Prioritizing a dog’s emotional health

_DSC0938A lot of factors go into starting a training package with a new client: Time, money, training  goals and plans. Clients have limited resources. They need and want results quickly. Trainers want satisfied clients and solid results. Unfortunately, something that often gets neglected is, in my opinion, the most important factor of all: A dog’s emotional health.

Disturbance in a dog’s emotional health is at the root of many behavior problems. If a dog perceives a stimulus as a threat, his body goes into “fight or flight” mode:

“It all starts when an external stimulus, processed by sensory systems in the brain, is non consciously determined to be a threat. Outputs of threat detection circuits then trigger a general increase in brain arousal and the expression of behavioral responses and supporting physiological changes in the body. Signals from the behavioral and physiological responses of the body are sent back to the brain, where they become part of the nonconscious response to danger … Brain activity then comes to be monopolized by the threat and by efforts to cope with the harm it portends. Threat vigilance increases – the environment is scanned to figure out why we are aroused in this particular way. Brain activity related to all other goals (eating, drinking, sex, only, self-fulfillment, etc) are suppressed.” – Joseph LeDoux, Anxious: Using the brain to understand and treat fear and anxiety

When a dog’s emotional health is not prioritized, he may continue to aggress at perceived threats. He may “put on the brakes” and try to avoid certain environments or situations. If a dog is continually exposed to threatening situations, the stress wreaks havoc on his emotional and physiological state.  A dog occupied with threat processing doesn’t care about how much time his guardians have to train, or how much patience the training process requires. He simply wants to feel safe.

During the first consultation with a fearful or aggressive dog, discussing the dog’s emotional health needs to be the priority. The dog’s future progress depends on it. Though it may seem counterintuitive, speeding through the critical initial stages of desensitization and counterconditioning will cost the client more money and time in the long term. Behavior problems will keep occurring if the dog feels the need to remain hyper vigilant, and the training’s benefits will be short-term – a weak bandage placed over a large wound.

Fortunately, prioritizing a dog’s emotional health is achievable, even for clients with limited time and resources. The following list identifies three main areas to help clients keep their dogs feeling safe while training is underway:

  1. Get creative about exercise and enrichment if the dog is afraid of outside stimuli. Indoor fetch games, work-for-food toys, basic obedience drills and tricks are great ways to tire out dogs without placing them over threshold.
  2. Identify trigger-free zones near the client’s house. Is there a quieter street a few blocks away from the client’s house with fewer dogs and people? Are there opportunities for hikes in less populated parks? Establishing a list will help clients feel less stressed and more prepared.
  3. Recruit friends, family and neighbors to help. Establish a barter system if clients are low on resources (a friend watches a dog with separation anxiety in exchange for the client cooking dinner, for example). A support system relieves stress and gives the client a chance to take a break from training for awhile (especially important for fear and aggression cases).

If I could give fearful dog owners one training mantra to carry with them at all times, it would be this: “I will do everything I can to help my dog feel safe in a chaotic world.”

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at She will be presenting about Muzzle Up at this year’s Pet Professional Guild Summit in Tampa, FL. Get in touch at

2 thoughts on “Prioritizing a dog’s emotional health

  1. Pingback: Prioritizing a dog’s emotional health | Dog Behavior Daily

  2. Pingback: Prioritizing a dog’s emotional health, part 2: Be creative, flexible | Mutt About Town

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