Do You Want a Calm Dog?                                   Teach Your Dog to Wait

There is a clock on your computer, phone, tv, microwave, stove, desk and probably one with an alarm next to your bed.  Time is money, open 24/7 and not enough hours in the day are mottos we proudly live by while multi-tasking three things at once.  Throw in constant stimulation from our electronic devices and you have the recipe for many anxiety related behaviors, so it should come as no surprise that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. - affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older and affecting 1 in 8 children (Source: National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety Disorders Association of America).  

Dog ownership is at an all time high with nearly half of all households owning at least one dog, and since anxiety conditions affect so many people it should come as no surprise that anxiety related behavior issues in dogs are also at an all time high.  

Anxious, excited energy in humans creates anxious, excited behavior in dogs which can lead to separation anxiety, aggression, obsessive behaviors, hyperactivity, house-training issues, anti-social behaviors and even conditions that many vets blame on allergies.  In my career I have noticed a direct connection with anxiety and hyperactivity to skin and digestive issues.  When dogs get anxious and over-excited their body temp can rise, and that inflammation over time can create physical distress in the dog.  

One of the most powerful cases I have experienced of how human anxiety can influence our dogs came from a young woman who suffered from extreme Social Anxiety Disorder.  The simple act of this woman going outside triggered panic attacks, heavy anxiety and an over-all sense of fear and doom which the dog had to process.  Inside her home the dog was really well behaved but the moment the dog stepped outside he became uncontrollably aggressive.  He would try to attack anything - people, dogs, balls, cars, bikes, leaves…you name it and he tried to kill it.  Watching him was literally watching the physical manifestation and release of the owners anxious energy.  His need to fight was triggered by his owners desire to flee.  Since the leash prevented him from running away the only other choice to feel safe was to fight because fight keeps the scary things from getting too close.

Other ways we create anxiety and over-excitement in our dogs: 

  • Not giving enough mental and physical fulfillment. 
  • Giving attention/affection when they are anxious, demanding or over-excited.  
  • Not establishing clear rules, boundaries & limits - a.k.a: spoling them

One of the easiest ways to prevent your dog from becoming stressed out, anxious, demanding obsessive or over-excited is quite simple - teach them to calmly wait…for everything.  

Teach them to calmly wait for food.  Teach them to calmly wait for affection.  Teach them to calmly wait for play.  Teach them to calmly wait to jump in the car and teach them to calmly wait before they get out.  Teach them to calmly wait before going through doorways and teach them to calmly wait before coming out of their crate.  They must calmly wait while you talk to others and they must calmly wait before you go in the dog park.  They must calmly wait to go outside and they must calmly wait to be invited to come back in.  Everything they want they earn by calmly waiting.    

How do you get a dog to calmly wait?                           The best way I have found is to tire them out with exercise, ignore demands and then wait

Crate example:  A good simple example is when you let your dog out of the crate.  If your dog is excited when you open the crate door and let them out - they learn being excited gets me out of the crate.  Next time you come home try ignoring the dogs until they are calm.  Once they calm down you can approach to open and if they get excited you stop and ignore until they calm again.  Keep at it until they stay calm and then let them out.  Before you know it they learn the fastest, easiest way to get the crate door open is to relax and calm down.  Once they start to learn that calm gets them what they want they will start using calmness more and more.  

A tougher test is feeding time:  Most dogs are asked to sit for food but they do so with an intense, excited energy.  They are then released to eat when they are super intense and excited which rewards the intense state of mind and teaches the dog that FOOD = INTENSE, EXCITED ENERGY.  So this teaches dogs that “My owner only feeds me or gives me a treat when I am intense and excited so every time I am around food I must become intense and excited in order to get it.”  This is usually the root cause of food aggression.

The first time I feed or give a treat to a dog I don’t ask them to do anything - I wait for them to figure out how to get the food I have.  Most dogs will sit, then stand, then lay down, then whine, bark and carry on the first time.  After they tire out and give up they will lay down, and let out a big sigh - then they are calm and THIS is when you feed them.  Pull up a chair and get comfy because it can easily take 30 minutes or more the first time you do this.

Note:  I don’t release my dogs to eat.  I wait for them to be calm and I set the food down in front of them.  Often times the release creates a “pulse” of energy and teaches them to quickly approach food.

Dogs are instinctual and don’t have a concept of time like we do so they only learn to wait if we ask them to.  From an early age puppies in the human world figure out that behaviors such as whining, begging, barking, demanding and excitement brings them what they want and this leads to issues in so many ways.  A dog who can patiently wait for things is happier and more balanced than dogs that are pushy and demanding.  Humans mistake over-excitment with extra happiness but that is simply not the case.  

Calm is a natural way of being for dogs so its super clear and easy for them to understand.  Its way harder for the humans to wait during these exercises which is why most dogs don't learn to wait.  If waiting makes you anxious you should honor those feelings and listen to what you mind is asking - its asking you to slow down.    Listen to it.

Check out Kelly Howell on Itunes for excellent guided meditations.