Over the holiday season, I had the opportunity to observe some Christmas themed pet events, including pet photos with Santa. These experiences illustrated that many pet owners do not have realistic dog training expectations. It is difficult for dogs to maintain their composure and respond to our requests for behaviors in situations that are very distracting. The pet photos with Santa were challenging in many ways for the dogs: a new exciting environment, other dogs and people around in close proximity, having to go up to a stranger in a funny red outfit, being held or moved to face the camera, various noises being made to try to get the dog’s attention, facing the camera lens, and flashbulbs going off. Even our children can be apprehensive to approach Santa, and our dogs are definitely out of their element in this situation!
Some people appeared to be very frustrated with their dog’s excitable behavior, not realizing that their dog may have been overwhelmed, over-stimulated or even frightened. Most people recognize that dogs can respond to stress with fight or flight, but there is another very frequent, less known reaction to stress, called “fool around” that many dogs display in arousal-producing situations. Fool around can include behaviors such as jumping up, leash biting, mouthing, pacing, pulling on leash, and barking. It is often accompanied by panting, rapidly wagging tail, dilated pupils, shedding, and other signs of stress such as lip licking, scratching, or shake-offs. This response to stress is often mistaken for happiness, but there is an anxious, frantic or tense quality to the behaviors. Many pet-owners were completely unaware of their dog’s body language and signs of discomfort in response to these arousal-producing situations. As a result, they did not respond to help their dog feel more comfortable, by giving the dog the time needed to adjust to the situation, building up their confidence, or moving further away from distractions such as other dogs.
Many pet owners commented that their dogs were good at home, but “just gets excited around other dogs or people”. This is a common concern, and one that can be addressed with appropriate training/practice. If we expect our dogs to behave well in distracting situations, we need to practice their training in distracting situations. Just because we have worked on the “Sit” command in our quiet home, does not mean the dog will be able to “Sit” in the Santa photo situation, or even outdoors with another dog passing by. We need to add progressive levels of difficulty or distraction, always working at a level that our dog can successfully manage. We would not expect students to be able to answer college level mathematics questions if they had not yet been to junior or senior high school and built up a solid foundation of math skills. Similarly with our dogs, we need to practice and build their skills at the “middle levels”, before we jump up to a very difficult challenge. We should start by teaching our dogs in a quiet home environment, but then we need to practice the skills in the backyard, out on walks, when there are more distractions present, etc. By practicing this way, the dog will come to understand that the word “Sit” means the same thing in various different contexts. More importantly, owners will be able to have realistic expectations for their dog’s behavior based upon the level of difficulty the dog has mastered in training situations. They will be able to understand that the dog struggles in situations such as the Santa visit because this is a higher level of challenge than the dog has been prepared for.