Let me tell you a little story…
Our foster dog, Baby Hippo, a 5yr old, 80Ib Pit Bull that we’ve had in our home for about a year now, originally picked up as a stray, followed by entering the South L.A shelter system, is a complicated and emotional guy!
He’s had a hell of a year bless him… suffering from kennel cough, ear infections, skin disease, allergies and visits with a myriad of vets in an attempt to address his medical challenges. Luckily, his health is in pretty good standing for now, but he is also highly sensitive to noise - particularly fireworks, to other dogs, traffic and working on his ability to manage and regulate his emotions has been a very big project to say the least.
In explaining of all this though I mustn’t forget to mention his very endearing love of cuddles, his remarkable tolerance for so many things and how far he’s come with understanding our expectations of him within our daily routines.
Why is all this background important?
Well, just like us, dogs can have a lot going on emotionally – things that raise their stress levels, make them anxious or worried, excite them… things that give them a sore head or tummy, even things that trigger traumatic memories and all of which may send their nervous systems into disarray, either in a single moment or chronically over time. We just don’t necessarily know any of this because they’re not able to verbalize it to us like we would as humans.
I think of how moody or unfocused I can be when I have an itchy rash, sore back, when I’m really tired, or when I’ve had a bad day, and how much better I feel when my partner gives me a hug or responds compassionately, vs how much worse it would feel if he started yelling at me. You see how we behave is the final expression, or output if you will, of how our bodies are reacting internally to an event or stimulus, and the emotional consequence of that behavior (i.e. either getting the hug or being yelled at) will affect future emotions and behavior within that context.
Phew… let’s process that for a moment…
This is where our logic with animals slips away a little bit. Now, obviously I’m not saying that anything goes and that boundaries for certain types of behavior aren’t important in our relationships with both humans and dogs. I also know from personal experience that finding patience with some behaviors can be VERY difficult at times, BUT that idea of ‘compassion’ can go a long way.
So now onto the point…
Baby Hippo was given couch privileges several months ago, but he is still is not allowed on the beds. This is simply because he is easily over-stimulated and we don’t want him using them as a trampoline. Now, every now and then however he will make a mistake and we have to let him know that we would like him on the ground or on his bed instead.
(Side Note: If his jumping on the beds were a highly problematic and regular occurrence, then we would have to restrict his access to the bedrooms, but we won't get into that now. Do however take a look at my blog on 'Rehearsal' for more on this subject.)
So here’s HOW we communicate that information however that can either improve or worsen the situation:
1. Understanding the motivation behind the behavior:
I realized that I was sitting on the side of the bed chatting to my boyfriend who was sitting on a chair right in front of me. Baby Hippo jumps up onto the bed next to me and leans into both myself and my boyfriend. It’s likely that he just wanted to be involved in the interaction and at the same height as us, not that he was just feeling naughty!
2. Taming the reactionary ‘NO’ response:
Yep, you guessed it, this didn’t happen. After a moment or two, the boyfriend (no judgement!) raises his voice to correct the behavior. Now what came next is important... Baby Hippo’s body becomes low and tense, his ears go back, his eyes get wide… all signs of stress in response to being told off, the further effect of which caused him to freeze up and not want to move (or consequently get off the bed!) So, we take it down a notch and quietly and calmly GUIDE him off our bed and onto his.
3. Reinforcing the better choice:
Here’s where we can forget to tell the dog that the behavior of being on his bed rather than ours is preferrable, but in doing so, he learns that this is what we want.
4. Identifying additional stress and ‘appeasement’:
So now Baby Hippo gets the ‘I’m sorrys’, walks up to my boyfriend, paws up and stretches his front legs up against his body. He’s still annoyed and so I’m watching those Hippo stress signals start to escalate again to a bounce in the back end and attempts to lick his face. I advise him to tell Baby Hippo it’s ok, to reassure him with touch and guide him into lowering his feet to the ground, which he does and the stress signals begin to dissipate.
What all of that ALMOST became as a result of improper communication and the human energy being the opposite of the energy that we wanted in return from the dog, was more intense jumping, the perception of the dog ‘not listening’, maybe a zoomie (80Ibs of running on wood floors, not ideal!) and probably the undesirable ‘bed IS a trampoline’ result.
While we want our dogs to understand the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, the intensity of our response often causes MORE of the ‘wrong’ and less of the ‘right’ due to the effects of stress. And in turn, a cycle of incorrect conclusions about the dog. Whereas ‘compassion’, understanding and remaining CALM often improves the line of communication and therefore the opportunity for learning. Also knowing YOUR dog’s individual signals, patterns and sensibility opens a huge window to these solutions, making for a more harmonious household in the long-term.
Have a think about these steps the next time your Hippo misbehaves! 😉