Stressing Dogs, Dancing Humans & Weirdly Inappropriate Reinforcement

Posted on 05/06/10 16 Comments

Stress. It is a hot topic. At every seminar I teach someone will tell me about their “stressy” dog and how they (as the handler) will need to alter my instructions in order to deflect the stress of the environment away from this woeful creature.

Here is the thing. It is an incredibly difficult lesson but sooo important for us as dog owners and us as human beings to learn. I myself and still learning (with the human thing, I think I got the dog thing covered). More often then not, your actions may be the trigger to the dog’s stress.

Once at a Tony Robbins workshop a young woman (less than twenty) was tearfully sharing her trauma to the entire audience of having been raped 5 years earlier. She went to this workshop wanting to comitt suicide, Tony was her last hope before taking her own life. Tony was incredibly sympathetic about the rape and enraged by the rapist. But more than that he ended the pain for this young person once and for all with facts and a bit of rough love (the original kind:)). In the midst of her telling us all her sad story another young woman came sprinting down the ailse, put her arm around the rape victim and started stroking her hair and back, it was her sister.  Here is where Tony went off. I mean he got really angry.

He quickly explained that there wasn’t a single cell in the rape victims body that was there at the time of the rape yet her mind allows her to stay trapped in the event.  The pain was real, just as real as the event itself. Tony explained that the pain is real because it had been “anchored” into her blueprint by the reactions of the people who surrounded her. Any time she relived her pain she actually filled three of her four basic human needs; she got to feel; love & connection, significance and certainty from her support group. The act of touching a person during these painful journeys anchored the pain to the action. So that any time someone stroked her hair or lovingly embraced her, they evoked the condition reflex of the pain of the rape.

I saw this young lady 6 months after this event. She didn’t look like the same person. She was bright, laughing, carefree. She was pursuing a life working with children and hadn’t looked back since that night at Tony Robbins.

Fascinating stuff. But what has this got to do with dog training? Think of the human reaction to a dog that shows stress. As my good friend Rick DeAmelio likes to recite over and over “for every response there is a reaction, for every reaction there is a consequence . . . regardless if you like it or not, whether you are aware of it or not and whether you are in control of it or not!  This chain is on going, it is inevitable.

Most stressing dogs have been trained by their owners to stress. Ouch, sorry, but it is true.  Sure there very likely was an environmental stressor that initially caused the first “response” in this stressing dog but it was the owner’s roll “reacting that gave way to the chain and  allowed “consequence” of greater stress to grow.

Most human’s heart breaks when their dogs’ stress. So they stroke the dog, they pick the dog up, the talk baby talk, they start jumping and dancing around to try and entertain the dog or if the dog has endured a stressor at the hands of another dog or person, they may start  reacting (badly) towards that person or dog.

Once when DeCaff was very young, she came out of the ring and was jumped by a Border Collie. The BC grabbed her by the back of the neck. I pulled the dog off, handed it quickly over to it’s owner than immediately started playing a game of tug with DeCaff & her leash. To her it was just a new step in the reward process. We end our run, we get jumped, we tug. Response-reaction-consequence.

Maybe not what De-Dog had in mind, but the incident was forgotten quickly with no ill effects the next time we entered or exited the ring.

I will carry on with this hot topic in a blog post in the near future, in the mean time you will find a lot of solutions to your “stressing dog” within the “Building the Team Fundraising ebook” buy it now, while the price is still at the “introductory” low price.

Today I am grateful for osteopaths. Wow, did I get major relief from mine yesterday!


  1. Candace says:
    Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 1:19pm

    Kudos for this article and can’t wait to see the follow up articals! I shared on my timeline hoping some people I see do this, at least consider the possibility that they do feed into their dogs fears…There seems to be a fine line between comforting and enabling the behavior…


  2. Meg says:
    Friday, October 7, 2011 at 2:24pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog about ‘victim vs player’ and it pinched me hard about the ‘way we are’.While it may NOT seem that the comment belongs here…it does as I have addditionally related it to our stress issues of meeting other dogs. He (BSD–Terv) does not do well around other dogs generally. In the house he is very well behaved, very focused— for his 17 mos.Out on walks if we should come across another dog he often loses it.(Recently re visited breeder—only to find out his mother is very tempermental—unknown at time of examining litter ’cause they kept her separate’ from our visits as seeing others around her pups was upsetting we were told—accepted at face value as a logical explanation)Wished I had known!

