Recently I took a client’s dog to his veterinarian. The waiting room soon became crowded with puppies, dogs, and cats. My client’s dog was anxious and occasionally growled, a normal reaction of animals feeling the need to increase space between themselves and whatever they are unsure of. In this case, he was unsure of everything about the situation! Sensing his anxiety, I immediately began treating him every time he looked at another animal (classical conditioning), and within five minutes his growling ceased. Even when a boisterous dog approached and sniffed him, my client’s dog was undaunted: after all, he’d associated all these animals with tasty treats only minutes earlier.
The veterinarian was very busy and our wait was over an hour and a half. I decided that it was the perfect occasion to observe the way humans interact with their pets. Here are a couple of my observations.
One woman brought in a carrier with an anxious cat huddled at the back. A friendly dog on an overly-long leash approached the crate for a sniff. The dog’s owner, apparently feeling this was quite acceptable, boasted about how friendly his dogs were. The cat growled, in a vain effort to remove the unfamiliar dog from her space, only to have her crate kicked by her owner and told to “hush”. This action justified and doubtless increased the cat’s fear: she now had to worry about an owner kicking her crate as well as an unfamiliar dog being so close.
Farther down the row, a small elderly dog was attempting to find safe haven under a chair but was prevented from doing so by a tight leash. The friendly dog on that overly-long leash decided to check him out. The old dog growled, warning him out of his space, only to be reprimanded with a harsh “stop that” by an obviously embarrassed owner. She said she had no idea why her normally friendly dog would do such a thing as growl at this other dog. The folks around chuckled when both of those incidents occurred, apparently finding them humorous and the behavior of all three owners quite acceptable.
Not one person appeared to realize that one dog, my client’s dog, who had been originally been anxious in this new and scary environment had become calm within minutes through pairing what scared him with tiny tasty treats. This gentle training method not only ended the growling, but it also allowed him to become comfortable enough to take a nap while waiting.
I was utterly amazed as I sat there by our expectations of our pets. We ask — and more often than not, demand – that our pets disregard their natural communication skills while we speak in harsh tones and punish them for trying to protect themselves. Seeing things from their perspective would do all of us, human and pet, a great deal of good!
Tip of the week: When your dog is anxious or frightened of something, allow him to increase the distance between himself and that thing, then treat him generously. He’ll soon learn that good things happen when he sees something scary and the unknown will be a little less frightening next time.. Until then, keep those tails a waggin’