Stress is an unavoidable occurrence for any animal, including our canine companions. It is especially necessary for our service dogs in training to learn how to appropriately handle stressors in the environment. Since we don’t always know what a dog might perceive as stressful, it’s important to know the signs of stress as well as how to help the dog work through the stressful moment. We can also teach the dogs to have a high tolerance for things that might be stressful- after all, stress is just the body’s reaction to a challenge!
Working Through a Stressful Situation
Even when we do our best as handlers to prepare our dogs for stress, it is inevitable that they will experience stress when working in the world. In order to support dogs through stressors, we need to:
- Take stock in the dog. First, be sure you are aware of what stress behaviors look like in the dog you are training. There are many, and some even seem incongruous to stress- tail wagging, smiling, looking at the handler- but the key is in the tiny differences. Low tail wags between the legs, squinting and the appearance of a toothy “grin” and frequent check ins with the handler spell uncertainty.
- Take your emotional temperature. How are you doing, at this moment? If the handler is stressed, the dog is likely to be aware of and react off of your emotions. Breathe, relax, and clear your mind.
- Take a step back. If you aren’t making progress, move back from the stressor. Move away until the dog does not display any stress behaviors. Once they have returned to baseline, let them observe the stressor. Reward them for watching it without a stressed reaction. Let them decide to move closer again- reward for those choices. Again, let them drive the session, your job is to reward their choices.
- Try again another time. There are times we won’t be able to salvage the moment- and that’s ok. If the dog is very stressed, it’s better to walk away. By doing this, the dog will see you as the hero- you saw that they were overwhelmed and instead of pushing them over their threshold, you removed them from the situation. Take note of the stressor and brainstorm ways to work on the challenge in a more controlled condition.
Prevention is key. Is your dog well rested? Have their needs been met?