October 1st, 2017 | WildFlower Dog Training
Coming soon on WildFlower's blog:
Learning to Love (Again)
My husband has severe dog allergies. But when we were new to the Boston area, I mustered all my logical powers to convince him we needed one anyway.
I was lonely, and said the mandatory walks would be good for my health and my social life. He agreed that striking up conversations with strangers is slightly less creepy with a dog in tow.
Then I got pregnant, and didn’t think I could handle all-day vomiting and puppy training at once.
Eight dogless years and two long-distance moves later, I still look longingly on the bouncy doodles we pass. While hubby never fails to point out the dirt-tracking, travel-hindering bullet we dodged.
I argue, but my real lobbying has been on hold until we live somewhere big enough to have a dedicated husband-only wing. And maybe waiting was a good thing, because now I know that dogs are also a powerful antidote to stress, modern life’s signature plague.
This phenomenon isn’t just anecdotal. It’s real. Recent research—conducted in labs by real scientists—confirms it.
That’s powerful ammunition! Especially against my neuroscientist husband.
But just owning a dog isn’t enough. To benefit from their stress-reducing potential, you have to love your dog.
And learning how requires more effort than most people recognize.
TONIC FOR THE SOUL
Therapy dogs fill an ever-growing variety of roles in today’s addled society. They help college students with homesickness, calm autistic children’s anxiety and quell loneliness in the elderly.
Intuitively this makes sense. Anyone who’s snuggled a friendly pooch can attest to the feelings of calm it brings.
But what’s behind this natural high?
Research out of labs like Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center and the Laboratory of Effective Animals for Human Health at Azabu University in Japan reveals the science.
Bonding with our pups triggers a flood of oxytocin, a neurohormone associated with feelings of love and wellbeing, as well as reduced heart-rate and lowered blood pressure.
It’s no wonder that 44% of American households include dogs. But what about other animals—are they equally soul-soothing?
Turns out you won’t get the same rush from holding an iguana. Or even a guinea pig, because the domestication process has made dogs unique.
Through tens of thousands of years of living in close proximity—even before we started breeding them for desirable traits—evolution favoured friendly dogs.
The theory is that the first dogs who actively approached human settlements without fear or aggression won out in the competition for resources with their more fearful counterparts.
And after many years of evolutionary pressure, a new kind of dog took shape. One that not only acted differently, but looked different.
Stiff-standing ears turned floppy. Skulls became rounder and more youthful-looking.
And beneath the new look was a new doggy nervous system, which triggered ours in new ways too.
Evan MacLean and Brian Hare say dogs have hijacked the human bonding pathway.
When we stare into a beloved dog’s eyes, we get a flood of oxytocin, and they get one too. Then come feelings of connection, relaxation and (on our part) a strong urge to care for them.
Gazing at our human babies—especially while nursing—does the same thing. Which explains why even in states of severe exhaustion, new moms are compelled to beam at the adorable creature responsible.
ANIMAL TRAINING 101
Like puppies, babies grow up. And along with independence comes a suite of new behaviours, some of which make those early, sleep-deprived days seem idyllic.
With my daughter, I went from that blissful nursing haze to panic and despair. Epic tantrums and a steady stream of “NO, MOMMY!” defined her toddler years.
And dogs with behaviour problems—fear manifesting as aggression, not walking well on leash or separation anxiety, for example—don’t activate the human bonding pathway, either.
They do trigger repeated surges of the stress hormone cortisol, though. A recipe for depression, anxiety, and numerous other nasty health problems.
When I was desperate to like my daughter (and myself) again, I read parenting books and talked to my therapist. But it took a fundamental shift in mindset to save our relationship.
Cara from WildFlower Dog Training (also a dear friend) had given me a basic overview of learning theory, and it made so much sense. Pursuit of rewards—or positive reinforcement—is the supreme motivator of all animal behaviour, dogs and humans included.
Then I started thinking about my role as a parent. Teaching a small human to behave in socially appropriate ways is a huge part of the job.
You might even say that a good parent is a skilled animal trainer. (Understanding there are some huge differences between human beings and other animals.)
This was my epiphany. Parenting, or small human training, requires a set of skills and knowledge I hadn’t learned before. Just like animal training does.
So in an effort to be better at my job, I retrained.
I found this fabulous book by Jerry Adams about using positive reinforcement principles with kids. I studied it and implemented the techniques. And almost immediately, my relationship with my daughter turned around.
It took effort. Lots of referring back to the book, lots of checking my own behaviour. Because I was training myself more than my daughter.
But the hard work paid off. So many new opportunities for snuggling—hello oxytocin! Fewer tantrums. And a significant improvement in my mood. I felt renewed!
Three years later, the same principles—when I apply them consistently—keep our household (mostly) peaceful.
SUBJECT MATTER EXPERT
Cultivating a rewarding relationship with your dog requires the same commitment to retraining. Whatever else you are, you need to become a dog trainer, too.
But what kind?
Force-free training is the quickest, most effective way to teach your dog (and kids!) to behave in pro-social ways. That means the basis of your retraining will be learning to speak your trainee’s language: the universal language of positive reinforcement.
With all the great books and websites out there (and here (linked)), you can do this all on your own. But if you already have a full-time job, kids or other time constraints, hiring an expert is an excellent investment.
Either way, don’t settle for a relationship with your dog that’s marked by mutual irritation, despair, and poor health.
Master the art of positive reinforcement and be an animal lover instead.
Erica Stevens is a freelance writer in Toronto. She still looks forward to owning a dog one day, but in the meantime continues to learn how to best love her husband and growing daughter.