The Importance of Resilient Dogs
Updated: May 25
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.
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
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