The Canine “Comfort/Stress” Fuel Tank: What Is Your Canine’s Range?

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Let’s dive a little deeper into your canine’s “Zone of Comfort.” Last week, we introduced the idea that your canine’s level of comfort is constantly being adjusted when things like their environment change or as they approach new, exciting (and even familiar) stimuli. We also talked about how we as caregivers need to account for this adjustment as part of how we create a successful, positive, and educational experience for our dogs. This week, we are going to talk about exposure limits to stress, and how stress affects our canines and their behaviour.

Let’s start with a human analogy: For some of the human population, entering a really busy mall or crowded street can be frightening, even debilitating. Heart rate rises, palms get sweaty, we get a little on edge, and it can even get to the point that we take ourselves out of that situation. But for others, going to a busy Sunday farmer’s market sounds like a perfect morning!

Next, think about one of those “unnerving” things in your life. How long could you be in the same room or in a closed situation with that “thing”? For some, about two seconds is enough before they want out! For others, with controlled practice, desensitization, and positive reinforcement, we can extend that time. In a sense, we have a “comfort/stress” fuel tank, and the more uncomfortable something makes us, the faster we use the tank up! Once our fuel is used up, we do not have an ability to deal with the situation we are in (or with that particular item(s) in the environment). Often, stressed emotion starts to overpower our thoughts. Military, police and related groups specifically train their members to increase their ability to handle severe and stressful situations (increase the range of their tank) so that they are still able to use their cognitive processes and training when it really counts!

The same stress scenarios regularly affect our canines. For some, specific stimuli can create real feelings of unrest, and if severe enough, they can elicit behaviours in our canines that we may have never seen before. In fact, we may only see them in that exact scenario! As we work with, and bond with, our canines, we begin to understand their likes and dislikes, where they feel comfortable – and where they do not.

If we are working through certain behaviours and are developing a desensitization program to a particular stimuli or behaviour, or simply working on socialization and general environmental exposure, keeping in mind the idea that our canines can only handle some situations, stimuli, environments, and their combinations, for a certain period of time becomes hugely powerful.

What it means for us as caregivers is that, alongside the bonding and discovery process, we need to also recognize the small signs and changes that show us that our canine’s “comfort/stress” tank is being used up. Most importantly, we should be in tune to the moment when it is getting close to being emptied. When this happens, just like in the human world, our canines will be more prone to reacting to situations versus thinking them through.  In some cases, A tired dog might be a happy dog, but like tired/distracted humans, mistakes in judgement and reaction can be made by these tired minds.  What we do with the “zones of comfort” at Canines By Design is work within a canine’s comfort boundaries (dictated by their behaviour to a particular environment or specific stimuli) and slowly build up their ability to handle the scenario, understand that the scenario is safe, and build the trust up between canine and caregiver. We want them to feel comfortable walking in their own paws, and it is about giving the caregiver and the canine the tools to do so in a positive way!

Next week is part three of the “Zones of Comfort” feature in which I’ll discuss the three colours we use, how they are used, and how they can supercharge your canine’s education in a safe and positive way!

Ghosts, Ghouls and Drool: 7 Ways To Prepare your Dog for a Safe Halloween (+ Free Treat Recipe!)

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Ireland Practicing Being A Ghost

Ireland Practicing Being A Ghost

Halloween is fast approaching! For many kids (and some adults too!), that means dressing up as their favorite superhero or Halloween character, lots of candy, and even a little spooking!  For our dogs, especially young puppies, or those that haven’t ever experienced this strange onslaught of the senses, Halloween can be as confusing and scary as a fireworks show!

Think about it: Costumes cover our faces and add weird appendages to our features, strange people come constantly to our front door and yell… loudly! Is it any wonder that many canines display strong anxiety to these things? We might also put our canines right in the thick of it, taking them for a walk or bringing them along as a companion for our little trick or treaters. Imagine what they must be thinking when they come across that scary witch or graveyard of skulls?!

I often talk about the concept of “setting up for success” and for occasions such as Halloween where costumes are meant to evoke strong and sometimes frightening emotions, this concept becomes very important. In the service dog world, we proof and prepare canines for many different scenarios and possibilities that they may encounter during their busy lives helping out their family. In controlled environments, we expose dogs to the lights and sounds of emergency vehicles, encourage volunteers to come dressed in their work clothes to bring along the smells of the community and we have very generous fireman and police officers take time to come to the facilities in full gear, to expose the developing puppies to funny helmets, gas masks, oxygen tanks, and utility belts covered in things that might look like toys. However, for the majority of “household” canines, their exposure and learning experiences are slightly different. Some have a very integrative life, are out in the community all the time (or as much as possible), meeting new people and new things. Others spend some, or all of their lives around a few houses, and the local park. For any dog, at either end of the exposure spectrum, going around the corner and coming face to face with a Yeti, or someone dressed up as our favorite martial arts turtle can be quite a shock, and can evoke emotion and behaviours that we have never witnessed or experienced EVER!

