Is Your Dog’s Glass Half Full? Preventing your Dog from Going Over Threshold
October 22, 2012
I do training in people’s homes. Lots of it. I come across dogs with every type of issue, but it seems as though the problem people feel the most humiliated about is aggression. Believe me, they have a right to be embarrassed. If it isn’t dog-dog aggression, then it’s aggression toward people, or aggression toward the cat, or the mailman, or a crack in the sidewalk, or a snowman. At least that’s how people feel when I come into the picture. Not only are they dealing with their own dog, but the reactions of others in the park and in their neighbourhoods. When they walk down the street they can see fellow pet owners for miles crossing the street to avoid them. They leave the house with a sense of foreboding rather than anticipation. They find it impossible to be able to tell what’s going to “set their dog off”: This is the real challenge when dealing with dogs that are reactive. It’s so difficult to tell exactly what, when or who it was that caused the dog to turn into Cujo, and it seems even harder to prevent it from happening again. I’m here, my friends, to try to put you at ease just a little bit. I may not be able to cure your dog in one blog post, but I can certainly get you a long way toward understanding the complexities of living and working with an aggressive dog.
Anyone that has ever taken my classes or worked with me has probably heard my “Empty Glass” analogy. I’ve never found a more simple way to explain why a dog might be fine most of the time, but just loses his mind when you least expect it. What is it that causes a dog to react on some days and not others? Why might a dog live for ten years in perfect harmony and then one day the proverbial dog sh*t hits the fan?
The Empty Glass.
Imagine that every dog starts his day out with an empty glass. There’s nothing in it. It’s clean, and fresh out of the dishwasher. Now imagine that every time something stressful happens you pour a little bit (or a lot) of water into the glass. For example; there’s a thunderstorm-pour some water into the glass. Now your dog runs into a dog he had a fight with last week-pour some more water into the glass. One of the kids grabs his face-pour even more water in. Every dog, no matter how tolerant, will eventually overflow. This is what we trainers call “reaching threshold” or “tipping over”. It’s when fights happen. It’s when people get bitten. We want to avoid this scenario at all costs if we can.
Now here’s the really difficult part. Some dogs, just by being who they are, might start out the day with a glass that’s already three quarters full. Think fearful dogs, hyper breeds, or adolescents- just to name a few. These dogs don’t leave you with a lot of wiggle room. It’ll take a lot less for those dogs to “tip over” than it would for that big sloppy Newfoundlander whose glass is so empty you’d think it had a hole in the bottom. That Newfoundlander could be exposed to the EXACT same stressors throughout the day, but never tip over, because it takes a LOT more to overflow his glass. Am I making sense?
Our job as trainers and your job as owners is to figure out how to always keep that glass from overflowing. Even better, how to dump that water back out once it’s been poured in.
Keeping the Glass Empty.
Become Aware of Stress Signals: Start doing your research. Find out how to know exactly when your dog’s glass is filling up. You can do this by reading his body language. If the glass is filling, you’ll know it. You’ll see lip licking, yawning, shaking off and many more, depending on how expressive your dog is. If you see the signs, pour some water out, by changing the situation or even removing him from the situation.
Learn Attention Exercises: Sometimes just teaching your dog to focus on you can go a long way. The more he’s able to fixate on another dog or person the more likely it is that his glass will overflow. Find a great trainer (I can recommend a couple!) to help you use a clicker to get your dog fixating on you instead of the world around him. In time, you can reintroduce those stressors in his life, but for now, work on getting him back to ground zero.
Interrupt Play Often: I think this is the number one reason that fights happen at the dog park. As your dog plays, the water is slowly trickling into his glass. The longer he’s allowed to play uninterrupted, the more likely the play will tip over into aggression. Use a well-trained recall to call him out of play and empty his glass a little bit. You’ll have a much more comfortable dog and you’ll be a much more comfortable handler.
Avoid the “Rehearsal Effect”.
If you never put the glass near water it isn’t likely that it’ll ever have a chance to overflow! Don’t allow your dog near situations that will “trigger” him before he’s ready. We all get better at things we practice at and this applies to problem behaviour as well. The more your dog is allowed to pull on-leash, fight at the park, jump on people, or bark at the mailman, the better he gets at it. We don’t want our dogs to be good at jumping up on people, although I meet them all the time;)
The majority of us will never have a dog that tips over into aggression. Although, don’t be fooled. Your dog might spend his whole life, just below the rim, about to spill over but you’ve gotten lucky. I would much rather not rely on luck. I’d rather do everything I can to keep my own dog’s glass as empty as possible, so that mine can be full…of happiness that is:)