    Not long ago, we were attacked by a no leash/no owner in sight bigger than him dog with another close behind, I let go of the leash feeeling we both would fare better and he chased the 2 dogs 3 blocks. When I found him he was calm, unscathed and no signs of the 2 dogs involved in the epidsode. But, when we have met another leashed dog his behavior has varied so much—may tolerate walking away or he lunge at the dog. (One super guy we met only once as a passerby with his extremely balanced dog told me point blank it was my fault as I held him back–my mirror!)
    With that in mind, I have held him back thinking it was safer. For whom? I’m not sure. He has wheeled around (like lightning) and bitten me (4x in 10 months).
    SO the issue of stress–I think it is coming from me (Something I am finding hard to break —he is high energy/nervous energy by nature and is ‘on alert’ most of the time we are out—and unpredictable and I have been bitten and quite frankly nervous about going out many days for a walk—most of which I have scheduled off hours with reduced chances of meeting up with another dog.)

    A vicious circle which I am perpetuating. I am doing PP, now use a HH and reading Ruff Love, OTHER END OF LEASH P. McConnell, CLICK TO CALM E Parsons, and have my CG dvd ready to start (once we get used to our new metal kennel—was also unwilling to go into the plastic crate we had as he got sick in it once and that was the end of it. I had NOT coddle him then, either.

    So the bottom line for me, thanks to this blog—I have to put a stop on finding excuses and wenging about the problems he has and redirect that energy into solving the matter; only then do I think I will get a handle of the stress we are both sharing outside the house. At the momnet I feel likeI have my own Everest in front of me. Thanks for listening.


  3. Emmi says:
    Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 9:45pm

    I disagree that you cannot reinforce emotions. We, as owners/handlers, can only recognize “emotion” in our dogs through their behavior.
    For example, cowering, drooling excessively, panting and shaking, those are all behaviors that we link to fear. When we coddle a frightened dog we are, if not reinforcing fear, reinforcing the behaviors it is exhibiting at the time. In which case it is more likely to exhibit those behaviors when it encounters that stimulus next time.
    Would you pat or make soothing noises to your dog that is growling at an approaching stranger because he/she is scared of people?


    • Susan says:
      Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 10:52pm

      Hmmm Emmi, perhaps you need to re-read this thread. I think you will find you are agreeing with what I am suggesting.


      • Emmi says:
        Sunday, October 2, 2011 at 3:29pm

        I was definitely agreeing with you. I was responding to the comments posted by Stephanie and Barrie, though they probably won’t ever know I responded!
        Although I’m quite new to clicker training I’ve had enough experiences with aggression and stress in my dog to have an opinion-though not authoritative necessarily!-on that. Having finally found clicker/purely positive training, I’m dedicated due to the success I’ve had working on the problems I created for my BC that I got when I was 14. He’s 7 now and we’re finally making tons of progress! 🙂
        I’m looking forward to reading and working from Ruff Love and Crate Games both for Skye (my BC) and my flighty, tentative Cockapoo charge (family friend pet).
        Thanks for your lovely posts!

  4. angela says:
    Thursday, May 13, 2010 at 1:20pm

    I think it all depends on each individual situation. Pay attention to your dog, if what you’re doing isn’t working look for other options. I don’t think the loving touch of a sister was keeping the woman in that state, for all we know without the loving hand of her sister she may have comitted suicide earlier. With all due respect, I don’t think we should compare a rape victim to a stressed out, most likely spoiled agility dog.


  5. Stephanie says:
    Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 3:45pm

    I agree with Barrie. After working with a dog who has been diagnosed with issues that are fear based, I have spent a lot of time learning the difference between emotions and behavior. I always believed in my inner being that it was not wrong to reassure a dog when it is frightened. Contrary to what almost everyone was telling me – that I was going to make my dog worst, I soon learned from experience that I would not.
    I also went to an Animal Behaviorist (veterinarian specialist) that reassured me that I would not increase the fear by reassuring my dog, and read books by people such as Patricia McConnell. I started looking at Turid Rugaas book, and found if I could recognize the stress signals, before it turned to true fear, then I could avoid many full fledge episodes, and in turn my dog learned to trust me and improve.
    Even if my reassuring does not decrease the stress/fear, I am confident that it will not increase it.


  6. Julie says:
    Friday, May 7, 2010 at 11:07am

    Great post, Susan!

