Can Dogs Feel What We are Feeling?

 

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

It’s called emotional contagion. The idea is that dogs perceive our emotions and then experience an emotional response themselves. Affective empathy takes it a bit further. Dogs can actually feel our emotional experiences. (Karen London PhD, Bark Magazine). It turns out that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest both of these ideas are true. (Google “emotional contagion dogs.” Use google scholar for more in-depth results).

Of course, a lot of us have suspected this for a long time. Many of us routinely experience it. Dogs just get us. They have feelings with us. They are little mirrors into our emotional lives. It’s an amazing thing to witness as a dog behavior consultant. I meet a ton of people and their dogs every year. Sometimes it’s very clear to me that a dog who is suffering emotionally lives with a human who is also suffering. It’s heartbreaking sometimes. It’s also awe inspiring to see such a powerful bond playing out in real time right in front of me.

Folks ask all the time, “is he (the dog) feeding off my anxiety.” Well, maybe. We certainly know our feelings show up in our dogs’ emotional lives. But, the answer, in my opinion, is not to blame ourselves. Too many trainers do that, as if our anxiety is some form of mystical “energy” that we control. Instead, I think we should all make space to compassionately look at the big picture. How is my dog doing? How am I doing? For me this means regular counseling so I can develop and maintain my own emotional and behavioral flexibility. You probably know how passionate I am about our dogs’ behavioral flexibility. The Magazine Psychology Today has a great online resource for finding a therapist that is right for you. Staying emotionally and behaviorally flexible is good for all of us (like yoga for our feelings).

Does this mean we all have to be in therapy? Um, maybe. Does it mean we all have to have our lives in perfect order before we can have a dog or help the dog we already have? No, of course not. In fact, many dogs have emotional and behavioral problems completely separate from our own human issues. The research suggests that our dogs can experience our feeling. It does not say that every dog’s behavior issue (including fear and aggression) is somehow tied to our own disfunction. It’s not. By far most of the clients I meet are joy-filled and highly functioning. And, some of them have grumpy dogs. Remember? No blame.

What does all of this mean for those of us who have dogs with fear, anxiety, or aggressive behavior? We all like some concise tips and I’m happy to add some information to the mix.

Think well of your dog. The things we tell ourselves about our dog are important. Instead of getting stuck in negative thoughts and frustration, let’s remind ourselves of all that is good about our dog. It will help our training. It will also set us up to notice progress as it comes. How we think about our dog is so important. That’s why I list it first.

Choose joy. It’s not always easy but I think it always helps. When we are training let’s make a decision to smile, say kind things to our dogs, and use food. Even though our bigger behavior goals with our dog might be challenging, individual training session can be light and fun.

Take breaks. If you’re feeling tense or angry during a training session, stop. Take a break.  It’s okay. Your dog will definitely sense that tension and anger and it will affect their learning. Take a long break if you need to. We’ve all been there. No blame. Just circle back later.

Let me help. That’s what our journal is for. I’m not qualified to offer human therapy. At the same time I am a fellow human being. I can definitely help us keep things on track with training and offer coaching along the way. Complicated behavior plans related to fear and aggression can sometime feel overwhelming and isolating. Of course, you’re not alone. And, it’s my job to clarify what seems complicated and ease frustration along the way.

One last story. I’ll keep it brief. I learned a long time ago why I gravitated toward helping fearful and sometimes angry dogs. It’s because it helped me. Some of you have heard me joke aloud with your dog, “I get it honey, people scare me too.” Like all jokes there was some truth in that. So, we break things down for our dog; we set them up to succeed; we let them take on new experiences at their own pace; we provide support and feedback to help them. All that feels very familiar to me personally. In time, almost always, feelings start to change little-by-little. In them. In us. What a joy it is to see that happening. What a beautiful lesson it is to experience through our dogs.

Change. It’s the stuff of life. Human emotions reflected in our beloved dogs. The hard work that softens them, that softens us, a team in transition together. It’s amazing how our feelings affect our dogs. But, oh how our dogs affect our feelings. It’s a gift for which I am ever so grateful.

 

Michael Baugh is a behavior consultant and dog trainer in Houston, TX. He works with clients all over North America and specializes in aggressive dog training.

More Than Just Dog Training

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

Training is important. I’m a dog trainer. It should come as no surprise that I’m a proponent of training your dog. We can use positive reinforcement training to change your dog’s behavior. The process is straightforward and really effective.

But, there is more to a good behavior change plan than just training. We need to take our dog’s wellbeing and lifestyle into account, all of it. Everything matters.

What’s going on inside? We all know what it’s like when we don’t feel well. It affects our emotions. It can even make us grumpy. This is why it’s so important to have a vet thoroughly check out our dog before we begin a training plan. I’ve actually resolved lots of cases by referring clients back to their vet. Smart veterinarians can diagnose and treat underlying illness, pain, or discomfort. Ask your vet to go looking for trouble. A dog who feels good will behave better. It’s really that simple.

