How Can We Build Trust With Our Dogs and How To Get A Dog To Trust You
The old adage, “man’s (and woman’s!) best friend is a dog” is heartwarming and a reality for many of us. Friendship, however, relies on verbal communication which, of course, we cannot have with our dog, or at least, not as a two-way communication!
We, therefore, need to “tune in” to dogs’ body language, which is their way of communicating behavior. It is too simplistic to read a wagging tail as happy behavior, as it is that a snapping dog is simply angry.
Any relationship involves building trust and, if we can understand a dog’s progressive reactions to situations, called “the ladder of aggression”, we can pre-empt their fear and prevent escalation of behavior.
Here are some tell-tale signs that the dog is feeling fearful or under threat, starting from low progressing to high on this ladder:
Low to mid-level indicators:
A dog may turn the body away, pawing sitting (not when asked or prompted), walking away, creeping low with ears back.
Mid to high-level indicators:
Standing crouched, tail tucked between legs, lying down with the front leg lifted
Stiffening up, staring, growling
Highest level indicators:
Snapping, snarling, biting.
Our aim is to “tune in” to these lower-level indicators so that the dog does not have to display the high-level behavior in an attempt to communicate its fear to us.
The dog may have always had to resort to the high-level, extreme behavior, knowing that it has worked previously in removing the threat itself or being taken away from it.
If this is the case, our aim is for the dog to relearn and display the lower-level indicators, which it will only do if we make it feel safe.
How do we do this?
Another old adage, “prevention is better than cure” couldn’t be more apt is this situation; that’s to say that we can only expect the dog to listen to us and learn when in a calm, receptive state and not once their fear has escalated to the point where they want to run away and hide or stand its ground and attack!
Take a moment to consider your own reaction to something that makes you fearful; do you react differently according to whether it is a “clear and present danger” or simply something kept at a distance?
I, for example, don’t care if there is a wasp outside the window at a safe distance from me but, if I were to be at the wheel of my car and a wasp flew in on the driver’s side……I would be liable to have or create an accident by driving erratically in the fear of being stung!
As such, our reactions to the thing we are fearful of are relative to distance as follows:
Distance 1 – it is far enough away for you to be worried or even aware that it exists (hence too far away to train a dog and for it to be effective)
Distance 2 – this is the “Goldilocks zone”; you are aware of the threat, can comfortably look away and concentrate on whatever you’re doing whilst monitoring quite frequently where it is (the ideal distance at which to train a dog)
Distance 3 – the “threshold” area; any closer and you would panic! Your heart is beating faster and you will not process information/instructions very easily (not an ideal place to train your dog but if you have already reached this point with your dog, its actions will be more frantic but mot yet displaying those high-level behaviors)
Distance 4 – panic has set in and you will not be able to respond to any guidance from friends/family (similarly, the dog will now be displaying those higher-level behaviors; snapping or snarling and will be in self-preservation mode; impossible to relate to and train at this stage)
Now we know the distance at which the dog can be trained; how do we do it?
Distance 2 – at this optimum distance from the perceived threat, make things fun for your dog. Let it sniff things, throw treats around for it to find and, above all, teach the dog to “look back” at you; so much of building trust between you rely on that visual bond.
Allowing them to look at the thing they are fearful of, the “perceived threat”, then looking back at you for reassurance and a treat, will gradually ally their fears.
The importance of repetition cannot be reinforced, or “repeated”, enough!! You are aiming for the point where your dog will automatically look back at you when unsure and you will be able to effectively reassure it with a treat.
If, on the other hand, you have gone beyond the ideal spot of Distance 2 and your dog is closer to the object of fear, you may find that it is staring hard and cannot engage in the “look back” for reassurance and a treat from you.
Should this be the case, don’t panic!
Remain calm and silent and simply withdraw from the challenging situation, thus reclaiming the distance again.
How to move on?
Once you have achieved the “look back” at you from the point of distance 2, you can gradually move forward, whilst carefully watching your dog’s body language.
For example, if it is pulling on the lead, either toward or away from the point of fear, you are too close and need to keep working on the “look back” from a further point.
The key is patience, repetition and remaining calm yourself!
Of course, you need to consider your starting point for the day’s training; if your dog has had another incident, such as seeing one or two dogs at different times that day and has been fearful, it will be less receptive to training and may need more time and space to adjust.
The same goes for us humans; we can only tolerate so many incidents or mishaps in a day before we resign ourselves to it being “a bad day” and start all over again tomorrow!
Remember, celebrate the small successes; it means your dog is making gradual progress, is gaining trust in you and sees you as the “protector”.
Companionship, communication, and trust between humans and dogs; you really will have become “best friends”!