All animals, including our dogs, move through phases of habituation, adapting to their environments. With limited life experience, everything is new to puppies. When we adopt rescue dogs, they, too, must become habituated. Many rescue dogs in the suburbs and cities travel from rural areas. Talk about environmental adjustment! Lots of people and noise. All manner of vehicles from every direction. Landscaping and construction equipment. So much activity. So many new places. And so little prior exposure.
Expecting our puppies and rescue dogs to quickly accept elements and stimuli that we learned to filter out as safe is a tall order. Best practice for training and supporting your dog through this process moves slowly and with deliberation. Yes, like most of life’s wins – you need a plan.
There is no substitute for keen observation. Our dogs ALWAYS tell us – one way or another – how they are feeling about the environment. Do not mistake over arousal for excited and happy. Excited, yes. Happy? More likely overwhelmed and craving information and direction from us. How can we set up to lower stress and help our friends respond calmly?
When you observe that your dog is struggling to make eye contact with you, it is time to make an adjustment. Change up your location, move closer to him, make a noise to interrupt and elicit attention. There are certainly overt fear behaviors, such as balking and backing away, lowering body posture, and freezing. Never force your dog into a situation when he is telling you he is frightened.
Reducing stress in the animal and maintaining a threshold level of mindfulness is critical to learning. Over exposure can backfire and is widely viewed as inhumane among professionals committed to using only positive reinforcement methods.
As loving guardians and benevolent leaders, it is our responsibility to build a solid connection with our doggy friends. What does this mean? Through repeated, shared, and cooperative experiences, our dogs trust us and look to us for guidance. From the beginning, there emerges a pattern of clear communication and an understanding (and appreciation!) of our dog’s behaviors. We use positive reinforcement tools and techniques to teach and guide into harmony with our human lifestyle. There is mutual benefit for dog and guardian.
Especially in the presence of disturbing elements, we want our dogs to expect us to intervene. Their behaviors reflect a “safety first” mindset. Our interactions must ultimately reassure.
As a connected and cooperative effort, the complex process of habituation is less stressful for humans and dogs. Less stress is always the best path for progress!
Redirect and Reinforce
To shrink worrisome stimuli that might loom large in the dog’s perception, there must be a redirection provided from his guardian. The behavior asked for or offered must be reinforced to set up repetition. Thankfully, there are many protocols and techniques to de-sensitize, counter condition, and provide alternative mental occupation. These enable the inexperienced dog to reassess the situation, habituate, and learn to cope.
A dog living in fight/flight mode is not a healthy, contented state. Teaching our dogs skills to navigate life with all its elements, includes a meaningful reward (reinforcement) schedule. Harnessing cognition moves the dog out of her fear place and towards a solid and lasting ability to enjoy life more fully.
We dog lovers want to share activities and outings with our furry friends. They add so much fun and joy to everything!