Q: The first couple, Joe and Diana, report that their dog Tosha’s behavior was fine until after Diana returned from the hospital following an illness. Is this something that happens a lot?
A: Yes, and it reminds us how much our energy affects our dogs’ behavior. An extended illness or injury in the household affects everyone. It lowers the energy of the sick or injured person, and can make everyone else in the household anxious, worried, or overly emotional. In Tosha’s case, it was clear that she felt that she had to protect Diana after she came home from the hospital.
I hear people say frequently that their dog’s behavior problem developed overnight — “One day she was the best puppy ever, and then she started barking at everything.” When a dog’s behavior changes radically like that, unless there’s a medical cause (like the dog feeling pain or having a neurological issue), the first thing to ask is, “What changed about us, the humans?”
There’s a saying that’s attributed to Gandhi, although he may not have actually said it but I still like it: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That easily applies here, too. “Be the change you want to see in your dog.”
Q: Tosha showed an immediate change when you had Diana get the dog to move away from her personal space. Why does this work?
A: Dogs have four types of space, depending upon their distance from other dogs or people. I call them proximities. Anything over twelve feet is the public zone. Four to twelve feet is the social zone. Eighteen to forty-eight inches is the personal zone, and six to eight inches is the intimate zone. Tosha was sitting on Diana’s and Joe’s feet, claiming the intimate zone as her own. Because of this, Tosha was ready to defend against anything else approaching the larger personal zone, including people.
I had Diana move Tosha out into the social zone, where she would still feel like part of the pack but not feel the need to defend the territory or pack leaders. The key is that Diana is the one who moved Tosha, and this brings up an important issue about our dogs, our space, and how we treat them.
Humans have a tendency to let dogs invade their space. Sometimes, it can be hard not to, especially when a cute and happy dog comes up and wants to sniff us or jump on our lap. The problem is, when we don’t invite the dogs to do so, they learn that they control the space and we don’t. Without an invitation, it’s an invasion. Combine that with a dog that feels the need to protect its human, and we suddenly have a dog that’s claiming that human as territory.
It’s perfectly fine to allow our dogs into our intimate zone, of course, but only when we invite them in. At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with teaching our dogs to stay in the social zone when they aren’t invited to come closer. This teaches the dog how to respect the human.
Q: You showed how Sam’s nervousness affected Matilda’s energy on the leash, but how does that explain Matilda attacking another dog through the fence?
A: Energy traveling down the leash will affect a dog immediately, but if the owner is constantly in a nervous state, it carries over into the dog’s home life. In effect, Sam and Jim were projecting their worry onto their dog, who picked up on it and started protecting the territory. When Coco put a paw under the fence, Matilda attacked it as a threat.
Notice that when we went to the dog park, Matilda didn’t associate Sam and Jim’s initial nervous energy with the new place. So, when we brought her in and I let her off-leash, she was more interested in exploring the place and meeting new dogs. And, of course, it was very important to bring her to a calm state before entering the dog park.
Q: Why did Matilda attack Coco again when you were about to meet Jim and Sam?
A: Because the humans expected it to happen and tensed up on the leash. Then, when Matilda broke away, everyone panicked. I know from experience that a dog fight absolutely requires calm, assertive energy, but as you can see on the show the people started yelling. That negative excitement just adds to the energy of the dogs, and can make the consequences of the fight much worse.
Luckily, I was able to get in there in time and separate them before any of the dogs or people were injured. Again, this incident is a reminder of “Be the change you want to see in your dog.” As humans, we telegraph our expectations through our energy and body language. Other humans may not be able to read that, but all dogs can and do, constantly. Learning how to become calm and assertive is not only the best way to help our dogs achieve balance, but the best way to find balance in our own lives.