After spending some time brainstorming with Dr Matt from All Natural Vet Care about how we can make a bigger impact on how animals are delivered optimal healthcare, we felt it was important to place a special focus on stress, its impact and how to manage it. We are very excited to be publishing these paired articles.
A look into the choices we make for our dogs and the effects it has on their health as well as our own.
At Bondi Behaviourist, we believe that looking after the mental health of our pets is being overlooked in most households across Australia. People choose to own dogs for their own happiness with the goal of creating a life that brings love and joy to both them and their animal.
If we are to improve the lives of pets as well as their owners, we need to highlight and address these issues.
The fairest way to treat our dogs is as individuals
Some dogs are introverts, while some are extroverted, so we should recognise what each individual likes and dislikes and learn how to create a life that minimises stress as much as possible. Some dogs enjoy being around other dogs while some panic at the sight of them. Too many of us are making choices for our dogs because of perceived social expectations and social norms. There is a common perception here that we must always do what everyone else is doing, regardless of how we or our dogs feel about it. We often jump to the conclusion that our dogs will love to go out for a walk and meet strangers. However the reality is often that they have been put on a leash, restrained and trapped, and taken into a world of unknowns. We then question why they are pulling on the leash or not reacting in a socially acceptable manner at the dog park.
We forget about the limited understanding they have of the human world they live in, how much stimulation there is as soon as they leave their front door and that they will never fully comprehend all the information that is thrown at them on a daily basis, because so much of it is unnatural and man-made. We forget that they are animals and that survival says to them to treat everyone as a threat until they can be sure otherwise. They don’t know that you know where you’re going or that you are taking them to a safe place. City life is very different from the slow pace of farms, quiet suburbs or even city life 20 years ago. Dogs living in today’s cities are being submerged into an overwhelming amount of human life situations. This puts all kinds of stress on them - not to mention social pressures on us as guardians - as we are ultimately responsible for their behaviour. And while it can be a fantastic life, the more we put on our dogs, the more important it becomes to understand dog behaviour and psychology.
In our position as professionals, we often see scenarios where both the pet and the caregiver are under stress either physically or mentally - and often both. Nobody calls us when things are going well; after all, they have come to us for advice on how to make things better. We are being asked for help and we believe that a big part of our service is not only to understand what is driving the problems within our beloved pets, but to develop an achievable strategy, offering a comprehensive service that will overcome these issues and minimise stress as much as possible.
In dog ownership there is no race to be perfect because there is no perfect way to own a dog.
There is no rule book that insists you must walk your dog X amount of times per day, nobody is looking over your shoulder and judging how you own your dog. There are social norms, such as taking your dog for a walk or to the dog park; however we suggest you avoid causing stress to yourself and your dog because of others perceptions. We recommend engaging your dog’s brain more than its body, developing communication patterns with your dog and when you do take them out of the house, take care of their minds as much as their bodies.
So many behavioural issues we see are driven by the dog’s brain not being looked after. It is rare that we can put problem behaviours down to ‘not enough exercise’ any more. In many circumstances the dog is overtired, overwhelmed and overstimulated. Dog brains across Sydney are breaking down and education on how to take care of them is the best way to ensure their health and well-being is greatly improved. As a result, the fulfilment brought from pet ownership will also be greatly improved.
If you do not enjoy going to the dog park then walk your dog another way, take them to a café or find something that you enjoy doing with them. If your dog does not enjoy something, then you can either improve its learnt association and perception of it gradually or you can avoid it. There is nowhere that your dog MUST go, these days there are even mobile vets that will come to you, so we encourage you to live a life that you enjoy with your dog.
In our position as trainers and behaviourists it is our job to rehabilitate behavioural issues. Living with a dog that has behavioural issues can be extremely taxing on the caregivers, so it is important that the training methods used will make the process as achievable and as stress free as possible. When people are looking for a dog trainer or behaviourist, they should take into careful consideration the methods they will use to teach you - their philosophies on how to handle behaviours driven by stress, fear and anxiety - and question their understanding of dog behaviour.
Training methods based on linear hierarchy and dominance, insisting that you become the pack leader, are outdated and will not help the dog.
They generally ask you to reprimand unwanted behaviours and can create a mind-set where the guardian is constantly looking for the next mistake. Using these aversive measures to train your dog do not sit well with most animal lovers and have been compounding the stress associated with dog ownership for generations. Be aware of the red flags such as those that offer guarantees, we cannot even guarantee our own behaviour - nobody can, let alone the behaviour of another living thing. Too many clients have come to us over the years and told us that they “don’t want to have to punish their dogs any more” and they are visibly relieved when we reply “you don’t have to”. We explain to people that “you can’t treat stress with more stress anyway, so don’t try”. The aggression and anxiety in their dogs is driven by stress itself and is avoidable in most circumstances.
When we are training a dog, we aim to bring their stress levels down and allow them to think and to communicate. We encourage and reward them for completing the behaviours that we want from them.
Modern methods are far less combative. We should not be flooding our dogs by putting them in situations they cannot cope with and reprimanding them for unwanted behaviours. Instead, we can expose the dog to the world at a pace that both you and they can cope with. We can keep stress levels to a minimum and building positive associations and tolerance gradually. By using positive reinforcement to create favourable behaviours, we can build strong relationships based on communication and trust, rather than the old methods of punishing the behaviours we do not want. We used to believe that these old methods created respect and a position of power, whereas today we know that dogs do not understand the concept of someone being superior or inferior, and that these communication patterns will in fact break down relationships, causing fear, stress and anxiety.
When putting together a training program we look closely at what the dog can cope with. We evaluate where their thresholds are and ensure that they are always kept below them. There are no quick fixes to modifying the behaviour of a living creature. Behaviours driven by stress, fear or anxiety are handled using similar methods to those used to help people going through comparable issues. Because a dog’s brain responds to stress in the same way chemically as ours we then apply exactly the same principles. We ask the owner to recognise what they would like their dog to be doing instead of the problem, rather than focussing on the issue, to look for the positive in their dog’s behaviour and get them into the habit of creating and rewarding those behaviours. They will enjoy training their dog as they have both been set up to win from the start.
We recognise the importance of a training plan being fully understood by to the owner. Some owners may be able to comprehend the whole plan easily; others may find it overwhelming and so the information must be communicated to them in digestible portion sizes to make it achievable. We even deem the terminology that we use to be important - education around dog behaviour in general allows people to understand that the dog is not trying to be ‘naughty’ or ‘stubborn’ - in fact they are struggling and need help. The people that we work with matter to us so empowering them to achieve the tasks they have asked for help with is a vital and rewarding part of our service.
This topic is the reason that we have joined with Ian from Bondi Behaviourist for Movember. The black dog may be affecting your dog. We recognise that our mental wellbeing allows us to make the change we want to see in this world. A change for improved quality of life for both animals and their people.
For more information visit www.movember.org, headspace and heads up.
Please consider a donation at https://moteam.co/mo-dog-dudes
If this article raised issues for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636