How Your Dog Is Affected By Your Family’s Emotions

As humans, we all experience a very wide range of emotions for any given situation, at any given time. And oftentimes, we tend to ‘assign’ those same emotions onto the animal that spends the most time at our sides – our dogs.

The following is just a short list of some of the statements I consistently hear from my clients about their dogs:

  • “She knows exactly what she did wrong! The minute I came into the room, she ran!”
  • “He ate the arm of the couch because he was angry (or mad) that I went out without him!”
  • “He destroyed my son’s favorite pair of slippers to get even with him for yelling at him!”

In general, I spend a great deal of time dispelling some of the myths regarding a dog’s ‘emotions’ and more importantly, their ‘actions’ –  which are more reactions than actions.

What do I mean by this? Let’s review the above statements and break them down. In each one, the person is assuming that the dog’s actions are based on an emotion. The reality is that to feel guilty, or to retaliate out of anger requires a cognitive thought process… one of “I’ll show you!” Sorry folks… dogs do not possess the ability to dissect everything the way we do. They live in the moment and rely heavily on instinct. They clearly read your body language, their instinct of self-preservation kicked in and they decided to get out of the line of fire! They had no clue why you were displeased…. they just knew by your body language that you were!

On the flip side of that, there are basic emotions that dogs can/do feel for example, they can feel anticipation of something good or bad to come. If your child comes home from school every day at the same time on the bus, you will see them excitedly pace in front of the window or door as that time rolls around, and display excitement at every bus that passes until they see one stop and your child disembark. They can also feel happy when your child runs in, drops down on all fours and lavishes love on them. And because they can physically feel barometric changes, if thunderstorms frighten them, they may exhibit stress-related behaviors in anticipation of the impending storm. Other human emotions that dogs can feel and display are fear, feeling threatened, anxiety, sadness, and pleasure. I do not know for sure if they actually feel love, but by their obvious displays of affection, I like to think they do.

So why did I explain all of that and what does it have to do with my topic? Because how we feel, behave, and act can have a profound effect on our dogs, and can cause them to act or react in a positive or negative way. I had touched on this a bit in my article on teaching special-needs kids how to use “calm energy”. In one of the examples, I discussed the differences I saw in the way the dog reacted to the hyperactive child versus how they reacted to older or calmer family members, and then related my own personal struggles in my early training career of working with small toy breeds.

Even a calm, even-tempered, well-mannered and well-trained dog can react negatively in situations that they had once previously enjoyed but have since started to feel hostile.

My dog Reilley had enjoyed going everywhere in the car with me since he was a baby. All I had to do was grab my keys and he was running to his ‘Service Dog in Training’ vest so he could join me. About a year ago, from what seemed to be ‘out of nowhere’ he was hiding when I got my keys and didn’t want to go! I had to use firm commands to get him to come out, and when we got into the car, he would start whining, crying, and shaking. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why! Then one day the reason suddenly became very clear.

We had just finished at my doctor’s, he was calmly and quietly lying in the back seat, and someone cut me off. We were not in an accident- not even close- but the barrage of angry insults that came streaming out of my mouth had him crying and shaking all over again! And suddenly, I got it. In general, I tend to be a pretty up-beat easy-going person, but there had been quite a bit of emotional upheaval in my life at that time, and because I dislike driving to begin with, that became my time to ‘let it out!’ My husband had spoken to me numerous times about this and I knew my behaviors upset him, it just never occurred to me how much my actions and behaviors were affecting my dog!

How can this relate to your household?  Dogs rely completely on routine, schedules, rules and consistency… and in an ideal world, we could always stick to that! Unfortunately none of us live in an ideal world…. and things change. But in a dog’s world, just one of those four things changing on them can totally throw them out of balance. We all get angry, upset, frustrated, over-exuberant… and so do our kids! But scroll back up to that limited list of emotions that dogs feel… anything outside of those can be very confusing to them. Also, just because they may feel those feelings, it doesn’t mean they can understand them! A dog calmly sleeping when an argument erupts, or a door gets slammed, or shouting begins, can become frightened, causing them to resort to one of two behaviors that come instinctively to them; Fight or flight. Some dogs when panicked will take off and hide, others will steel themselves to do battle.

Remember also that sometimes it is not just family arguments or a child’s sudden temper tantrum that can set them off… An innocent game of tag between your child and their friend’s is confusing to your dog. They don’t understand the friend is ‘tagging’ your child – or even that it is a game! They see someone hitting a member of their pack, and they may suddenly go into ‘protection’ mode. Your teenager daughter’s high-pitched squeal while on the phone with her girlfriend may have startled and then annoyed you, but if Rover was relaxing on your son’s lap chilling, you may need a few band-aids as you remove his nails from your son’s leg!

So how do we keep everybody in the household (including the dog) safe? Well, the best place to start is by observing your dog during some of these times, and how they react. Start a journal marking down the date, the time, the action, the child’s reaction, and then the dog’s reaction.

Example:

  • 1/5/18 – 5:00 pm: Told John to turn off the computer and do homework 3X. He ignored me. I got angry and stormed upstairs while yelling. Argument ensued. Dog peed on the rug during that time-frame.
  • 1/6/18 – 7 :00 am: Woke Jane up for school three times. She missed the bus, expected a ride and I refused. Argument ensued. Dog started whining and panting and then hid the rest of the morning.
  • 1/11/18 – 6:00 pm: car backfired, dog started growling before he ran under the bed.
  • 1/12/18 – 4:15 pm – Michael came home from school, front door closed quickly behind him with a loud bang, dog barked at him then ran under the bed.
  • 1/13/18 – consistently noticing since the bedroom door was slammed, all loud noises scare him.

Essentially what this is creating is a document of how the family’s behaviors (yours included) are directly affecting the dog’s behaviors. Now, it is time to call a family conference. Begin by stating to your child or children that you are noticing some troubling behaviors in the dog lately, and to understand why these behaviors were happening and to best figure out how to help him, you began documenting what was going on prior to the behavior. Before reading any of the entries out loud, make it clear to everyone that this is not about pointing fingers or laying blame, but rather a group effort to figure out what you all, as a family, can do and change to help Fido.

Assuming the dog and the kids have a good solid relationship, it stands to reason they will all be interested in banning together to help him. You can also ask if there were any behaviors they might have noticed that you missed. If finger-pointing and blame begins, remind them gently that it is not about getting each other in trouble… its about your concern for the dog, who has always been nothing but kind and loyal to everyone, and helping him to overcome his new negative behaviors.

You can also potentially start an alternative list…. A ‘positive reactions’ list, that chronicles tender, loving or kind moments that you happen to notice. This way, if any of the kids are choosing to not be involved, you can gently remind them, “Michael, last week when you were really upset about not making the team, Fido sat next to you and didn’t move for hours because he knew you were upset and needed a friend. Are you willing to be his friend now when he really needs you?”

Once everyone is on board and willing to help, go back over the list one by one, and say something like, “Okay… John… how could you and I have communicated better about the computer, so we didn’t both get so angry?” etc.

Allowing the kids to have an active role helps to create unity… everyone coming together to create a calmer, happier environment ‘for the dog.’ All the while learning to be a bit kinder to each other. Talking without screaming and listening to each other. Acknowledging that they heard what the other one has to say. What they may not realize, however, is that they are learning to work together…and coming together as a family. Which in the end, is helping everyone! What a beautiful gift!!

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About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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