Paco was depressed. He barely left home for several days. It was not because his girlfriend left him, or because he was forced to work overtime. It’s because those things happened to his master. Paco is a mixture of dachshund and griffon. His master, Rafael, a web programmer, had been hired by a multinational company. Shortly after, he broke up with his partner. Often, when he left the office after a long day, he would visit the bars for an easy distraction. Paco had gone down in his list of priorities. The dog, of course, did not know how to adapt to this new life of solitude.
Dogs can become depressed, stressed, constipated and sad. They may get up in a better or worse mood, depending on the day. This means not that they are human, but that they have extreme sensitivity. And, precisely, as the specialists in the canine world point out, trying to humanise them is counterproductive. Another mistake, of course, is to relegate dogs to the status of furniture, so that you only have to take them out from time to time as necessary, as in the case of Paco. The key is to know how to communicate with them. And not every dog is the same: all have their own codes and manias… In that, they do resemble us.
Many of those who have read Rugaas’s book say that the relationship with their dog has changed radically – and for good. Here are some guidelines for what you should not do with your dog. If you think the dog likes it, you are wrong.
1. Hold up a stick for your dog to jump at
The image of a dog jumping vertically on its hind legs looks like fun, but for him it is not fun at all. The game, very common, is as follows: the owner holds up a stick so that the dog jumps with the intention of taking it, but the owner elevates it a little each time so that it remains out of reach.
Do you remember the famous Pavlov experiment? For a while, the Russian physiologist fed his dog just after ringing a bell. Afterwards, he made the bell sound without giving the dog anything. The dog continued to secrete saliva in response to the bell, thus proving Pavlov’s theory of conditioned reflex. It sounds cruel, right? Well, with the game of the stick, we are generating a similar form of anxiety in our pet.
And the aggression is not only mental but also physical. “Jumping vertically can cause injuries to the dog, because it carries all its weight only on the hind legs, again and again, each time it falls,” say canine trainer Ricardo Antón, author of the successful blog Educando a mi perro. He also warns that the game creates a feeling of helplessness and frustration in the dog.
2. Caress your dog when he is afraid
What most relieves a dog when a stressful situation is over is letting the moment of panic pass. A common cause of distress is the noise made by firecrackers or fireworks. Dogs are severely affected, in part because their ears are much more sensitive than ours to loud sounds (don’t forget that they pick up waves of frequency so low that humans do not perceive them).
“If there is a storm, hugging or petting your dog does not take away the fear: it reinforces it,” warns Voran, an agency representing canine educators. “It gives them the impression that something terrible really is happening, that there are reasons to worry… The best thing is that we look normal, that is what can relax them the most. Under the bed for a while, let him do it, but let his process go by alone, so he will manage it with the least anxiety. ”
The ethologist and canine educator Belén Coronado adds: “We must always reinforce situations in which the dog is calm, and ignore situations in which the dog is anxious. If it is asking for caresses quietly, of course you can give them. If he is anxious because he is not capable of being alone, it is a matter of dependence and insecurity that must be worked on, because many times they do it for lack of security and independence.” He adds: “But we must not forget that, above all, we are their reference, the one that will give them security and tranquility in situations that they are unable to manage, so completely ignoring them in situations that provoke a primary, irrational fear is not the solution either. We have to work the relationship in a healthy way.”
3. Throw the ball for your dog… many times
“In nature, a pack of wolves or wild dogs travels long distances throughout the day in search of food. In this exercise, they do not have any excitement and anxiety – the opposite of what we encourage in our dogs through games that excite them and create anxieties.” This is the forceful argument of canine trainer Ricardo Antón. He adds: “The game of throwing a ball (or anything) has a dark side: it’s called obsession. Your dog can become obsessed in such a way that it does not stop barking, it produces tachycardia. In short, it takes years off his life.”
Neither do you have to be radical. Fetching the ball, in measure, is beneficial. As Antón himself and other experts say, the key is for the owner to control the times in order to avoid the dog falling into moments of anxiety. Deciding when to stop throwing the object, or never doing it if the dog barks for you to do it, is important. “Another trick is to make him look for the object through smell, not sight. That excites him less, because he is using his finest sense,” says Ríos. “But first of all, the owner decides when the game ends, without the need to hide the ball or the stick, so the dog learns to disconnect,” adds Antón.
4. Hug your dog
Surprised? Well, that’s the way it is. When you hug your dog, you’re taking away his space. And he does not like that. Have you noticed that he always tenses muscles; that he stays rigid, in the same posture? That’s because he loves you and is willing to put up with anything. Even if you hug him. Stanley Coren, from the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, made a study about this. He developed some guidelines to detect when embracing dogs bothers them or makes them feel anxious. Some signs are that they turn their heads, that they lower their ears, or that they turn their eyes outwards. After analysing 250 photographs of dog hugs, Coren’s research team came to the following conclusion: 82 percent of the dogs showed signs of anxiety or discomfort when being hugged.
5. Rewarding your dog… too much
“Edible prizes, like bones or cookies, are a motivating learning tool that can help dogs relax and be more aware of us,” says ethologist Karen Overall, an expert in canine behaviour. Voran educators, however, warn of the risk of overusing treats: “Dogs can become selfish, and stop doing something they used to do for themselves, simply because there is no reward. When there is no reward, because there cannot always be, that in the long run creates frustration and anxiety.” Anton joins the debate: “Using social rewards such as caresses or compliments, or play, may take more time, but it facilitates long-term assimilation of the new behaviour since it will be based on cooperation”