Can our dog just be a dog? Our dogs need to do what dogs do. Dogs are built to seek, sniff, and forage. They are uniquely designed to chase and grab and tear stuff up. Lot’s of dogs get in trouble because they are trying to fulfill these needs on their own. Many get frustrated when they can’t. The good news is we can give our dogs safe opportunities to do these natural behaviors without any trouble. There are great interactive toys and food-delivery games available. Make time for appropriate play with humans. Think tug or retrieve. Dogs with good social skills should have small playgroups with other dogs. Avoid dog parks of giant daycare mosh pits. In short, let dogs be who they are. Dogs.

What about sniffing? Walks are fine. But, sniff adventures are even better. Let’s get our dog out on some rural trails. Urban parks are okay, too. The idea is to let our dog lead the way and sniff to his heart’s content. This might be the best example of letting our dog be a dog. Sniffing is so important for dogs. Follow this link to read more about what trainers are calling decompression walks for dogs.

Does our dog have time to relax and sleep? I think we forget about this one. With all the training, mental enrichment, and exercise we are adding to help our dogs, we forget the importance of down time. Dogs sleep 12-14 hours a day, sometimes longer. Sleep helps solidify learning. A lack of sleep can lead to irritability and hair-trigger impulsiveness. Let a sleeping dog lie. More importantly, let’s give our dog time and safe quiet spaces to relax and sleep.

In some cases, satisfying our dogs basic physical and mental needs can alleviate behavior issues altogether. In every case, though, it is an essential part of our overall plan. We have to look at the whole dog and the wholeness of his daily life. Training is part of that, a big part. It’s how we open lines of communication and cooperation with our dogs. It’s how we help him learn to navigate life in an unpredictable human world. Now we know how important it is too look carefully at his world, too. What needs aren’t being met? What can we do better? How can we clear a path so that our dog can be more successful, more quickly, more easily? It’s the path that leads to common ground, where everything that we ever hoped for from our dog overlaps with everything he already is.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in aggressive dog training.

Dog Training and Dr. Google

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

I’m tempted to suggest you refrain from seeking dog training advice on the internet altogether. That, however, would make for a very short and unrealistic blog piece. It would also be hypocritical. I search Google for advice and information all the time. It’s the world we live in now.

I do have some advice, though, about how to evaluate the dog training information you find. What do you adopt and put into action? What do you throw out as garbage? All the tips below have one thing in common: consider the source very carefully.

Seek credentialed sources. Generally speaking, individual vet behaviorists and the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists post legitimate information. So do the Veterinary Behavior Technicians. Everything they teach (and post) will be grounded in solid behavior science. The Academy for Dog Trainers and Karen Pryor Academy also post great practical information grounded in science. Articles about peer-reviewed research on behavior and training techniques are definitely  worth of a look. I’ve noticed that this kind of information is most often shared by certified trainers. Look for the CPDT or the CDBC attached to the trainer’s name. None of this alone guarantees every bit of information you find will be gold. But, it does mean you are on the right track.

Confirm with at least two additional sources. Back before the internet, journalist like myself were trained to confirm all information with at least two other trusted and reliable sources. Example: if a politician said something we’d check her claim against official documents or subject matter experts. You can do this with things related to dog training and behavior that you find on the internet. What if I have information about dogs who jump on guests? Maybe you trust me as a certified trainer. Still, look for at least two other credentialed sources to see what they say about it.

Avoid vagueness and mysticism. Sources with nonspecific “certified dog trainer” references should be cast aside. Which certifications are we talking about? Who certified you? Similarly, steer away from information providers who proclaim a propriety method. I use the proven and perfected Billy Bob Method and trained directly under him. Behavior science is a century-long collection of reliable and verifiable data with countless contributors. Mystical guru dog trainer methods are bunk. Give them no credence. Move on from folks who claim their own messiah status. I’ve trained thousands of dogs and dozens of dragons and have never lost a case. Um, okay. Show me your data.

The most valuable dog training information on the internet teaches positive reinforcement training. The research suggesting the benefits of positive reinforcement training is vast and becoming more irrefutable by the day. The risks of using fear and pain in dog training are considerable. That said, there might still be some value in reading the dissenting opinions. Hold them to the standards above and see who presents the best evidence and makes the stronger case.

If you are working with a professional dog trainer, a certified dog behavior consultant, or a veterinary behaviorist, bring what you have found on the internet to us. We have hundreds of hours of education and we can help you quickly sift though what is valuable and what is junk. If we are doing our job right we aren’t going to shame you for trying to help your dog. There is  good information out there. We might just have to wade through some muck to find it. I, for one, am happy to put on my boots and be your guide.

 

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston TX. He specializes in fearful and aggressive dog training.