Low resilience puts a dog at risk of developing behaviour problems because they aren’t able to bounce back from experiences. Here are 5 ways to improve a dogs mental health for greater resilience.
What is resilience?
Resilience is a dogs ability to bounce back from set backs and unpleasant experiences. A resilient dog, for example, may easily shrug off getting barked at by a small, grumpy, black dog. He’ll quickly forget it even happened, and enjoy the rest of his walk. However, a dog that lacks resilience might struggle to settle after that experience. He might spend the rest of the walk worrying about it and continue to look out for the other dog, or dogs like him. He might even develop trauma and become fearful of all dogs on future walks.
Good resilience starts with good mental health, so here are a few easy ways to boost your dogs mental health. You can’t have too much resilience!
1.Don’t tell them off
Getting told off, or the anticipation of getting told off, triggers adrenaline, which is what prepares the body for fight or flight. Remember how you feel when you get that complaint at work, or the email requesting a meeting from HR! Adrenaline floods your body and starts preparing you for what’s coming. Dogs are the same. This means that when a dog gets punished, or expects punishment, they become physically defensive. Whatever it is your dog has done, it’s unlikely that a big dose of adrenaline will improve the situation. But more than that, it divides you both. You need your pup to feel like you are both on the same side for maximum mental health benefits.
Teach your pup a reliable recall and get them exploring the world (or a safe park, at least) without you being dragged about on the lead behind them. Self guided exploration boosts confidence and problem solving skills. When they can figure out something themselves they make better decisions overall and can communicate better too. Following scents is as exhausting as a walk too.
We all know that exercise itself is good for well being. Even a short walk outside the house can release endorphins and serotonin (natures feel good chemicals), which improves overall mental health, and a dogs resilience.
Double points if you take time to explore while you are out or your walk!
3.Take a nap
There are so many good reasons to take a nap. It’s good for processing thoughts into memory, and also for discarding those thoughts a dog doesn’t need. When he wakes up, he will have room for a new set of thoughts and experiences. Without regular naps, the brain will become overloaded which means no resilience at all. Dogs in overwhelm are particularly vulnerable to trauma.
In the example of the dog that got barked at, a nap before the walk would have meant the dog was not close to overwhelm at the time of the incident. So his thinking brain would have been in charge. Then a nap later allows the brain to file that experience in the discard pile! Other dogs that lack sleep have a swirl of thoughts causing them to be constantly in overwhelm, meaning their reactive brain is in charge which can cause long term behaviour problems.
Being listened to is a very underrated, but essential element of great mental health. Your dog will feel braver if he knows you are paying attention to how he’s feeling. Every time you listen, and respond, he will be even more reassured that you are advocating for him in this crazy world of ours.
Often we try to socialise our dogs with weird things things like barking dogs, or drunk people, by way of normalising this stuff. We feel somehow that our dogs should be used to it somehow. But, if you force him to “cope” he’ll find his own way to respond which will feel alienating, and you could risk him becoming scared or aggressive. Instead, shield him from the worst bits of the world – it’s ok to be scared of some stuff, I think.
We struggle with this the most, and yet as humans, we value it very highly. Many people tell me they get frustrated with their dog because he isn’t predictable. He probably feels the same way about you, sorry! Not being able to predict our pals behaviour is unsettling at best, and can be very stressful – as we know!
We can change our behaviour and make ourselves more predictable. When your dog knows what to expect from you, he can start to be more predictable himself. One example is by being clear about what we are trying to teach our dog, and then timing the rewards well. Our dogs rely on us to get the timing of rewards consistent, it’s the only tool they have to figure out what we want. If our timing is bad, they will have no idea what we are trying to teach them.
Or in the example of loose lead walking, our response must also be consistent. If you want to teach your dog not to pull on the lead and you are stopping when they pull, you must be precise with your timing. If you feel the tension and sometime travel a step, or two, or sometimes keep walking, or sometimes stop, or sometimes the lead gets longer (extendable leads), or sometimes you help them by leaning forward, how will they ever know that pulling on the lead was a problem at all?
Are you struggling with an anxious dog?
Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the greater Dundee area. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!