You Thought I was Cute Before!!

You Thought I was Cute Before!!

So what can we do? Here is a list of things to keep in mind around the Halloween season and some ways to make All Hallows’ Eve as positive as possible:

For those of us with canine-enriched lives

  1. Have a good play with your dog at the local park or in your backyard well before you have to start handing out candy. Make sure their needs are met!
  2. Take them for a “business” run (pee and poop) before the trick-or-treaters are out and about. Usually it is still daylight at this point so you will also be less likely to be surprised by a costumed ghoul or ghost. Then take them out after when things have drastically calmed down and most, if not all, of the families have gone home.
  3. Usually someone stays at home to hand out candy. GREAT! Don’t leave your dog in the front room or by the front door unattended where they can be over stimulated by commotion outside and knocking/doorbell ringing. It also avoids any possible escape attempts.
  4. Set up a quiet and safe room for the canine. Put on the TV or turn the radio on with some nice easy listening, and pull the blinds over the window. For some, just running a fan in the room is enough white noise to block out stimulation happening at the front door. Make sure the room is safe for the dog, whatever their age. If they become stressed, they can act out on furniture, electrical cords, and doors. Set them up for success by minimizing dangerous items.
  5. If you are at the front door, take some time to check on them at a decent frequency. Reinforce their quiet behaviour with verbal praise and even the occasional delicious treat. (It is treat night for everyone else, after all! See below for a great recipe.) If they become anxious or unsure, spend some time to quiet them down and redirect these tense emotions towards a fun or happy thing. Get out their favorite toy or puzzle and have them work through it. Spend a little time running through their various commands so they redirect onto the task at hand, not what is going on outside.
  6. If your dog barks at the doorbell… Contact Canines By Design and we can help fix that, but for now, watch for people coming to the house or tape over the door bell with a sign to say “do not ring”.
  7. Make sure the candy and chocolate is out of reach from them. Also make sure that your children or guests know that the canine cannot have any “people” treats. Many kids like to spread out their candy on the floor to check out their “haul” after trick-or-treating. That’s fine… just maybe close the door to their bedroom first to avoid any canines snacking!

If you are out and come across a dog:

  1. Do not approach (even if you know the dog): Remember you are wearing a costume: Canines are very good at reading body language, facial expressions, and verbal language. We are running around having fun with raised/excited voices and covered faces (masks or makeup)… it doesn’t exactly give them a fair chance to assess the situation. If you have to go say hello, remove your mask and return your emotional level back to a relaxed and calm state before doing so. Even your own canine may second-guess that it is actually you when you are dressed up to scare!
  2. If you are going up to a house and you hear a dog barking from very near or right behind the door, turn around and head to the next house. While we want to give the benefit of the doubt to those caregivers, we cannot assume that the dog will be OK with us near their house and their people. They are already showing sign of arousal and they may make the wrong assumption and turn a fun night into a negative one.

MOST Importantly… Have FUN with your families this Halloween! While canines might not get the concept of dressing up and going door to door, they can still have fun and a delicious treat too! Try this easy recipe:

Simple Peanut Butter Pumpkin Canine Treats:

Ingredients:

1 ½ cups Peanut Butter (Natural)

1 cup of 100% Pure Pumpkin Puree, canned. (Not Pumpkin Pie Filling)

1 ¾ cups Whole Wheat Flour

Directions:

  1. Preheat over to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. In a large bowl, stir together peanut butter and pumpkin. Sift in the flour ¼ cup at a time just until the dough in no longer sticky.
  3. Roll the dough out between two sheets of parchment paper until it is about ¼” thick.
  4. Use your favorite puppy or Halloween-themed cookie cutter to cut the shapes. Place on prepared cookie sheets
  5. Bake @ 350 for 8-10 minutes (non-convection setting). Let cool completely. Store in an airtight container (2 week shelf life) or freeze for up to 3 months.
Ready To Hit The Town!!

Zoom and Ember Ready To Hit The Town!!

