As you’re dealing with your dog’s aggression, anxiety, or over-submissiveness out in the world, our anxiety as humans can increase — especially if you know each dog-dog or dog-human interaction may not go perfectly! We remember what our dogs have done in the past, and those memories re-play themselves.
Dogs pick up on our stress and anxiety, and our stress and anxiety can even get in the way of our training. If it’s a miserable experience for you even when things go well, then it’s unlikely you’re going to continue training.
So how do we lessen the anxiety for people? I don’t know. I’d have to be a therapist! But these are things that work for me, and things that have worked for some of my clients.
I visualize things going well. But I also visualize things going horribly, and me somehow saving the day so it all ends well, anyway. This re-frames each experience so that, good or bad, I end feeling confident. Visualizing is one of the best things you can do to help yourself be able to stay calm in the actual moment. With very anxious clients, I suggest they visualize (and write it down if they’re amenable!) at least daily.
Sounds silly, I know, but I can’t tell you how many people forget to breathe when they’re thinking about what their dog may or may not do in the next twenty feet. On a physiological level, when you hold your breath your heartbeat picks up and your muscles have to work harder. It increases stress! (It also stresses out your dog.)
Furthermore, if you stop and tune in to taking deep, slow breaths, it fractures your hyper-focus on what might happen, because you’re also having to focus on breathing.
You can always stop. I can’t tell you how empowering it is once you realize that, hey, you don’t have to keep walking forward! Any time I’m feeling a little unsure, uncertain, stressed, out of control (physically, emotionally, or mentally) I stop walking. I often even back out of the way of whatever is approaching, taking the dog with me. I take stock of what’s going on, what I might need to do to solve it, re-organize myself, and start again. Half the time, by the time I’ve done all this the problem has actually resolved itself.
Talk to my dog
Not to the person and other dog approaching. No, I talk to my dog. I say things like, “We can get through this,” and “hoo-whee, this is hard but we can do it!” Talking forces you to breathe, and gives you another focus. If my dog is anxious, then I’m going to talk as if everything is fun. My words might indicate my stress, but my tone is light.
Focus on my dog
If I’m working with a dog who gets super submissive and rolls over to show her belly to another dog, then sometimes gets stressed and snappy when they take her up on her offer and sniff her too much, then I’m going to focus on talking to my dog, keeping my tone light and happy, taking her away when she starts to roll over — probably trotting backwards with her, then trotting forwards with her to see the strange dog again, on our feet instead of her back. But I’m going to focus on my dog, and her body language. Is her spine relaxed, indicating a positive mood? Is her tail tucking, indicating she’d like to leave now? Are the whites of her eyes showing, indicating she’s stressed and we should leave the situation? It doesn’t matter what my dog has done before. What matters is what my dog is doing this instant. To know that, I have to watch her body language. It’s the easiest way for them to communicate!
Other general ways to lessen human anxiety are things like meditation, relaxation, quiet time for yourself — the usual things you read about! And while you’re doing that, think about how awesome your dog is going to do at the next formerly-difficult situation. It helps.