Your Dog: Dumb, Defiant, or Stressed?

Posted on September 28th, 2012 by FetchMasters in Behavior Modification

Nobody promised me a rose garden, but sometimes I wish someone would have. Life has been stressful lately: teenager issues, running a business, multiple projects with tight deadlines, financial obligations — you know, the same junk you deal with. But when life is stressful, I put on a happy face, work hard and try not to burden others with it.

However, my wife knows me well enough to tell when I am stressed, and she admonishes me to lighten my load, breathe and stop driving like a moron. But you probably won’t know I am stressed unless I reveal it to you because I am clever and have a vested interest (which I like to call professionalism) in keeping myself to myself.

Dogs, however, are more honest than I am. They have no interest in being professional.

They openly reveal their stress to you hoping you will figure out something is wrong, they are confused or something is frightening them.

Recently I was working with a client on teaching their Doberman Pinscher to wait patiently for permission to walk through the door. While the dog had a reasonably competent sit-stay, he had become quite accustomed to bolting through the doorway as soon as it began to open. Simply requiring the dog to sit-stay (and closing the door if he popped up) caused the dog stress.

After the door was closed a couple times, the dog began refusing to sit at the door on command. The owners thought he was being stubborn. But closer observation of the dog’s body language indicated he was confused and stressed and was freezing instead of sitting. By breaking the exercise into smaller components and keeping the tone of the commands upbeat, the Dobie finally started enjoying exhibiting some impulse control.

I have occasionally had clients call me a “dog whisperer,” usually after I have a lucky break and make a nice spurt of progress with a dog. They mean it as a compliment and typically don’t realize how poorly Caesar is viewed in the positive dog training community. I usually just thank them and explain I am more of a dog watcher than a whisperer.

You can be a watcher too. When training your dog or trying to correct an unwanted behavior, watch for signs of stress. Most of the following behaviors could have other causes, but when they exist in combination, or when considered in context with the environment and current goings-on, these behaviors could indicate your dog is stressed.

  • Freezing
  • Holding breath
  • Stiff or quivering limbs
  • Refusing to eat or take treats
  • Wide-mounted panting
  • Drooling
  • Ears held back
  • Licking the nose or lips
  • Wide-open eyes with dilated pupils
  • Yawning
  • Acting distracted
  • Looking away from the source of discomfort
  • Wet paw prints

If your dog is stressed, there are a few things you can do to move past the stress, calm your dog, and keep him learning.

  • Stop. You will make more progress in five minutes of taking a break than in an eternity of trying to push the dog through the stress. Do something your dog likes to “talk (or whisper?) him off the ledge.”
  • Assess. Ask yourself if your dog actually understands what you want. Avoid seeing your dog as dumb or stubborn. Most likely, your dog is not being defiant, especially if he is communicating to you with his body language that he is stressed.
  • Revamp. Analyze the task or behavior you are trying to teach and break it up into smaller sections. Try to increase the fun-factor, and be patient. There is rarely reason to rush.

Thomas Aaron is a Denver, Colorado, dog trainer and the owner of FetchMasters, LLC. He specializes in developing off-leash reliability, dealing with many behavior issues, and training hunting dogs using positive, dog-friendly methods.