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What Dog Trainers Can Teach Us About Coping

Positive training methods offer useful strategies for tough times.

Key points

  • Positive training methods that benefit dogs also have value for people.
  • Just as trainers swap out undesirable behaviors in dogs, humans can swap their challenging feelings such as anger for other ones like gratitude.
  • A dog's behavior is a neutral part of its learning history. Likewise, people can choose to see their unwelcome behaviors without labeling them.
Norman Scott, used with permission
Source: Norman Scott, used with permission

When an important business trip was cut short by COVID-19 concerns, Kathy Sdao found herself at home in Tacoma, Washington, alone with her dog and consumed by fears.

“I was feeling miserable. I couldn't sleep at night,” said Sdao, an applied animal behaviorist who consults with dog owners to resolve serious behavior problems. “I didn't like how angry I was.” So she asked herself a typical dog training question: “What can I do instead?”

Swap behaviors

Often, with a problematic animal, Sdao looks to swap undesirable behaviors for more productive ones. For example, a puppy that chews on hands and furniture can be redirected to suitable chew toys.

To combat her own feelings of anger, Sdao focused on gratitude. To that end, she wrote a fan letter to Lynn Ungar, the Unitarian Universalist minister and dog sport enthusiast who wrote the viral poem, “Pandemic.” In short order, the two coordinated an online event for dog trainers who specialize in evidence-based, positive reinforcement methods. Headlined by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., author of The Other End of the Leash, it was attended by over 350 people.

Begin with nonjudgmental observation

A skilled trainer approaches each situation with an open mind. “A dog's behavior is a result of its learning history,” said Sdao. “It's neither bad nor good. The behaviors might be dangerous and we need to do some training to try to evolve those behaviors. But taking the label off the learner is one of the very first things we do.”

Likewise, we can avoid labeling ourselves. Instead, we might approach unwelcome behaviors with curiosity, asking “how does this serve?” For example, instead of beating ourselves up about binging on video games or potato chips, we can gently consider what fears or needs are driving these choices, and brainstorm ways to address those.

Recognize the faces of fear

Fear disrupts the ability to learn, so skilled trainers watch for it. Denise Fenzi, founder of Fenzi Dog Sports Academy and author of Beyond the Basics: Unlock Your Dog's Behavior and other books, recalled noticing a tiny Yorkie spinning on its leash at a bustling street fair. “The dog was freaking out, and the owner wasn't seeing it,” she said. “They weren’t paying attention to the fear.”

Fear and poor behavior go hand in paw. A barking and lunging dog is yelling “stay away from me!” said Fenzi. Her solution is to distance the scared dog from the perceived threat, so it doesn’t protect itself by acting out. “Your dog sees that support and it makes them feel better. They start to rely on you, which is safer,” she said.

Sdao also stays alert for fear messages. “One of my mentors, Dr. Susan Friedman, would say ‘Biting is an animal screaming. Now, can we get them to whisper?’” Sdao gives the example of noticing when a dog leans away from the hand you’ve offered. “We could notice that tiny behavior as a dog saying, ‘I don't consent to being touched,’” says Sdao. “We can think, Ok, thanks for that information. I am not going to push it.”

Fearful people also need support. “When you're afraid, your behavior is not going to be stellar,” said Fenzi. Not long ago, she had to bar someone from a Facebook group. “This person really blew a gasket,” said Fenzi. “Her anger, lashing out and making bad decisions was because she cannot control the situation.” The coronavirus terrified this person, who is at high risk. “I know her well enough over time to know this isn't her normal demeanor. I'm not upset with her and I understand; I wouldn't do anything to make things worse for her if I can help it.”

Get support and go slow

Fear can escalate, said Fenzi, and cement in unwanted behaviors. Distractions—like treats for dogs—may appear helpful, but are not always. “You may think you're changing behavior. Actually what you're doing is building up anxiety inside,” she said. “And it's hard to see it.”

Wanting to distract ourselves is a natural impulse, but at what cost? “If what you're doing to get through this time is blotting out the world by watching Facebook live and movies, that's not solving your problems,” said Fenzi. “They're still there. They're just going to come out in weird ways—like you stop working, you get depressed, you get more and more anxious and so you watch more and more movies.”

The solution, which can be difficult, is to approach the underlying problem at your own pace, preferably with support. Fenzi used the example of helping a dog or a person address a fear of bridges. Her approach is, “Why don't we sit together on the edge of the bridge just looking at it? We'll just hang out here. We'll play a little game, just sitting right on the edge. If and when you feel like it, we'll take one step onto that bridge. At any time, you can turn back and come and sit here with me,” she said. “I'm not bribing you over the bridge at all. I'm just telling you, I will be here with you. I'll hold your hand because nobody wants to be afraid. Dogs don't want to be afraid and you don't want to be afraid.”

Reward success—often

“In the dog world, we talk about splitting versus lumping,” said Fenzi. “Splitting means to take a behavior you want to teach and break it down to its tiny small parts so that no one gets overwhelmed.” Each tiny part is praised and rewarded with positive reinforcement. “Lumping means throwing out a big chunk that needs to be digested.” Animals and humans struggle with “lumps” and do better when tiny successes are strung together.

For example, we might split up “do the laundry” into separate steps of run the washer, transfer clothes into the dryer, and fold them. “Splitting gives confidence,” said Fenzi, “because you'll win, you'll win a lot. Lumping is going to trash you. And if you have issues like with depression, split your to-do list into simple tasks like getting out of bed, putting on your clothes, and so on.”

Go on animal time

When life feels chaotic and scary, we urgently want to rush through to closure. What if we can't? The alternative, says Suzanne Clothier, author of Bones Would Rain From the Sky, is what she calls “animal time.” In other words, accept that things take as long as they take. “If you rush and decide to make an 1,800-pound bull get on that trailer, you can,” she said, “but it can go very badly and everybody can get hurt.”

“One of the stresses of modern life is that we set ourselves schedules that are sometimes really past our ability to comfortably cope,” said Clothier. “In animal time, you’re letting things unfold in a much more natural way, without an eye to the clock.” It's a good reminder that when we can't simply power through a problem, our best strategy is to step back, observe, and flow with the circumstances at hand.

What’s the biggest challenge you've faced with your dog? Take this survey.

References

China, L., Mills, D. S., & Cooper, J. J. (2020). Efficacy of Dog Training With and Without Remote Electronic Collars vs. A Focus on Positive Reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508

Deldalle, S., & Gaunet, F. (2014). Effects of 2 training methods on stress-related behaviors of the dog (Canis familiaris) and on the dog–owner relationship. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9(2), 58–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2013.11.004

Ziv, G. (2017). The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs—A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 19, 50–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004

Clothier, S. (2002). Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs

Courtesy Wendy Lyons Sunshine
Source: Courtesy Wendy Lyons Sunshine

. Grand Central Publishing.

Fenzi, D. (2017). Beyond the Basics: Unlock Your Dog’s Behavior. FenziDogSportsAcademy.com.

Fenzi, D. (2017). Beyond the Basics: Unlock Your Dog’s Behavior. FenziDogSportsAcademy.com.

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