Resilience is a well-used term that encompasses many things but generally in dog terms means the ability to cope. Taken from the Latin term resili it means the ability to spring back from tension or testing conditions, with little damage. Physical resilience is seen in everything from the elastic band stretched to its limits then returning to its original shape, to the huge suspension bridge able to take the weight of many vehicles yet revert to its original form easily by design.
Emotional and psychological resilience for your dog is defined as the ability to remain flexible in emotional response or behaviour despite pressure from the environment, sometimes through long periods of time. Maintaining a good level of well-being and avoiding distress.
The basis of resilience is adaptivity. Therefore, positive socialisation is so important for puppies, because it builds their ability to adapt based on many different situations throughout their development process. A well socialised puppy that has learned about everything from loud noises to different types of people and animal will have a naturally learned resilience.
All dogs have resilience that they draw on every day. Environmental changes that the dog can cope with are examples of their resilience. For example, my rescue Yorkie will cope with being clipped by me in the home, but after being attacked in the park, she is less resilient outside the home and becomes scared very quickly. She’s resilient in the place she feels safest and less when in a scary place. Her resilience is individual to her, and this is the same with all dogs (and people).
Another example is our most reactive dog, he’s extremely sound sensitive and will bark at every trigger, in fact everything. However, he arrived with us after being picked up on the streets and is very easy to handle physically. He is resilient with touch – probably because he was handed around as a puppy – but he’s not resilient around sounds.
Some have much more resilience than others and your own dog’s behaviour will be undoubtedly based on his ability to cope, on his ability to stay strong and calm in his current environment.
Imagine a small rowing boat on the side of a lake. There are rocks around the edge of the lake and the water is high. A storm comes and tosses the boat around but because the water is high, the boat doesn’t hit the rocks and when the storm fades, the boat is intact.
Now imagine the water is low and the rocks are visible in many places on the surface of the lake – when the storm comes, the boat is likely to be bashed off the rocks and broken in many places.
If we assume that the water is resilience, the boat is our dog and the storm and rocks are his life’s stressors, we can see how the resilience level will either help the dog through the storm - or allow for damage to the dog’s emotional and psychological health.
If we rise the water level to as high as it can possibly be, the storm may not even toss the boat around at all. If we raise our dog’s resilience to as high a level as it can possibly be, we empower them to live in this world which they currently cannot cope so well with.
Resilience has been studied for some time by psychologists and doctor considering human health and well-being. Whilst few studies have taken place on the resilience of dogs, we can still learn from studies on the topic and in many ways use them to better understand how to help the worried dog.