There’s a lot to love about our canine companions, but let’s be honest: there’s also a lot to be frustrated by. On the one hand, you have puppies, which, though at their most malleable, are typically at a dog’s most uncooperative point of life. On the other hand, you have senior dogs, which, though willing to listen to the commands they know, require patient handling in order not to set health concerns into motion. Then, somewhere in between because this can be seen in dogs of all ages, you have aggressive dogs that have yet to be dealt with properly, whether because they came from abusive households, their owners didn’t train them accordingly from a young enough age, or because they’ve been passed from home to home after being deemed a “problem pup.” In any of the aforementioned cases, the same rule applies: stay calm.
Now, you’re probably sitting there and snorting at that, thinking, “Easier said than done,” but my own experiences and research have prompted me to adopt staying calm as a sort of golden rule when it comes to canine behavior. One thing that dogs of all ages, breeds, and temperaments share in common is that they can sense and will respond to a human’s energy. An uncooperative puppy will not behave better because you become angry; it will only become confused or less inclined to do what you wish. A senior dog that senses your impatience will not move faster to pacify you; it will become more fearful and anxious. An aggressive dog that is territorial of someone or something, or suspicious of human contact, will see too much energy, including positive, excited energy, as threatening rather than endearing. The best approach you can take with any dog is to be calm.
Puppies can be the most challenging to remain calm with, partly due to their abundance of energy and lack of training and experience, and partly due to our desire for such cute creatures to behave well so that we may simply enjoy them. The number of people who truly have no idea what they’re getting in to when choosing to bring a puppy home is humorously high. People tend to get swept up in how adorable puppies are and brush off the fact that they’re also a lot of work and require much attention and consistent routines.
So if you’re attempting to teach a puppy something new or enforce a habit to which it is resistant, one of the best things you can do is clear your mind before approaching the task. Set aside specific times to focus on these things rather than just tackling them as you find yourself available. If, for example, you try to give a puppy a bath or try to teach it to sit on your command within half an hour of returning home from a long day or work, you are already likely to set yourself and your puppy up for failure. You’re still irritated about what Johnny-in-the-Office said, frazzled from scrambling to meet multiple deadlines, or simply tired from being up early and busy all day. Give yourself a couple hours or so after work to eat a meal, vent to your spouse, or read or watch T.V. In other words, unwind. Even if you think you appear calm, a dog, even one so young and naïve as a puppy, can sense if you truly are not. They can feel it in your touch, see it in your body language, and hear it in your voice. At that point, they will either see your current state as something of which they can take advantage, or they will see it as something to fear.
Then, after you’ve begun handling your puppy during a Zen state-of-mind, it is important to maintain this tranquility. If the puppy is squirming too much and trying to get away while you bathe it, or if it tries to wander off or just stands there instead of listening when you say, “sit,” you must truly do everything in your power to maintain a blank mindset. If you feel frustration creeping in, dismiss it, reminding yourself that the puppy is learning and cannot help not knowing what to do. Remember that it takes time to teach a puppy anything, and that practice is still progress, even if it doesn’t seem so at first. Dogs thrive on consistency and routine, so the more used to your handling they get, the sooner they’ll do what you want. And if you find yourself getting too stressed or frustrated, you can always walk away for some time to calm down before trying again.
With a puppy, it’s better to stay quiet unless you’re giving it a command. Talking in any tone is a form of stimulation to a dog, whether it makes them fearful or overexcited, so the best way to prevent its stimulation is to exercise silence. Only speak when giving it a command, giving the command in a firm yet even tone, or when praising the puppy when it follows your commands. Likewise, keep your touch light. If your touch is tense, the dog will pick up on that. If the puppy keeps moving, continue to pick it up and gently set it down where you want it. Whatever you do, don’t touch the puppy with impatience at your fingertips.
Senior dogs are generally quite cooperative unless they were never taught certain things or never had certain habits reinforced. Much like senior humans, however, senior dogs are more tired, sore, and slow moving than their younger counterparts. They are quicker to become grumpy and may be more obstinate about completing tasks that require their energy or cause them discomfort. While we would love to just let our senior dogs rest without disturbing them, sometimes we have to bother them momentarily in order to tend to their health and overall comfort, such as by trimming their nails, administering medication, etc. It can be difficult to get in the proper mindset for such tasks when we know they will give our older dogs stress, and after all the happiness our companions have given us over the years, we find ourselves feeling guilty to have to stress them out at all. At this stage of a dog’s life, we as their caretakers need to prioritize what does and does not need to be done with our canines. Baths and haircuts, for example, can start being abandoned after a certain point in order to avoid more detrimental distress.
