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Put a Plan Into Motion for Dealing With Your Dog's Behavior Problems!

by Robin MacFarlane

"Your body changes your mind. Your mind changes your behavior. Your behavior changes your outcome."

That was the take away message from a TED talk I watched recently.

It is a theory I've subscribed to for a quite a long time. Not that I was really implementing the message in the way the presenter, social psychologist Amy Cuddy, was suggesting in her presentation. Her focus was more on personal empowerment and how we can influence it through posture and body movement.

But for many years I've utilized my body to change my mind, which then alters behavior and thus outcome. I'm what you might consider an activity glutton. I'm very aware that I can't sit still for too terrible long without it taking a toll on my psyche. I swim, I hike, I bike and I kayak. They are all my ways of having an outlet for a busy mind and everyday stresses. Safe, yet effective ways to get my head back in the game without subjecting anyone else to an emotional outburst that might accompany too much pent up frustration. My husband is very thankful for my gluttonous ways. He knows full well that it is what keeps the peace in our household.

I've long incorporated this same concept into my work with the dogs. I didn't fully become aware of it until recent years, but once I did, I began to preach that: "motion dissipates stress."

Most of us have heard the mantra that a tired dog is a good dog. We understand that exercise provides an outlet so that dogs aren't as stressed with pent up energy. Adequate exercise solves a LOT of problems with our dogs.

But after listening to the TED talk and subsequent supportive scientific evidence that the body changes the mind, it further convinced me that my insistence on forcing insecure dogs to move and do what seems 'scary' is a big part of why I have a high success rate with fearful, timid, insecure and reactive dogs.

Too often we get caught in up the opinion that stress is a terrible thing and that we should avoid it at all costs. People pick up and carry toy dogs to the detriment of their social development. They keep their insecure dogs home rather than taking them along on a trip because it is 'too stressful", or they stop brushing, nail clipping and bathing their dogs because "they don't like it" and soon have a dog that needs medication just to go to the groomer.

I think it is important to remember that stress isn't bad unless it becomes prolonged and then turns into distress. Then we have a problem because our ability to cope shuts down. Learning how to successfully maneuver through fearful and anxiety producing situations helps us grow, and it helps the dogs too. As we work through those 'scary' situations, they eventually lose the anxiety-producing factor and just become routine parts of our lives. Remember when you first had to drive in high volume traffic?

This is why I force dogs to deal with 'scary' situations. Now bear in mind, I'm talking about things like "my dog is afraid to walk on a tile floor" or "my dog bites the groomer because he is afraid of nail trims" or "my dog lunges as other dogs because he got attacked once". I'm not referring to full blown phobias that have underlying medical issues. Those situations DO exist, but, IMO, not nearly as many dogs have those issues as people would like to think. We've become a society that applies more diligence and effort looking for excuses than we are willing to expend actually solving the problems.

So I use the word "force" cautiously in hopes it is not interpreted as brute strength or physical brutality. There is coercion involved, though, and I'm not concerned about standing on that conviction. I raised my children the same way. They learned to swim, to ride a bike without training wheels, and to move independently out into the world through my insistence. It was a gradual process of teaching, insisting and then expecting.

The same holds true in those "behavior problem" dogs I've dealt with. Assuming we've ruled out any underlying physical issues, I go forward in teaching the dogs what I want them to learn and then insist on it in those problematic situations.

How, for instance, might I build confidence in a dog that is nervous walking on a leash past a "scary" thing like a barking dog, or walking through a crowded area with lots of noise?

I start out by teaching what Heel and Place mean in a quiet, non-stress inducing area. Then I use those skills to move the dog through a series of challenges gradually building up to the trigger challenges of the crowded area or past the barking dog.

Dogs that are anxious and fearful of new things generally lack the confidence to explore, so we go to lots of locations and work through silly exercises like heeling on a retaining wall, or learning to place on a park bench. We walk across the swinging bridges on children's playground equipment and place on the objects that the dog doesn't initially believe he can conquer. And just as a child blossoms when they realize they can jump off the diving board, the dogs begin to breath and expand when they realize "I can do this, and the sky did not fall today!"

It is a process of taking the dogs successfully through increasing levels of challenge and difficulty. When we come to the point of facing those trigger issues, the dog has an increased confidence and has learned I've got his back, and just obeying that Heel or Place command is all he needs to do and all will be fine.

These dogs change their body language over time. Their change of body positioning changes their mind, and their change of mind changes the outcome. They become more carefree; they breathe easier. They soften rather than go hard in their stance. For those that used barking & biting what was scary as their way out, they learn to trust and inquire, and it truly is a joyous thing to watch the progression.

Learning to move through stressful situations is what makes our dogs more capable of handling change. If you have a dog that struggles with anxiety, fearfulness and timidity, don't give up on them. I encourage you to give this some thought and see how you can get moving to dissipate the stress.

-- Robin

Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.

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  • Pull-Quote= Too often we get caught up in the thought that stress is a terrible thing and we should avoid it at all costs!

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