    I remember years ago when I was running my Dobe, Simon, I had walked the course and was going to be one of the first dogs on the line. I rushed to his crate and threw open the door to reach in and snap the leash on his collar. He shrank back in alarm at this wild-eyed woman grabbing at his collar and refused to come out of his crate. It was like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on my head. In that moment I realized that it was my responsibility to control my own emotions and stress and start thinking about how it made my partner feel. That’s one lesson I’ve never forgotten.


  7. AJ Carrington says:
    Friday, May 7, 2010 at 9:30am

    My dog was attacked at a local park not too long ago. The attack was violent and traumatic. There was no time to comfort my dog, she was extremely badly hurt. Only one thing to do — run up Yonge Street carrying my screaming dog to her vet. When we returned to the scene of the incident about a week later, she exhibited clear signs of being upset/stressed. It would have been all too easy to pick her up and baby her. However, I asked to her to sit, produced her Wubba, and began a favourite game of 1-2-3. She happily passed by the “scene of the crime” and has never shown any concern about it again. I am so grateful for the games and the methods of thinking about how to deal with what our dogs are telling us that we learn from Susan.


  8. Nat says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 5:43pm

    I’ll be looking out for your future posts on stress. I’ve dealt with stress with my first dog, but am now finding myself dealing with it again with my second dog (although a different kind of stress). Thanks for your thought-provoking posts!


  9. Karen M says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 4:58pm

    I was out walking my dogs on lead one night when two other off lead dogs (no human in sight) came up and one bit my younger dog on the neck, result: puncture wound. After dislodging the biter, I continued on our walk as if nothing had happened and returned home the same way. Kept an eye out for the errant ones. They were no longer there. This event didn’t spoil our future walks.


  10. Julie says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 1:17pm

    Your posts have really been on target for me these last few weeks. I had a trial about a month ago and things didn’t go well at all, especially for me and my younger teammate. It seemed as I kept brewing about what to do to get the spark back and our connection back on track you kept writing how you should appreciate the specialness of your teammate (dog). These powerful positive words helped me change my attitude at the next trial and I was more able to think about what I needed to do for myself and my dog. I did several things, but two things stand out as really contributing to our teamwork. First was with my older whippet who was nicely sitting in the line and just as we got ready to go in his tail was stepped on hard. I didn’t cuddle him,but instead of the sit stay I had planned at the start line I let him jump into the air toward my hand and off we went. For him leaping into the air is a reward and I could do it in the ring. With my younger dog I spent several short sessions doing crate games in the area we were crated. It was simple way I could reward her often for succeeding in a very congested noisy space. It helped me as well as her focus and connect. I didn’t get any Q’s but I ran happy fast dogs and ran as a team..


  11. Dave says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 10:50am

    For unstressed dogs – look up Labrador in the dictionary


  12. barrie says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 8:31am

    Playing tug fits right in with the idea that you cannot reinforce fear because it is an emotion therefore if the rape victim found having her hair stroked by someone reinforcing then that is the same as you playing tug with Decaff. Emotions decrease with reinforcement, behaviors increase…you can’t reinforce fear! More than anything, what was being reinforced for the woman however was what she was doing in that moment: repeating her story. Tony wanted her to stop feeling like repeating the story was what she needed to do so he did not reinforce her for it and trained an incompatible behavior. I’m glad that the woman was helped but I do not think that the pseudo science there checks out at all in terms of Skinner. Look at all the behaviors involved the same way you would look at them if it was a dog training puzzle.



  13. Tracy Sklenar says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 8:24am

    Speaking of stress, another important and linked topic is trying to know what the dog is thinking. When we say that our dogs are “stressed”, we are also attempting to project what they are thinking. That’s a problem, as we simply do not know what they are thinking. While it is fascinating to conjecture and we can observe body language… all we can do is observe behavior that the dog presents and respond to it in a way that will hopefully build the behavior in a direction that we want.

    And, observing behavior, changing state of arousal and wise use of reinforcement is key to successful training!


  14. Trudie says:
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 at 6:30am

    I’m grateful you decided to add your article “But It’s Not a Border Collie!” to your ebook “Building the Team”, I found it invaluable !

    It may be simple to say: make sure you are BOTH having fun, but not always so easy if you don’t know all the games you can play ! ! and how to adapt them to suit your dog.

    You did a survey some months back on what we felt we needed help on and your 5 articles in the ebook on “starting as a team” are my wish come true.

    – Trudie


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