NOTE: I would like to thank Kathryn Koh for the photos she sent me to use in this blog post.  Kathryn is very involved with my school, Bergin University, back in Sonoma Valley, California.  She volunteers to take many of the beautiful pictures of all the Bergin dogs, she is an active puppy raiser, trainer, foster home, canine caregiver, and helps out the school anyway she can!!  Many Thanks from here in Victoria!

Zone Of Comfort: Make the Most Out of A Stressful Situation

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At Canines By Design we talk a lot about T.A.P. for success, setting-up-for-success, redirection, and proofing.  But one aspect that we have yet to discuss on the blog is working within the “zone of comfort.”

Are you asking yourself “what does that mean?”… or “isn’t that some prop from Get Smart!?”.  Well, we aren’t talking about a Hollywood TV prop, but, like the safe learning space that the (awesome) “cone of silence” was designed to create, building a comfort zone means working with the environment around us to create a positive and, most importantly, educational, experience. And unlike Maxwell Smart’s device, I’ve found a much simpler approach that actually works to achieve the desired outcome!

We all have zones of comfort.  These imaginary force fields around us help dictate our level of ease in social situations, strange environments and when we test new experiences.  Depending on the individual, these zones will vary depending on previous exposure, comfort level, etc. and it is critical to take all factors into account.

Let’s use an example:  Since I work with dogs, sitting on the floor in the middle of 10 full grown canines playing together doesn’t evoke feelings of stress or fear. However, for someone who isn’t used to large dog fests, or only interacted with guard dogs, their perspective on the situation will be totally different.  For someone fearful of canines, such a situation could be so overwhelming that they might shut-down and glean nothing positive from the experience or not even be able to remove themselves from the environment because they are so overwhelmed.  Some dog trainers like to call this “the red zone.”  For the human analogy, we can say this person has started the “flight-or-fight” response.  This response, also known as the acute stress response, is when the sympathetic nervous system responds to the physical or the strong emotional state that has been presented to the body, coordinating various bodily functions (adrenal gland secretion, pupil dilation, increase heart rate, etc.) in order to create the optimum situation for that individual’s survival (1).

Now imagine the situation where we are beginning to expose a newly adopted canine to various environmental factors.  Maybe that dog had spent its first year locked in a backyard, without environmental enrichment.  Maybe that backyard didn’t even have grass or any trees. Now, when we take that pup out and begin to work through different training scenarios, the environment can become very overwhelming, very quickly.  For this particular example, the canine will enter the “red zone” fast – inhibiting their response to our training programs and damaging their overall personal growth.  Part of my graduate thesis examined this phenomenon, and many examples arose in which increased levels of stress (in particular example it was related to training methodology) directly resulted in a decrease in working ability of canines trained for service (2,3,4).

It is therefore very important as caregivers that we keep our canines’ “zone of comfort” in mind when we are out training and setting out educational experiences for success.  Here are some easy ways to keep this in mind while we are out and about:

shield-learning

  1. Keep your dog’s history in mind!
  • If they have had previous negative experiences with something in the environment, their zone for this object/person/dog will be less secure.
  1. Slow and Steady!
  • Fear can be incredibly powerful and debilitating.  We cannot learn when we are in fear for our lives or someone’s well being.  The same goes for canines. Flooding canines emotionally is a very dangerous practice.  Working within what the canine is comfortable with, as slow as it may be, will allow you and your canine to gradually build confidence with that once-scary scenario, and also help you both build a stronger, trusting bond.
  1. Keep it Fun!
  • We always strive to make every situation and experience for canine and caregiver as positive and rewarding as possible.  Success gives everyone a good feeling, and those positive feelings go a long way to help overcome hurdles we encounter and give us further motivation to keep going.

Canines By Design is here for you!  Contact us today to see how our customized approach can help you and your canine work together and create success everyone can see!

1. TheFreeDictionary.com (Medical Dictionary) (2014).  Fight-or-Flight Reaction Definition.  Retrieved from: http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/fight-or-flight+reaction.  Accessed on: July 1. 2014.

2. Hilby, E.F., Rooney, N.J., & Bradshaw, J.W.S. (2004).  Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behavior and welfare.  Anim. Welfare, 13: 63-69.

3. Haverbeke, A., Laporte, B., Depiereux, E., Giffroy, J.M., & Diederich, C. (2008). Training methods of military dog handlers and their effects on the team’s performance.  Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci., 113: 110-122.

4. Haverbeke, A., Messaoudi, F., Depiereux, E., Stevens, M., Giffroy, J.M, & Diederich, C. (2010).  Efficiency of working dogs undergoing a new human familiarization and training program.  J. Vet. Behav., 5: 112-119.