When asking questions, we need to actually wait for the answers. Often, when working with animals, we focus so much on “commands” and “obedience” and “subordinance” that we completely forget to ask permission. No one, human or animal, should be forced to do something against their will, especially when they could just as easily be taught how to participate willingly. If an animal is thrashing to get away, avoidant, mouthy, hyperactive, jumpy, shaking, hypervigilant, and/or resisting being handled, then stop handling the animal in that way. Unless there is an emergency, there is no reason to create such levels of stress during that interaction. If one human was restraining another human and getting any of these behavioral responses, the interaction would quickly be categorized as assault. Do not assault others, whether they are humans, domesticated animals, or wild animals.
Now, “do not assault others” should be a mantra that everyone easily agrees with. However, we see animals responding with the previously mentioned stress responses in the veterinary and grooming world every single day. Why? Why do we think it is ok to put animals through this level of trauma when we would not even consider traumatizing other humans this way? My theory is that most people don’t know that there are other options. When we see an animal “acting out” we are concerned that they are being disrespectful or dominant and we need to take charge and be a better pack leader. Well, let me tell you, this is not the case. Your dog is NOT trying to dominate you or the veterinarian when they are struggling to get away. Your dog is NOT being disrespectful when they are snapping at the clippers while restrained on a grooming table. Your dog is NOT going to become more disobedient if you comfort them when they are resisting being held for a nail trim. However, your dog WILL learn that you and/or the other humans in the room are NOT trustworthy during stressful procedures, if you force them to participate.
So, what are we supposed to do? The dog needs to be vaccinated, examined, groomed, handled, etc. How do we do this without creating stress and distrust? How do we do this without assaulting a creature that we invite into our homes and claim to be our “best friend” or our “furkid”? Let’s start by asking some questions… AND listening to the answers!
Question #1: Is the dog calm?
Before I start any handling procedure (and before I advance to the next step in a procedure), I look at the dog and evaluate how relaxed vs worked up they are at that moment. Now, I don’t expect them to be falling asleep (initially) when I am attempting a husbandry procedure, but I would like to see if the dog is fidgety or fussy. Are they trying to get away? Are they jumping on, pawing at, or mouthing me? Are they hyper and unable to focus? If yes, I wouldn’t consider them to be in a calm state. If the dog is able to be relatively still, look at me, and easily take food without trying to chomp my entire arm off, I am going to count it as a good first step.
Trainers often refer to this relaxed vs worked up state as an evaluation of the dog’s “arousal level”. The higher the dog’s arousal, the harder it is for the dog to be successful. The lower the arousal, the easier it is, with the exception of a very low arousal dog that may be too relaxed to participate in an active activity (think about a dog that casually watches a thrown ball while sunbathing in their favorite spot, this is too low arousal to expect an engaging game of fetch). We often take the dog’s arousal level into account when determining their threshold. Think about the dog’s threshold as a tipping point. If they are under threshold, they are calm and able to focus on the handler. If the dog is at their threshold point, they are struggling to focus on the handler, and are often disengaged. If the dog is over threshold, they are unable to focus and perform tasks correctly, and they are often exhibiting undesirable behaviors. Let’s look at the dog’s arousal level in terms of a 1-10 pt scale.
Over aroused aka Over threshold
8-10Very worked up – dog may not be able to eat food – dog may be lunging/trembling/cowering/barking/or displaying other extreme behavior
Aroused aka At threshold
6-7High arousal – dog may eat high value food – dog may be pacing/fidgeting/stress panting/hypervigilant/or displaying behaviors interfering with ability to focus on handler
Low arousal aka Under threshold
4-5Dog is able to sit or be still voluntarily – dog may eat lower value food
Relaxed aka Threshold not present
2-3Dog is able to lay down voluntarily – dog will likely eat any type of food (that they find palatable)
1Dog is very relaxed and is able to lay down and rest head on the ground (1 pt above falling asleep)
This is an over simplified analysis of the dog’s arousal or threshold scale. Keep in mind that not all dogs will behave in the same ways when they are at their various arousal or threshold levels, and some dogs may exhibit behaviors that appear relaxed (like laying down) but they are still well over their threshold. We can infer more about the dog’s arousal and/or threshold levels by reading other aspects of their body language and stress signals, but more information on this will be presented in future posts. For the purposes of this blog post, let’s refer back to my analysis of a relatively calm dog: able to be still, able to focus on me, able to take food easily. Ideally, for handling procedures, we would like the dog to be approximately between a 2-5 on the point scale.
So, ask the question. Is the dog calm? Yes? Awesome! Move on to Question #2 (future blog post).
No? Then you need to reevaluate the situation. Take a look at the environment. Is the dog in a low distraction environment? They may need to practice this exercise somewhere quieter, more relaxing, or with fewer distractions. Has the dog perfected the previous levels of the training exercise? They may need to backtrack to a step that was a little simpler than the behavior you’re asking for currently. Is the dog in the correct physical/mental/emotional state to practice this exercise? They may be hungry, tired, overstimulated, restless, bored, frustrated. It may be a good idea to pause this exercise and come back to it later when the dog is in a better head space to take in new information.
Humans also do not operate in peak performance mode all the time. Sometimes we need to take a break, regroup, and come back to a task at a later date. Remember that if the dog is at or over their threshold, they are STRUGGLING to be successful. WE need to be the ones to help them out and set them up for success. The dog is not trying to be naughty, they are just having a hard time. Once you can pinpoint the best ways for the dog to be at the appropriate arousal level for the task at hand, then you can move on to asking more questions.