Once you’ve established which tasks are and are not necessary any longer, remember throughout all handling that 1) even though your dog may not realize it, the small bit of discomfort you’re putting them through for a brief time will better their life in the grand scheme of things, and 2) their resistance to being handled is to be expected, no matter how good your relationship. If your senior dog develops a skin rash, for instance, you may need to apply an ointment to treat it, but your dog may squirm and try to get away. Staying calm and not getting frustrated while handling your dog and applying the ointment is crucial not only for keeping your dog calm, but for not hurting them accidentally in the process. If you’re too forceful, you could move a leg the wrong way and cause joint damage, or worsen pain in an arthritic area, for example. Some senior dogs can even experience a senile fit if put under too much stress in certain situations (most commonly when blow drying their hair in a grooming salon), which can cause seizures and long-term damage. Treat your senior dogs as carefully as you would senior humans and approach them with empathy rather than impatience.
While it can be difficult to stay calm with puppies due to their disobedience, or with seniors due to their physical deterioration, a dog prone to aggressive behavior can present the most challenges in staying calm, as they sway us to leave the realm of frustration and dip into the depths of fear. No one enjoys being frustrated, obviously, but it is much easier to move past frustration than fear. Some dogs are pleasant until triggered and surprise fear into us when we aren’t expecting it, removing the chance to prepare ourselves for a calm mindset. Conversely, past negative experiences with a sometimes-aggressive dog can cause us to approach them with fear even when we are prepared. Sometimes we do not experience this fear at an intellectual or emotional level, but it still manifests physically in the form of an elevated heartrate, uneven breathing, unsteady hands, etc. Even in these situations, the best course of action is to continue calmly.
Good dogs can become aggressive for several reasons, most often out of their own fear or some sort of territorial drive. Dogs may be territorial over food, toys, bones, particular people or spaces, and honestly, just about anything. Regardless, a dog that is territorial is still fearful, as it is afraid of losing something, whether that is something physical, a person, or control of a space. Some dogs are fearful of people who resemble a past threat in size, shape, or voice, or who move in a way they have associated with a threat. To counter the aggression born of this fear, you essentially need to establish yourself as unthreatening.
This returns us to the concept of maintaining a blank state of mind (blank but still aware). Try to get in this mindset before actually entering the dog’s space. If you feel frightened or anxious at all, think of mundane things that don’t elicit any negative or excited emotion. For instance, wonder whether you should eat chicken or steak for dinner, which food will be easier to make, what you’ll need to buy from the grocery store to make either meal, etc. If a dog is displaying threatening behavior, keep your movements slow, but act as if you aren’t doing anything unusual; it’s just another task of another day. Apply calming signals such as yawning and turning your face and body to the side. Take some time to let the dog get used to your presence before reaching for it (if you need to reach for it), and keep your reach slow and steady. Also keep in mind that dogs don’t need to smell your hand to smell you. If you’re within their space, they can already smell you. You may need to apply a muzzle depending on what your task is and how aggressive the dog is.
Once you actually begin interacting with the dog, don’t force your affection on it. Maybe scratch its ears or chin to show a fearful dog your touch is positive, but keep the affection light and minimal. If the dog is licking its lips, yawning, flattening its ears, or stiffening at your touch, then stop. Give it a brief chin or ear scratch once, then only touch it to the extent you need to in order to complete your task. Then, the next time you interact with that dog, try giving it another short ear or chin scratch, and go on with the rest of your task. Training fearful dogs not to be afraid and therefore to lose the aggression takes time and consistency, much like training a puppy to learn a command. The more positive interactions the dog has with you, the more it will trust you as time goes by.
Being calm with any dog is the key to coordinating successful outcomes for both you and the canine. In addition to being calm, being consistent and confident is also essential. Maintain regular routines and show the dog that you’re its leader (there to show it the way, not to dominate). Be calm, consistent, and confident in yourself, and the dog will be calm, consistent, and have confidence in you too.