A beautiful baritone belts out the Star-Spangled Banner over the loud speaker at the dog show. As the song builds, a Weimaraner starts to pull and spin, trying to flee from the sound that frightens him. His handler bends over, patting him rapidly and non-stop, trying hard to help calm him.
It doesn’t and can’t work because her hands are synched up to his emotional state. He is frightened and she is patting him as if she is frightened, too – in fast, short pats.
We all tend to synch up with the ones we love. We see a friend beaming and we beam, anticipating their joy. We see a friend frowning and we slow down to match their emotion, asking with concern what is wrong.
In order to help frightened dogs, we need to be calmer so they can synch up with us. Getting anxious with the dog is like trying to save someone in a well by jumping in with them. That is not nearly as helpful as lowering a ladder so they can climb out to be with you.
If I were her coach, I would encourage her to stop for a moment, take a deep breath and relax her body. Then to direct her dog to a known behavior, such a sit, and reward with long, slow, firm strokes down the length of his body. This sort of touch replicates – as much as petting can – the deep steady contact recommended first, to my knowledge, by Linda Tellington-Jones and then by Temple Grandin and so well created by the snug Thundershirt.
So next time you catch yourself synching up with your dog’s anxiety/confusion/upset remember: Act the way you want your dog to act and you’ll be helping your dog out of their unhappy state, toward a better way to coping.
If you have questions about how to implement this idea with your dog, I can coach you by phone or skype. I am always available to help.