I am always saddened when I hear good owners say how they feel that it is only other people who have a ‘way with dogs’, particularly when their dogs always appear to behave so much better with other people, standing still and unmoving with those professionals who spend a lot of time working with many different dogs. However, the truth is that the “perfect behaviour” is more about their own dog’s intelligence and has very little to do with any ‘gift’ the professional may have.
The reasons for the dog’s good behaviour are involved but easy to appreciate when we understand that what we are witnessing has its root in the natural instincts of all dogs; instincts designed to ensure that the dog stays alive at all costs. Consequently, when a dog is faced with a new situation or pack (family, surgery, grooming parlour etc.) that it has little or no knowledge of, exposure to that unfamiliar situation results in natural instincts taking over and this dictates the actions, or lack of them, that a canine will present. In the natural environment dogs just do not socialise with other packs, they virtually stay only with their own family group for their entire lives. Unfamiliar encounters in the natural environment can often be lethal and therefore the dog has to treat any such event as a threat and avoid doing anything that could result in an escalation of the situation. The dog will therefore, stay quite still, even appearing robotic, in the hope that it will avoid making any move or gesture that could cause an attack from the strange and obviously established incumbent.
Even though we have removed the dog from the natural world that developed it, the world that dictated its design, most instinctive behaviours will be still clearly be seen whenever there is a situation the dog perceives as “dangerous”, i.e. being presented with strange smells, surroundings and people.
No dog ever thinks in terms of the future and will only think of the present, it will not know that the exposure to strange smells, surroundings, and beings is only temporary and will soon be over; it just knows that it has to do whatever it can to stay safe right now and very often that involves just keeping its head down and not antagonising anyone-perfect behaviour!
We can appreciate this reaction and the desire to keep a low profile when we think of how we felt when starting a new school or a new job; in unfamiliar surroundings we take things slowly, trying to avoid giving the established ones any reason to reject or rebuff us.
Awareness of what this reaction demonstrates means this means that those people who do come into the life of a dog for a brief time, vets, groomers and the like, can simply be calm and respectful, reassuring the dog that there is nothing for the dog to fear. This is not best done by going out of their way to ‘make friends’, sooth, cuddle, squeeze or even stroke the dog but by quietly and calmly getting on with their job; avoiding any overt and unnecessary attention. If a dog feels that it isn’t attracting too much attention, from someone it is wary of in the first place, will make the dog feel safer and enable it to relax much faster.
Handling the situation in this manner, (getting it over with involving as little fuss as possible) will enable the dog to make a good association with the process over time and make it even less anxious when presented with future repeats.
The loving owner can also be content that they are making the essential trip as stress-free as is possible. A calm and relaxed owner is also going to be the very best way of ensuring that the professional will be able to do their job as thoroughly and quickly as possible because; when your dog senses calm in you and trusts your reactions, it will have far less reason to feel anxious.
Understanding certain reactions from our dogs and their causes helps us enormously with dealing with them. Our knowledge takes away our anxiety and enables us to act in a calm and understanding manner whenever we have to take our dogs into unfamiliar situations. Any dog will pick up on your relaxed feelings and be further reassured by them. Once you have mastered that unconcerned manner, understand what your dog is thinking and learn not to make anything of these strange encounters; it’s more than likely people will soon start to assume that you have a “gift” for working with animals.
Jan Fennell 24th October 2014