It’s Not You, It’s Me!

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Let’s talk about dogs, humans & emotional baggage …

Picture from Dogster.com

Picture the scene: You’ve dashed from work, braved rush hour traffic and arrived – a little flustered – at Puppy Class.  You apologise for being late and scuttle in to find your seat. Then you rustle frantically in your bag to get your dog’s mat, water and treats … whilst simultaneously trying to listen to what the Trainer is saying.  Your blood pressure is rising!  Then you (attempt to) start the training exercise but your puppy is leaping about, straining the lead and looking in every direction but yours.  You feel frazzled from rushing and embarrassed that your dog is being … (pick one of the following labels):

  • “Stubborn”
  • “Naughty”
  • “Willful”

What’s really going?

It’s easy to blame the dog – she cant talk back.  It’s much harder to consider how our emotional state may be impacting our dog’s behaviour.  For example I notice that my dog’s “off days” tend to occur when I’m stressed and/or sleep deprived.  Coincidence?! Yet when I’m rested and calm managing my dog seems a breeze.  His responses are spot on, his focus is great, he gives me lots of eye contact … and lots of cuddles!  Could getting ‘me’ right be the key?

Jane Arden, founder of Waggawuffins College, notes how dogs respond to their owner’s emotional state.  She says the dog “generally chooses one of 2 strategies.  Either they try to change their human’s emotional state or they try to avoid it …. changing the handler’s emotional state may look like the dog clowning around or jumping up.  Or the dog may try to avoid the owner’s emotion … by going to the end of the lead or ignoring the owner altogether.”  Sadly neither strategy is helpful to the human, it just makes us mad!

So, What Can You Do?

If we recognise that much of dog training is about the human end of the leash, then when things are going South, sometimes the best thing to do is:

  • Just stop.  
  • Press the pause button and take a deep breath … in fact take a few!

It’s a lot to expect Fido to remain calm and zen like when their significant other (you) is frazzled and irritable.  Hardly the ideal setting for learning with your dog!

Picture by Edward Monkton.com

Then what?

  • Lead by example:   If you want calm from your dog, make sure you’re behaving calmly yourself.  Slow down a little; try walking slower, talking slower.  Add in some pauses – give your dog space and time to think.
  • Be present: If you’re walking your dog, focus on that; put your phone away.  You may be surprised at how giving Fido your full attention improves their behaviour. 
  • “The Power Of Now” by Eckhart Tolle: is a great book on how to find that inner calm. It’s both the simplest and hardest thing to do – but if you can manage it, your dog (and your partner!) will love you for it.

As Dr Susan Friedman tells us “to change behaviour, change conditions.” And if you’ve been fortunate to hear her speak you’ll know she embodies calm and clarity – and she achieves incredible results with the animals she trains.  So, next time Fido’s ‘acting out’ – take a moment to consider the conditions.  Is your dog really the issue or could our own behaviour be part of the problem?