As a modern dog trainer, you’ve studied canine body language. You are confident in your ability to identify when a dog is experiencing stress. But now that you’ve identified that dog, how do you help it?
Increase Distance From Dog’s Stressors
If space permits, this can often be the easiest way to help a dog. If the dog is experiencing stress due to proximity to other dogs, move him away. Getting him away from his stressors can allow him to relax enough to benefit from counter-conditioning and desensitization and learn the material you are covering in class.
Put Up A Visual Barrier
Sometimes your space is limited and you can’t move the dog away from her stressors. At this time, consider a visual barrier. Even something as simple as a ring gate with a sheet tossed over it can help the dog relax. This can be especially beneficial if the dog is experiencing stress due to other dogs looking at her. Blocking eye contact is quick way to reduce stress in class.
Increase Rate Of Reinforcement
If the dog in your class is still eating but perhaps getting a bit “sharky,” there is a good possibility the dog is experiencing stress. These dogs might be looking around at their environment while doing the bare minimum required to get a treat from their owner. Encourage the owner to start rapid-firing treats, rewarding for each task. This can help dogs focus on the training instead of their environment.
Do Simple Tasks At Which The Dog Is Proficient
So often when dogs get to higher levels of obedience/skill, owners don’t reward the little things as much. However, when a dog is experiencing stress, it can be beneficial to have owners drop back to beginner-level skills and reward for those to help build the dog’s confidence up. Those behaviors have a strong history of reinforcement so the dog will be able to successfully complete those tasks and get heavily praised. Training should not always get increasingly difficult because that can be very discouraging for a dog.
Some dogs are very tactile-oriented and want to be by their owners when experiencing stress. If you have a dog like this in your class, encourage your clients to do some slow, steady massage on their dog. You might find that all the dogs in your classes benefit from short breaks from training with massage and perhaps relaxing music playing (check out “Through A Dog’s Ear”).
Being able to identify stressed dogs is just the first step. You need to have the skills to successfully help the clients ease their dog through the stressful event. Having many options in your toolbox can be of great benefit to both your clients and their dogs.
What is your recommendation for reducing a dog’s stress in class?