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How Does Your Dog Cope With The World?

Sally Gutteridge
Last night I had a cripplingly strong emotional reaction and afterwards it got me thinking about dogs and how they experience triggers. Here, I’m sharing it with you.

I lost my Dad recently. It happened in ICU and was a traumatic experience resulting in some serious flashbacks. Day by day I have felt better, coped better and are getting used to the idea but yesterday something happened that took me right back. The TV was on and showed someone in a hospital bed. My emotional reaction was to get away from it as soon as possible. I literally wanted to run from the room. It took about 20 minutes to stop crying, it was that strong. After the tears stopped, I returned to thinking about dogs.

We talk about triggers, trigger stacking and associations when we look at how our dogs react. They might launch forward at an approaching car or bark if they hear a noisy child. We know all this happens, we even know how to keep them calm and why we should. Yet we often fail to acknowledge the huge emotional reaction which happens when a trigger is encountered that is linked to serious, strong emotion.

Grief isn’t yet proven in dogs. It’s highly likely that they feel it; as the intense emotional animals they are. Maybe they understand and accept death in a different way to us, we don’t know. Fear though, that’s a strong primary emotion which everyone experiences. Fear is based on living or dying. Fright is a precursor of fight or flight – it’s serious and when it’s experienced there’s no room for anything else in the body or mind. When our dogs see, smell or hear a trigger for the emotion of fear – they are truly vulnerable.

I know at the moment to steer clear of the awful Covid 19 news which involves the horror of showing vulnerable people in their hospital beds (it’s a really cruel thing to do to people regardless - leave them alone). I now know that’s a trigger for me and I can avoid it. I’m also quite a resilient person.

Our dogs can’t avoid their triggers a lot of the time. Whether it’s a screaming kid on a trampoline in the garden next to theirs or another dog on a walk after a bad and scary experience, our dogs have to face their triggers over and over again. The lack of control many dogs have in their own lives means that can they go through strong, crippling emotion many times a day.

This is exactly why we can’t just expect them to get on with it. We can’t assume that their behaviour is just behaviour and discard the emotion behind it. We must protect them from triggered reactions and simultaneously grow their resilience. We must show empathy and awareness that behaviour is showing us the emotional state of our dog, even when it’s defensive – it’s still fear. So I urge you, if you are just struggling on with a dog who reacts, if you’re are avoiding as much as possible to prevent reactivity, add another step to this and teach your dog to be resilient and cope.

Grow their self-belief and confidence, give them problems to solve that are just within their ability. Find their coping threshold (the bit between coping and not coping) then help them to raise it gradually. You might never be able to avoid triggers, but you can help your dog to be more resilient to them. And with the Covid 19 lockdown there’s no better time to start than now.  

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