Capturing Calm

As a dog trainer who works heavily in behavior modification of dogs who have fear, anxiety, and aggression issues, one of the most important things I would like my clients to know is how to implement calmness in their human/canine relationship. We live in a fast paced world where it’s easy to feel stressed and rushed in day to day life. And there’s no doubt those feelings can trickle down to our dogs as well.

The first step to thinking about the role of calmness in dog training is looking at your dog’s point of view. Imagine you had a simple chart with 2 columns, one titled “excited interactions” and one titled, “calm interactions” and you made a checkmark under each column when you chose to interact with your dog while they were in each of those states. How many checkmarks would be in the excited column versus the calm one?

For a vast majority of dog owners, the excited column would significantly outweigh the calm one. We naturally greet our dogs when they are so excited that we have arrived home, we place food in front of them when they dance around in delight for mealtime, we throw the toy and play when they excitedly nudge us, we leash them and take them outside after they tremble in anticipation, and we may even encourage the excitement with stimulating questions like, “WANNA GO FOR A WALK??!” or with wrestling and fast movements.

Conversely, how often do we see our dogs resting, relaxing, or just hanging out and approach them with our own calm energy to reward that state of mind? Once again the answer, for most dog owners is, not often. So what is the message that we are sending our dogs and more importantly, what behavior are we paying them for (and thus training them to repeat)? Many of the dogs we see in for training have been taught that excited behavior= access to all the good things in life (affection, leaving the house, food, playtime).

Why Calmness Matters

Hopefully, now the wheels are turning about how you and your family members interact with your dog and maybe encouraging excited behavior. But just how does a dog’s excitement contribute to problem behaviors? Well, first let’s define what we mean by excitement. It may seem obvious but we frequently, in fact constantly, see dog owners view excitability as directly equated with happiness (and conversely calmness as sadness). Frequent overexcitability is not a sign of stable happiness and if repeated over and over in the long term will create a dog who is more likely to have issues with leash reactivity, stimulation aggression, separation anxiety, lowered impulse control, and difficulty following commands. It’s hard to believe that just lack of calmness could have such a dramatic impact on behavior but overstimulation increases stress hormones like adrenaline (fight or flight response) which makes a dog much more susceptible to problem behaviors. The more often your dog is in this state, the more unraveled their training is likely to come and the more other dogs may react to them in a negative way.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for excitable behavior for your dog. It’s all about balance! Just like kids need a balance between resting and playing, dogs need to strike a balance between channeling their calm energy and getting out their wiggles. When dogs have a healthy balance between excitement and calm, it makes life more enriching for you and for them.

Contributing Factors to Canine Calmness

  1. Some breeds/types of dogs are simply more active than others. If you have a “working” style of dog, chances are high that they are going to need a job to properly channel their energy and need for employment.
  2. Young dogs are understandably more prone to excitable behavior. Puppyhood is a great time to start teaching a young dog about what behaviors and mental states get them access to all the great things in life.
  3. Newly adopted dogs, especially those arriving from a shelter environment, may have an uptick in excitable energy. It’s especially important to help these dogs learn how to channel their calm as overexcitability can often be an indicator of anxiety. 
  4. In order to have a calm dog, their mental and physical exercise needs must be met. We can’t tell dogs to be relaxed when they have pent up energy that needs to come out. Ensuring they have interesting and tiring experiences will go a long way in helping them achieve a good calm/active balance. 

How to Implement Calmness with Your Dog

Here are the 2 key elements to utilizing calmness in your dog’s training:

When: “You get what you pet.” If you talk to your dog, pet your dog, give your dog food, let them out the door, leash them, or otherwise interact with them while they are in an excitable state, guess what…you just paid them for being overstimulated and they are now much more likely to repeat that behavior and even intensify it as time goes on. Many trainers get focused on dogs earning things through obedience commands like sit, down or stay but at Tug Dogs we would honestly rather a dog earn things through calmness which focuses on what a dog’s brain is doing instead of just what their body is doing. Dogs don’t repeat behaviors that aren’t successful for them so if you want to start promoting calmness, stop rewarding excitability. Yes it’s cute, yes it makes you feel special that your dog is so excited to see you or interact with you but if it’s causing a behavior problem, taking steps to address is now will ultimately help you and your dog live better together. It takes some dedication but once you get used to paying attention to when you interact with your dog, it will become a great new habit and you will wonder why you never realized this before!!

How: “Act the way you want your dog to act.” If you model excitability, your dog will respond in kind. Fast petting, high pitched rapid talking, and quick movements all tell your dog they should be in a stimulated state. If you demonstrate that too frequently or with a dog who is naturally excitable, it encourages your dog to be hyperactive. If you want to practice turning down your dog’s excitement level, speak in a lower tone of voice, and speak slowly…think soothing tones, not animated ones. In addition when you go to touch your dog, massage them moving your hands at a slow pace rather than rapidly petting. You will be amazed at how with just a little practice, you can coach your dog to be mellow and how that will help them to become a better doggy decision-maker.

Give Calmness a Try

Working with dogs who have serious behavior problems over the past 15 years has given me an incredible perspective, not only about what dogs need to live full and happy lives, but also about what we humans need (and are often missing) to do the same. Giving our dogs (and ourselves) permission and guidance to move slowly and find our zen is an incredibly rewarding experience that brings peacefulness to a household and helps problem behaviors melt away. Spend the next couple of weeks focusing on giving your dog relaxed experiences with you and pay attention to the positive impacts on their behavior (and maybe yours too!).