Dog Behavior in Stressful Human Environments
Posted on January 3rd, 2018 by FetchMasters in Uncategorized
Dog behavior can be influenced heavily by the emotional content of a dog’s environment – and not always for the better. Today I received an email from a divorce attorney who requested to write a blog post for our website. In the post, he wanted to talk about the comfort dogs can provide for adults and children experiencing the trauma of divorce.
I have adapted and expanded upon my reply to make my answer suitable as a blog post. And I think it should be required reading for those considering depending upon a dog for emotional support.
Observations on Dog Behavior in Stressful Human Environments
Recommending dogs as a source of comfort for families going through traumatic situations can be a bad idea.
Some dogs can provide emotional comfort for humans. However, not all dogs posess the temperament for this sort of burden. In fact, organizations legitimately specializing in training service dogs, psychological support animals and therapy dogs carefully select appropriate animals for training. Poor selection can result in substandard service for a human-in-need, and in the psychological degradation of the dog.
On average we train about 1,000 dogs per year. So encountering families and dogs that have acute emotional troubles just means we are having a normal day.
We’ve found that sometimes a dog’s behavior issues arise from chaotic or emotionally-unstable households. Other times, dogs may have their own emotional baggage (fear and anxiety, for example). Dogs with such challenges have enough to cope with; dealing with our emotional upheaval may exacerbate their own problems.
Can Your Dog Support You Emotionally?
Predicting dog beahvior amidst human emotional upheavel requires some expertise. A dog’s temperament and past experiences can play into its responses to our problems. Sometimes dogs comfort us or desire to stay close to us. Other times, our stress causes their own stress level to rise, and the animal seeks out its own comfort.
Dog trainers generally have a good grasp of how dogs respond to stress. However, dog owners usually come to the table with misinformation about dogs and their capacity to tolerate us. And when humans try to force dogs into tasks they are unsuited for, the dogs usually pay the price.
When dogs feel fear or anxiety (regardless of whether or not we caused it) they start looking for ways to insulate themselves from it. Their responses could be as harmless as hiding under the bed — or as dangerous as as developing aggressive tendencies.
Emotionally stable, psychologically sound dogs usually (and gracefully) withstand the ebbs and flows of emotional tide in human households. But that does not mean we should assume this sort of emotional flexibility represents a universal quality of all dogs. It most certainly does not.
Dog behavior experts frequently discuss how clients sometimes put too much reliance on the support of an animal, when they should be seeking assistance from qualified therapists.
What About Divorce?
So, should people use dogs to comfort themselves and their children through a divorce? If you already have a psychologically suitable dog, then be thankful and take advantage of the comfort. However, if you see that your dog is exhibiting signs of stress or is developing undesirable behavior changes, contact a dog trainer. They can help you assess the situation and make things more comfortable for your dog so that you can focus more on helping your dog through it than him helping you through it.
As for going out and acquiring a dog because you are getting a divorce, you should think that through more deeply. I would highly suggest contacting someone who specializes in dog behavior, as well as a therapist.
Lest I be misunderstood, I take comfort in the companionship of my own dogs. They quickly forgive my shortcomings, pester me to play with them, and (usually) try to hang out with me – even when humans rightfully prefer not to be around me.
However, my psychological wholeness and emotional comfort is not the responsibility of my dogs. And when I am most distressed, my dogs usually go to another room or hang out with my wife where they can be insulated from my emotional state – and they are free to do so because that is what they need to feel safe and secure.