A dog is not looking at the world and thinking about other things. They are not thinking about the agility trial next weekend, or training in the yard later. They are not thinking about the view, or how nice the weather is or how great it is to get out and stretch their legs.
They are thinking about what they smell, what they hear and what they see. If they were swimming, they might be thinking about what they feel and what they taste as well. Change of any kind is the stimulus. A new smell, even in the “parts per million” range and maybe lower for some breeds, a sound they hear and you may not, or movement somewhere in their 270 degree vision, which you don’t see. Our minds wander while we walk, but theirs stay attentive to the world, looking out for whatever stimulates them. Many times, no matter how much we try, we won’t see, smell, or hear anything.
Paying attention to your dog though will most certainly prepare you for what is coming next. Where they are looking is where you should be looking. When their focus changes suddenly and the type of reaction they have tells you everything you need to know about the new stimulus. My reaction and my behavior begins there; before I see hear or smell what it is. I am prepared by knowledge and experience as to what these reactions mean. I already know if the stimulus presents happiness, excitement, danger, anxiety, fear, or some form of stress. Everything they do from the stimulus onward tells you, and prepares you for early detection and intervention of what might come next. This is the key to the future.
Often the stimulus is not known when they detect it. Their next task is to determine what it is. If you are prepared, this is where your early detection and cognitive abilities allow you to step ahead of the situation so you can guide and shape the outcome. In my attempt to be a good guardian, I always prefer to be in control of the outcome of any new situation, especially with young dogs forming their future behavior. I am also very acutely aware of how sudden and extreme circumstances can imprint and alter all future reactions to similar and even dissimilar events and circumstances; however real the stress is to us as owners. As their guardian, I am always training them to handle the world in a way I see as appropriate and beneficial to them.
Any situation can be a training situation. It can be teaching them the correct response so they will offer it in the future. Your response might be as simple as a gentle tug on the leash, or what happens to me a lot; a look from them at me and immediate eye contact from me, for them to be reassured that I am aware and that the ball is in my court. My response determines what they do next. Many situations are simply people walking by, or people working in their yard and are nothing really to get excited about. My dogs often seek my permission to go for a visit and if we make eye contact and I don’t slow down, they turn forward and move on. If I slow and stop, it may mean they have permission to go on their own to investigate. That is what I love about my dogs, we understand each other and that is something that gets better as time passes, because we are always working on it.
Your quick observation of their sudden change in behavior can also mean a preventative response is required, which requires you to intervene and capture their attention and focus. Or maybe your response is to protect them from danger, blocking, picking up, etc. This will depend entirely on the intensity of their response and the actual circumstances that exist.
Before their response is out of hand or inappropriate, you often have the ability to take control and change their focus and potentially calm them prior to what might be overly exciting, or fearful. Simplifying and controlling the conditions of the situation might mean acting calmly as your response and letting them also act calmly. You might have treats and ask for very controlled behavior like sits and downs in order for them to receive rewards and learn to ignore the other situation that was presented. If you clicker train, then this is where you might be clicking and treating. As you progress, by whichever positive method you choose, you are able to handle a much broader set of conditions and circumstances. Shaping appropriate behavior and desensitization to the world at hand, controlling focus and attention and their response, all as a result of observing your dog.
At the very least, if it is a dangerous situation with the potential for causing irreparable harm to your dog and what you want them to become (such as a confident dog who can handle stress?), your are prepared to defend your space, prior to any interaction. This might mean blocking them and holding their focus and while also intervening with another dog, animal, or person. I have had to protect my dogs and I from all of them, and I do not want any these circumstances altering the success of what I want my dogs to become. Being prepared to pick up your dogs if necessary. A word of caution, however, many little dogs use this intentionally and the subsequent owners response to defend them is often inappropriate and neither benefit from dog owners doing this in all circumstances – training rather than avoidance that is much better, but more on that another time. Either way, picking them up to defend your dog may be required in some circumstances. I do not ever want to see a fight, or harm come to my dogs from an atrack on them and I am prepared to do what is necessary to prevent it.
My repeating theme! Observe and know your dog. Because I have bully breeds and a rescue dog, I have to be more careful than most. The perception for the cause of all issues I face in the eyes of those around me, is My Dogs are the cause, because of how they look, regardless of which dog is truly exhibiting rude bully behavior. It is the persecution we live with, but their behavior is always my responsibility.
The correct path to choose in any circumstance can be determined earliest by being aware of your environment and observing and knowing your dog. Taking care of the obvious stuff, by paying attention and knowing where you are and what risks might be present is so important as well. Knowing how your dog responds to other dogs, people, cars, bikes, cats, animals, etc. will allow you train them from further away and with increased excitement and intensity in your world. One day you will have the perfect dog, one you can trust to behave the way you want them to.
Not knowing and not paying attention to what they are up to leaves you surprised, anxious and afraid of your environment and unable cope when unexpected things occur. This is not a good thing for either you or your dog. Your anxious and fearful response, or simply your surprised reaction will alert your dog to a danger, whether it exists or not. Since every controlled outcome must start with some self control, starting excited and out of control is not what you want. Their response will become one of fear and possibly quickly too. And they will immediately begin a fight or flight response; elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure are immediate. Dog’s are experts in behavior. Surprise, anxiety and fear change your behavior instantly and this includes your scent, the most powerful of indicators to a dog. Rather than a calm and appropriate response; you now have a fearful or defensive response, or maybe even an attack response, Fight or flight! And all because of an inappropriate initial response. Simple awareness; attention and focus are required wherever they may walk or play.
Responding to the environment and your dog’s behavior calmly, or with determine purpose shows your dog that you are in charge and can handle the situation. Confidence and trust in you allow them to respond more calmly and to determine future actions from a better frame of mind looking to you for leadership. This is especially useful when you find yourself in difficult and stressful situations, which might quickly escalate out of control. Walking in bear country is a good example of where this is true in the extreme, but it truly does exist in many more common places, like walking along busy city streets.
Another important way that this becomes a factor is from a trait I truly observe in people. Fear responses always take you closer to what you are trying to avoid. This is true of both you and your dog. If they know what you expect of them and with your guidance, they will succeed at getting though most situations without anxiety and fear. They will respond how you expect them to respond. Your being calm and in control, or even determined in nature, but not fearful allows them to be the same if they have the skills and experience to do so.
This type of responsibility; your attention and focus on their behavior and specifically on their attention and focus applies every where you go. From walking down the street, on a path, or in a park, playing in the yard, at a school, or at the park., or going to competitions, shows and events. It is a full time responsibility as their guardian. Knowing your dog and how they behave once again is the best path to raising the best dog ever. Your Dog!
In the end, your attention and focus do matter as much as theirs. Please always remember: The outcome of all circumstances is your responsibility. We are people! They are Dogs!