally charged situation and working to relax the dog immediately. Become an observer of how your dog responds to the stimulus that the world is sending their way. Think of your dog as an emoton-meter, and watch them for signs that the emoton levels are increasing.
- Gradually increasing the level of “charge” to which your dog is exposed, taking time at each level to allow a dog to relax. Be very INCREMENTAL. It is important for the dog to succeed at each step along the way. Tug of war is a GREAT tool for helping a dog relax in these high energy situations. So are long, slow, massaging strokes along the back and sides. Physical relaxation is what you’re after – if your dog is physically relaxed then they will be emotionally relaxed.
- Resolving stored stress by being the moose in your dog’s life.
Perhaps your dog gets tense at the doggie equivalent of 45 mph? Over time, you work with them so that they’re comfortable at 80 mph. They might STILL be uncomfortable at 90 mph…but those times when you hit 45 mph (like when you meet another dog on the street) your dog will probably ask you to pass the Sunday paper and a cup of coffee. 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, and, as always, if you have any questions please let me know – either in the comments, or you can write me: neil at neilsattin dot com.