What do you think of when you hear the phrase “a stay at home dog”? In most cases this means a dog that spends most of its time at home being alone because their owners are so busy that they’re not home most of the day. But in this blog I want to talk about a different kind of “stay at home dog”……..
There’s nothing better than walking down a trail on a beautiful sunny day and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature. It’s even better to do that with your canine companion. You both get to enjoy a warm day while benefiting from some exercise too! But what if you have a stay at home dog? More on what that means in a minute…
I use to take my Midnight (a female chihuahua/pomeranian mix) for walks in South Park and some other parks near me as well. (And the dog park too, but don’t even get me started on my issues with dog parks, that’s a whole other blog that I need to write!) The more I started to get into dog training I quickly realized that she wasn’t enjoying the experience at all. Early on while researching about dog body language I began to see Midnight exhibiting body language that reflected mild anxiety during our walks in the park. (See my body language blog http://wp.me/p5KUql-n ) Sure my dog loves to walk, we do it a lot around the streets where I live. But the completely new environment of an area that she wasn’t use to elicited some anxiety problems for her. It’s like all the stimuli from the environment was coming at her at once, a lot of it and on every sensory system of her body. Something called “flooding” in the dog training community.
Ask any dog trainer how they got into this business and many of them will tell you it started for them with a dog they had that had fear or aggression issues or some other type of behavioral problem. Midnight came to me with some fear issues. She was a few months old when I got her and later I could not isolate what the root causes of her behavioral issues were as I didn’t have any background info on her at all.
I wish I had back then the amount of knowledge on dog training that I have now (even though I know I still have a lot to learn!). It’s always most efficient to apply behavior modification the younger a dog is. However, if a dog has a genetic predisposition towards fear behaviors, an early traumatic experience or a poor socialization period, then it may be inefficient at any age. Doesn’t mean that you can’t make progress and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, because you certainly can. But the more conditioned a dog is at exhibiting a certain behavior, the more challenging it will be to modify it. And perhaps impossible if there’s any of the aforementioned conditions (genetic, early trauma and lack of early socialization). As my Midnight quickly approaches her senior years, it really comes down to managing the situations rather than an extensive behavior mod program.
Not that I haven’t worked on a lot of her fear issues. She has come a long way and I’ve even managed to eliminate a few of her fears. (Hmmm, I ponder if any behavior can truly be eliminated? Perhaps very well suppressed may be more accurate instead?)
Of course if it’s a completely new type of stimulus that your introducing to your dog’s environment for the first time ever and you think that your dog may have issues with it, you can very slowly and gradually a little bit at a time introduce the new stimulus.
Let’s say for example you want to introduce your dog to a vacuum cleaner. Rather than just turning it on in front of them and saying “Here it is, get use to it!” instead, you might start off with the vacuum in the corner of the room (turned off). Eventually, you will put it in the middle of the room. And as long as your dog is not exhibiting any anxieties or fears from it, you can place a couple treats on it too. The next step would involve you moving the vacuum around (with it still turned off). And again, slowly go from a good distance to closer and closer to your dog. Anytime you introduce a new criteria, you need to reset the others. So when you turn the vacuum on in the next step, do so from a room that your dog isn’t in. Then you can bring the vacuum in the opposite side of the same room your dog is in and turn it on briefly and slowly decrease the space. Then when you goto adding movement with the vacuum turned on, you will start at a distance and then slowly close the gap. The amount of time the whole process takes depends on how your dog handles the new stimulus. If at anytime your dog becomes scared during the process you should take a break for the day and when you resume, go back to the point where your dog was ok and proceed much slower.
I always stress the importance of working on one sensory system at a time when introducing your dog to new potentially scary things.
Case in point, I very recently fell back in love with playing music. I played the piano years ago but slowly lost interest. My new passion is playing the cello. I even started taking lessons! If I’m not playing with my dog then I’m playing with my cello. Because she has some noise phobias, I was worried I would have to begin a slow desensitization program with Midnight to get her use to seeing and hearing a cello. (Again, let’s consider all sensory systems, in this case I would also include tactile [touch] as you can certainly feel the vibrations from a cello, especially on the lowest C string). The sound vibrations travel down through the endpin and will be absorbed into the floor and depending on the layout of the room you may actually feel the music!
Fortunately, I found out very quickly that she showed no interest at all when I got out and played my cello. (Oh geez, he’s getting that thing out again!) In fact, she often just jumps up on my bed and falls asleep while I play! (Oh, come on Midnight am I really that bad!?)
It’s interesting when I think back to when I first got her and those first several years when I didn’t have a clue about anything in dog training. There are so many things that I would’ve changed. Who knows however if she would’ve even turned out different today? If it’s genetic, I possibly could’ve made a little more progress but maybe not.
So getting back to a “stay at home dog”. It means just that! My dog is much more content staying in her own yard playing a game of fetch with me rather than being taken to an alien environment and having her sensory system on overload. She does however loves car rides and we still take short trips pretty often. Sometimes just for a quick ride around the block!
The point I’d like to drive home here is to consider your dog’s needs before your own. YOU may like the idea of going for a walk in a park with your dog and in most cases your dog will too, but if you have a sensitive dog who is uncomfortable in new environments then your best bet is to do an activity together that you BOTH can enjoy and in a comfortable environment (which for the sensitive dog is usually at home). Seek help from a professional dog trainer to work on alleviating your dog’s anxiety issues. Until your dog’s behavior has been modified, then just consider that you may have a stay at home dog.