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The Importance of Resilient Dogs

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Do you know if your dog is an optimist, or a pessimist? Optimistic dogs are more likely to expect good things to happen, while pessimistic dogs are more likely to expect bad things to happen. This can affect their behavior in different ways.


Optimistic dogs are more likely to be confident and outgoing. Dogs with this personality trait will be inclined to try new things and explore their surroundings. They are also more likely to be social and enjoy spending time with people and other animals.


Pessimistic dogs are prone to be cautious and shy. They are less likely to try new things and may be more likely to hide or run away from unfamiliar situations. They may also be more anxious and stressed.


It is probable that an optimistic dog will be more resilient than a pessimistic dog. Increasingly I've become interested in the idea of promoting resilience in our dogs. Resilience in animals refers to the ability to cope with stress and adversity. It is a measure of how well an animal can adapt to changes in its environment and maintain its health and well-being.



What makes a dog resilient?


There are a number of factors that contribute to an animal's resilience. These include:


  • Genetics/Personality: Some animals are simply born with a higher level of resilience than others, and are naturally more optimistic and hopeful. These animals are more likely to see the positive side of things and to believe that they can overcome challenges.

  • Early experience: The experiences that an animal has in its early life can have a lasting impact on its resilience. Proper socialization as a puppy can positively impact a dog's coping skills. Animals that are raised in a safe and supportive environment are more likely to be resilient as adults.

  • Coping skills: Dogs that have learned effective coping skills are better able to deal with stress and adversity. These skills may include things like problem-solving, relaxation techniques, and social support.


While resilience is definitely something that should be considered when obtaining a puppy from a breeder, genetics is something that cannot be changed in a dog that is already in the home. Unless you have a puppy, early experience is also something that may be outside the ability of the owner to influence.


puppies playing on obstacles


The importance or resilience


Why is resilience so important? And why should we take the time to help our dogs develop it?


Dogs that are resilient are better able to cope with stress, changes to their routine, environment, and unpredictable events or noises. They are also better able to bounce back from adversity, such as injury, traumatic events, or the loss of a loved one.


A dog who is not resilient and lacks confidence should not be considered a lost cause. There are definitely things that owners can do to help their dogs develop resilience.


As a trainer who specializes in dog separation anxiety, I believe that helping a dog develop resilience is a very important tool in the treatment process. But promoting resilience in our dogs isn't important just for separation anxiety cases, it can help dogs overall in a lot of different situations. Most dog aggression and reactivity is caused by fear. Helping your dog develop resilience and gain confidence will help with behavior modification plans to resolve those problems as well.


There are basic requirements needed in order for an animal to develop resilience. These include:


1) A sense of safety and security, structure and predictability (consistent expectations)

2) A sense of control over their lives

3) Social support

4) Repeated, and routine positive experiences


dog being trained to get on dog walk


A sense of safety and security, structure and predictability (consistent expectations)


Safety and security are important for developing resilience, because when a dog is constantly worried about safety, it is difficult to concentrate on anything else. This can make it difficult to learn new skills, solve problems, and make decisions.


Giving our dogs the feeling of safety goes beyond making sure they don't run out into the road and get hit by a car, or ensuring that they have a safe, warm place to sleep. Remember that just because we know the dog is safe, doesn’t mean the dog feels safe.


Part of providing safety and security is paying attention to our dog’s emotional state, and doing what we can to help a dog who exhibits fearful behavior. It would be tempting to dismiss what we think of as an irrational fear, but to the dog it's not irrational at all.


When a dog's fear is triggered, the dog needs your help; and needs to be removed from the situation if possible. If the dog is consistently feeling fearful and it is impacting quality of life, behavior modification should be initiated. In most cases an owner may want to find a professional trainer to work with to come up with a training plan to resolve the dog’s issue.


Another part of this is making sure that our expectations are predictable. As an example, if sometimes the dog is allowed to jump on you and gets affection for it, but sometimes the dog jumps and gets yelled at or corrected, it creates an unpredictable situation. It’s hard to feel safe if you aren’t sure whether your behavior is going to be reinforced or it it’s going to be punished.


