Many people don’t realize how in tune their dogs are with their emotions and energy. Dogs can sense all of our feelings, no matter how hard we try to hide them. Just because they can sense our feelings, does not mean that they completely understand them.
Certain emotions that we feel such as fear, anxiety, nervousness, and stress, are quite apparent to our dogs. Dogs feed off of this energy, and can begin to display different kinds of unwanted behaviours. They attempt to determine the cause of these emotions, and the perceived cause is usually seen as a threat.
Leash reactivity in dogs is one of the best examples of how an owners stress will change a dogs behaviour.
A great example is if a dog gets attacked by another dog on leash. Needless to say, this is a stressful encounter for both human and dog. Usually, the dog gets over it fairy quickly. Oftentimes, the owner becomes consistently anxious every time they see another dog coming towards them. The dog believes there must be a reason why their owner is so nervous about the other dog. This anxiety causes the dog to feel the need to defend themselves and their owner.
When a dog feels that their owner has become emotionally unstable, they will take the leadership role in order to protect themselves and their owner.
Many of the behavioural issues I work with in dogs are partially due to their owners insecurities and uncertainties about how to deal with the problem they are encountering. Their dog senses this uncertainty, and in turn, feels that their human is not fit to be their leader. Now they are less likely to cooperate and listen to their owners. This can create reactivity, anxiety, and sometimes even aggression.
On top of the nervous energy perpetuating each others anxiety, this insecurity and lack of confidence in the owner creates a lack of consistency in the way that they end up dealing with the problem.
Lack of consistency makes dogs confused, and causes them to become even more insecure, all while trying to take on the role of the leader. This causes a great deal of stress on the dog, and often causes them to lash out or be even more nervous and stressed.
Finally, the experience that both owner and dog have when they are together becomes so strained, that the relationship and communication becomes broken, neither being able to trust the other.
Some dogs (often more insecure or unstable dogs) whose owners have mental or physical illnesses will often take the leadership role. Dogs sense these illnesses and understand them to cause their owner to be weak. Unfortunately, this means that certain dogs will turn into warrior protectors. These dogs often get reactive whenever anyone they feel is a threat gets too close to their owner.
This is why service dogs go through such rigorous socialization and training before they officially become a service dog. These dogs must be stable and confident dogs. Any dog that is insecure and unable to cope with the owner being nervous or insecure or weak in any way, will be disqualified from the program.
Dogs are pack animals. Anyone who tells you differently is denying the science and the current studies that have recently been done. These studies have debunked this old wives’ tale indefinitely. The old studies and scientists that believed to have discovered this myth never studied dogs that lived together in a setting without human intervention.
The new studies have shown that dogs, when left to their own devices, create packs and have a dominance hierarchy within the group. Dog packs, tend to be fluid. There are always different members of the pack that take leadership at different times. If you want to learn more about this fascinating new finding, check out The Social Dog.
If this sounds like the relationship you have between you and your dog, there is always hope. Rebuilding your relationship is possible. It takes patience, time and effort, but it can be done. Step one to rebuilding your relationship with your dog is learning to control your emotions.
Learning to control our emotions and our ability to deal with stress isn’t just something we should do for our dogs, its something everyone can benefit from. Meditation can be a fantastic starting point if you are really struggling with it.
If you are interested in some fantastic beginner guided meditations, check out Jon Kabat Zinn’s 20 Minute Beginner Breathscape Guided Meditation. Meditation helps you become more aware of whats happening in your body and your mind. It helps you regulate your emotions as well as your emotional responses.
Other ways of helping control emotions is getting a daily exercise regime. Daily exercise helps increase serotonin in the body, helping regulate mood*. A better mood often means a better capability to deal with situations that might cause stress, frustration or anxiety.
Whatever you choose to do, when you find yourself getting stressed, nervous, angry, or frustrated, check in with your dog. Things will generally go much more smoothly if you just take a deep breath, and try to move forward calmly.