The little dog, some kind of terrier mix, nervously paced back and forth in the shopping cart at the pet store where I was in between class sessions. I had been called up by the cashier to talk to them about their dog’s behavior problems at home, where he was destructive and had house soiling challenges, though he’d been previously housebroken. As I began to talk with the couple, I could already sense the hostility between them. Then, like a volcano, it erupted. At the tops of their voices, they shouted at one another. Shoppers heading to the cash registers turned 180 degrees to find other things to buy rather than continue to approach. I was stuck there, looking down at the now trembling little dog, desperately wishing to send him a telepathic apology, “I wish I could help you, but I can’t”. What this couple needed was a marriage therapist, not a dog trainer.
While this true account is an extreme example, the gist of the problem is not unique in the work of a dog trainer or dog behavior counselor. Periodically, I work with families trying to draw me into their disagreements, with comments such as “can you tell (a family member) that she has to (fill in the blank)”. On other occasions, I’ve arrived at sessions that were supposed to include all family members only to have someone blatantly missing from the meeting, or clearly annoyed by my presence. This is the least enjoyable part of my work, and at such times I wish I could just hand them the business card of a local Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist to contact instead.
Anthropologist, Brian Hare, recently demonstrated in studies that dogs are masters at reading human social cues. While many of us who grew up with dogs already knew this, it is nice when someone does a scientific study that validates what we know in our hearts. While there are many benefits of this, including the ease of training and the connections that this allows us to make with our canine companions, there are pitfalls as well. Specifically, dogs that have close connections with their humans will be affected by their emotions, whether positive or negative.
When I was in high school, my German Shepherd Dog, Nick, was particularly attuned to my ever-changing adolescent moods. One day, when I was sad about who knows what, I took him for a walk in the park. Once off-leash, he ran full speed toward a puddle of water. The puddle turned out to be deeper than he’d thought, resulting in his stumbling and getting his entire face wet. When I giggled lightly, he stopped, looked at me, and then proceeded to repeat this behavior several times until I was heartily laughing out loud. Laughing is good, sad is bad. Any dog with a close human relation understands this.
This being the case, we have to consider that our dogs may be affected by our other emotions as well. My Border Collie, Claire, leaves the room whenever there is football on TV, because in her 12-1/2 years of life, my San Francisco 49ers have unfortunately had more bad years than good years. She doesn’t like it when I yell, even if it’s at the TV.
But what is there to do? We can’t change what we feel, or suppress our emotions just for the sake of our dogs, right? Of course not, but I do recommend doing what you can not to have loud screaming fights in the presence of your dog if you can avoid it. More importantly, try to be aware of how your behavior and routine affects that of your dog. A change as seemingly minor as a job change, which we may think is transparent to our dogs (we still get up, go to work, etc.) can actually affect our dogs if they sense that our mood has changed.
If you are having problems with your dog’s behavior and you think that it may be at least partly due to challenges you are facing yourself, consider the possibility that a personal counselor or a life coach may be as worthwhile an investment as a professional dog trainer. In less stressful times, try to remain diligent about continuing your dog’s physical and mental exercise routines to reduce his or her stress level. Playing games can be mutually beneficial, whether it is a nice game of ball retrieving, a hearty tug of war with a favorite toy, or your favorite dog sport.
I read a reminder recently that, in a plane going down, it’s important to first make sure that your own oxygen mask is securely in place before you can effectively assist others. Using the same principal with regard to your dog can go a long way to keeping everyone’s stress levels at bay. Do what you can to improve your mental and emotional stability, and your dog’s behavior should reflect this positive change.