If we were to approach a dog’s development with a focus upon creating conditions and situations in which he could succeed, celebration would be the foundation of our collaboration. But we rarely ever do this. Instead, we do something new, change a routine or take the dog to a place he has never been without much thought for his emotional response. We just plunge dogs into the unfamiliar “new deal” then become confused by and maybe even complain about or punish their resistance.
We would probably all say that we want the dog we are partnered with to be happy, outgoing and confident yet we seldom think about how we can help him develop those qualities. For dogs who live inside homes where little changes, abrupt variation in habits and conventions can be very stressful. Our reason for the change, no matter how good or justified, ultimately makes no difference to the dog.
Without creating any incremental steps, we restrain a dog’s struggling body while we force his mouth open and begin to scrub his teeth with a brush. Suddenly one day, we encircle his neck with a collar and tie him to the end of our arm then drag him about as he resists the new experience. Before he has been anywhere except the vet’s office and Grandma’s house, we take him to a loud and crowded event. After years of sleeping in our bed we abruptly decide to change the arrangement and close him in the downstairs bathroom.
A dog’s reaction to new situations and settings can often be determined by how he is introduced to them. The way a dog responds to the first experience is a good indicator of his continued response. Long before fear and avoidance become habitual patterns, conditions for success can usually be created.
It isn’t difficult to plan a supportive and empowering introduction to a new deal. Positive emotional connections often result from gradual introductions to changing circumstances, novel events and new people. Break the whole down into brief episodes of exposure and stop while the dog still appears confident and happy. Associate each step with great fun and excitement. Celebrate with food and/or play. As positive episodes build, success becomes more likely and stress and failure less likely. The dog feels safe and develops an expectation that good things will happen in this circumstance, rather than a fear that bad things will.
These “new-deal” introductions can become some of the most transformative interactions that we can have with a dog. They provide us with opportunities to focus our full attention on his living reality. By watching the ways he expresses his emotional state we automatically become better guardians of it. We get in the habit of consciously intending to create conditions in which the dog can experience success. This brings our expectations in line with the conditions in which success can actually be achieved. And that’s a radical departure from the unconscious way that we usually operate. We expect and the dog simply must – however he can and no matter what he thinks or feels.