Dog Quest: The Calming Hug

We may have accidentally come one step closer to resolving Abby’s dog-reactivity issue. I’m not sure why exactly it works (theories abound), and I’ll be asking our trainers at the earliest opportunity, but here’s how I stumbled on it.

About a month or so ago, I took Abby for a walk, and the usual disasters happened: she’d see another dog, she’d growl and jump and bark and get herself into a state, and she’d do this even as I tried to take her off the path, get her to focus on me, give her treats and desensitise her. I’d had mixed results with this approach before, and figured that – like anyone with social anxiety – she was just having a bad day.

By the end of the walk, she was exhausted and obviously unhappy (in fact, she launched herself into the car as soon as we got the carpark; she just couldn’t get home and back to her Amos soon enough).

There’s a large pile of rocks on one side, opposite the lake and near a bridge on the way out of the park. About five or six people were sauntering along the bridge. I recognised them because I’d seen them on their way in. There was a professional photographer, and his assistant was carrying a very large reflector strapped to his back.

“Uh oh,” I thought, and sure enough, Abby began to take exception to this bizarre silhouette. I took her over to the big pile of rocks and, since it was a comfy space to sit, I sat down and prepared a handful of treats to distract her with.

I was very tired after the adrenaline of our “relaxing walk” together past every other dog in the five nearest suburbs (might as well have been), so instead of trying to just keep a loose hand on the harness and leash and showing her the treats, I pulled her into a bear hug. I generally try not to do this – I was always taught (a) that hugs aren’t necessarily comforting for dogs, (b) that “overcomforting” will lead to anxiety and (c) that it was better to let her decide not to react, and to reward that impulse control.

It turns out that all those things are true, but how true they are might vary relative to the level of anxiety and the age of the dog. Abby has always had a tendency to be very snuggly, so I tend to write off the “dogs don’t like hugs” when it comes to her. Amos will tolerate hugs, but prefers simply to lean or be leant on as an expression of affection, and I think he’s probably a more typical dog in this respect.

She calmed down a bit. Not all the way, mind you, but she stopped quivering so much. Her muscles were still quite hard, and I fed her a few treats, which helped relax her further. You can tell when Abby is trying not to react – she gives these strange huff sounds, rapid breathing, from her nose, as though she is hyperventilating or huffing paint.

Then the photographer’s assistant took the reflector off his back and put it down on the grass, and then as far as Abby was concerned he looked like a normal person again, and the danger had passed.

I didn’t make the connection at the time. I figured it was mostly the treats.

Today, we took her down to the same park – I had Husband and Amos with us as well this time. When the whole pack is together, she seems to feel a lot calmer, and I feel it can only be a positive experience to know that Amos has her back.

This time, she started to react to another dog as soon as I opened the back of the car. Instead of telling her off (firmly, not with a shout. Shouting never helps), I grabbed her muzzle. You have to be careful doing this, as the nose is pretty sensitive and you don’t actually want to cause pain – I just wanted to get her to look at me – but as soon as I exerted a bit of (very very gentle!) pressure on her muzzle, she started to just look at me. She was still stiff as a board, and making her little paint-huffing sound, but she was looking at me. Her eyes occasionally flicked over to the other dog she had seen walking past, but then flicked back.

“Good girl,” I crooned. “Good, gentle girl,” and other nonsense about how safe she was, and how gentle and calm she was, and as soon as the dog was out of sight, I pretty much just poured a handful of treats down her throat.

Happy dog. Wagging tail. Now we can start the walk.

I was thinking about this as we were walking, and as soon as we had to pass another dog, I took her way off the path as I normally would, but instead of just standing there trying to lure her attention onto me, I crouched down next to her and wrapped my left arm around her chest and shoulders, using my right hand to get at the treats.

I can’t properly put into words the difference in her behaviour – she didn’t even go stiff. She didn’t huff. She glanced at the other dog, but fixed on me, and that was before she even noticed I was reaching for the treat pouch (believe me, you can tell when she notices. She is a very food oriented dog).

Throughout the walk, I think I went through this sequence of behaviours about eight times. Husband and I swapped dogs a couple of times (he was walking Amos at the start), and he got to give it a go as well.

By the end of the walk, she was completely calm in a hug. The only exception was if I didn’t notice the approaching dog quickly enough and she started to react before I could get her into a bearhug and get the treats out. We still managed to avoid a full-blown tantrum, even though she was huffing and stiff.

It seemed as though, as long as I could prevent the physical reaction, she couldn’t get herself into a state. If I stopped the spiral before it started, she was able to focus on me instead of the other dogs going past. Maybe it wasn’t about “overcomforting”, but about trust; we were always there to take care of her when other dogs went past. The reason that overcomforting is a problem is that it teaches the dog that there really is something to be scared of. It’s best to avoid it in puppies and very young dogs; in those situations, ignoring irrational fears can be better, and they can take their cue from you. If you’re not reacting, obviously it’s not a big deal.

I can see that this rationale might not work if the dog is already absolutely convinced that the stimulus is completely terrifying. In that case, my ignoring the stimulus and the reaction to it might seem like I’m not paying attention, and if I’m not paying attention, I can’t protect her. Also, maybe I’m not very good at ignoring the stimulus – maybe, in spite of my best efforts, I tense up when other dogs approach, and that teaches her that it really is scary.

There’s a lot that might be going on here. Maybe it’s a mixture of things. Maybe all I can do is teach her that, yes, I will give her bear hugs when other dogs go past. Maybe over time she’ll learn that, if nothing terrible happened then, it won’t happen later. Maybe she’ll begin to disconnect the association she has made: she associates other dogs with her own panic, so if I can prevent the panic, all she will be left with is the initial stimulus, and it may not be that bad.

It’s not perfect. It’s obviously not a workable solution for dog training, and it’s not possible to really implement it when there’s a dog a certain distance ahead of you on the path and she can see them (she just keeps watching them. She can’t seem to stop).

It does, however, remind me of something. It reminds me of how babies are calmed by being swaddled, and how some autistic people find weighted blankets very comforting, and oh wait, it reminds me of this particular product, which I had always viewed with some skepticism.

So I will talk to our trainers, and see what they think. I am very tempted to try a Thundershirt to see if it can stand in for a bearhug.

If you have any ideas, thoughts, or experiences with these dog issues, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


ADDENDUM: One thing I forgot to mention is that, on this walk, every single person we encountered, whether they had a dog or a small child, was very supportive of us trying to train our dogs. There was no snubbing, no muttered comments about aggressive dogs, just encouragement and praise and interest. In fact, one mother was very happy to have us go past with our dogs in a heel so she could show her toddler how well the “big doggies” were behaving. This meant that we were a lot more relaxed, because we didn’t have to worry about what other people were doing; we could just focus on our dogs. We thanked everyone for their encouragement. I think it really made a difference in the body language that Amos and Abby were reading from us.


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