While dogs do thrive on predictability and routine, a regimented schedule isn't necessary to provide predictability. The way we communicate with our dogs can give them this as well.


For example, when I walk my dogs in my neighborhood, my only choice is to walk up the County Road where I live, and then turn around and come back the same way I came. Just before I turn back I say to my dogs “let's go back”. If we're going to cross the street, I will say to them “let's go across.”


I regularly communicate with my dogs as far as what is going on. I have a phrase that I use if I am leaving and they are not coming with me. This prevents disappointment as I'm getting on my shoes and they assume that we're going for a walk. I have another phrase that lets them know that when I open the back door I'm just throwing the recycling into the bin, and it isn't actually time for them to go outside.


It can be really stressful to have no idea what is about to happen, or to make assumptions about what is going to happen and find out you're wrong. Giving our dogs as much information as possible, can prevent this stress from occurring.


A dog's sense of control over their lives


If you think about what it's like to be a dog, we control almost every aspect of their lives. We decide when it's time for a walk, when they're going to eat their meals, where they sleep, what they can and cannot play with, and when they go outside to eliminate.


Animals that don't feel they have control over their environment can experience a range of negative effects, including:


  • Increased stress levels

  • Decreased physical activity

  • Decreased learning

  • Decreased interest in exploring their surroundings

  • Increased defensive behavior


Some of the ways we can give our dogs more control over their lives, and thus promote resilience include:


  • Enrichment that allows for dogs to practice their natural behaviors

  • Honoring your dog's body language, if your dog is trying to tell you they're frightened, find a way to get them out of that frightening situation.

  • Giving your dog choices such as allowing them to decide which direction to go on a walk, or allowing them to sniff when they want to.

  • Training your dog new behaviors using positive reinforcement.

  • Allowing your dog to opt out of playing with you, or their training sessions.

  • Respecting your dog's boundaries. Don't force your dog to do anything they don't want to do, such as giving them hugs or kisses. If your dog seems uncomfortable, back off and give them some space.

person training Yorkie to shake with treats


Providing our dogs with social support


Dogs are social animals, and rely on us to provide them with social interactions.


Contrary to the myth that you shouldn't comfort a frightened dog, there is research that actually shows benefits to doing so. When social support is provided to stressed animals, studies show that they exhibit less stress and recover faster from their experience than animals that do not have that social support. (Boissy and Le Neindre, 1997; Kikusui et al., 2006)


It is important to note that the individual providing the social support should not be stressed as well. Comfort and confidence should go hand in hand. So go ahead and snuggle with your dog when those thunderstorms come through!


person petting French Bulldog


Giving our dogs repeated, routine positive experiences


Positive experiences are important in helping a dog develop resilience because they help the dog to learn that good things happen in life. When a dog has positive experiences, it learns that the world is a safe and enjoyable place, which can help the dog to cope with stress and adversity in the future. The more of these types of experiences a dog has, the more likely they will become optimistic when in new situations.


Positive experiences can also help a dog to build trust with its owner. When a dog has positive experiences with its owner, it learns that the owner is a source of safety and security. This can help the dog to feel more comfortable in new and unfamiliar situations.


dog coming down dog walk


Conclusion


Although there is a genetic component to personality and whether a dog is born an optimist or a pessimist, genetics isn't the be all and end all. There are definitely things that an owner can do to help their dog become an optimist and develop resilience. In addition to providing social support and choice, there are games and activities you can do with your dog to help a dog develop resilience.


Resilience is an important coping skill, and will greatly prevent and reduce behavior issues and improve your dog's quality of life.


 

Do you need help training your dog? I offer virtual consultations for separation anxiety resolution, as well as for other behavioral issues or training needs.


I also offer in-person training within a 30 minute drive of Ixonia, WI.


I would love to work with you and your dog!



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