According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy or even significant sources of stress. This process is obviously seen in humans, but what does it have to do with dogs?
The ASPCA and other animal welfare professionals are concerned about resilience in dogs because, for some dogs that end up at a shelter, a lack of resilience is a major obstacle to successfully rehoming the dog. Despite shelters’ best effort to mitigate the stress of being in a shelter, the stress of being in a shelter can lead to some dogs developing pretty depressing and challenging behavior, such shutting down, becoming frantic, or even defensive aggression.
Recently, ASPCA Professional hosted a webinar called “Building Resilience in Dogs” by Dr. Patricia McConnell, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. (If you’d like to see the whole webinar, follow that last link – you can register to receive the recording of the webinar!)
I am personally interested in resilience in dogs because my younger dog, Luna, is the least resilient dog in the world. OKAY – that may be a slight exaggeration! However: Luna’s recovery time from a single stimulating event (which includes things such as: playing with a toy, going on a walk, someone coming to the house, etc.) is hours if not days. Since I have organized Luna’s routine to accommodate adequate recovery time, many of Luna less-than-desirable behaviors (including becoming frantic and inappropriate defensive aggression) all but disappear.
This can be tricky though, if we have to have a handy man over to the house and then Luna unexpectedly needs to go to the vet – or a hundred other eventualities that I’m sure you can imagine! Hence my interest in building resilience in dogs: if I can build up Luna’s resilience, maybe I won’t have to be quite as vigilant about guarding Luna’s recovery time.
A dog’s resilience seems to depend on her genetics, early life experiences, and current environment. By the time a dog enters shelter, there typically isn’t much that can be done about those first two factors. Fortunately, Dr. McConnell, the ASPCA, and other animal welfare professionals have identified five ways we can set up a dog’s current environment to help foster resilience.
Dr. McConnell talks extensively in the webinar about the following strategies in the context of a shelter environment (so really, check out the webinar recording!!). Here, I am going to illustrate these strategies with things that I have tried, am trying, or would like to try in my own home for my own un-resilient dog!
1. Sense of safety and security. In general, dogs take in a lot for stimuli than us humans and it can be overwhelming, especially for a dog that is already feeling low on resilience due to a stressful event. Think rock concert + strobing light show + an entire perfume department: you might want a break too! Additionally, for a dog suffering from a lack of resiliency, knowing that it’s safe to sleep, when the next meal is coming, where and when she can go to the bathroom, etc. can be sensibly comforting. How can you create a sense of safety and security? Two main ways: avoid sensory overload and create predictability.
- Avoid sensory overload
- Give the dog a seclude “quiet spot”, like a crate or a room that is out of the way of household traffic and let everyone in the home know that the dog is “off-limits” when she is in her quite spot. Encourage or enforce your dog’s use of the quiet spot both during down time at home and when things are a little hectic.
- Maybe even cover the dog’s crate with a blanket (not for dogs who chew and/or eat cloth, obviously!).
- Train your dog to wear a ThunderCap, which reduces visual stimuli.
- Create predictability
- Create (and stick to!) a routine. Meals, exercise, playtime, and down time should all occur at roughly the same time every day.
- Teach your dog cues to indicate something is going to happen. For example, Luna gets worked up over treats (she is a lab) so I say her name before I give her a treat and I say my other dog’s name when I am about to give my other dog a treat. Luna does not have to guess who is getting the treat!
- Other times cues can be useful: nail trims, taking a turn or stopping during a walk, baths, meal times, end of playing (“all done!”), hitting a bump while in the car, etc.
- Classical music adds to the calming predictability of home (or just the dog’s quiet spot) by adding predictable sounds (and maybe even blocking out some unpredictable sounds!)
3. Social support. Dogs tend to like other dogs – they just speak the same language! So it can be helpful to provide the company of dogs on the way to a resilient recovery…but it might not. Dogs that have not grown up around other dogs or who have had bad experience with another dog in the past may prefer the company of humans. Regardless, dogs are social creatures who (generally) enjoy social interactions.
- Spend time with your dog in a way she appreciates (i.e. snuggles with a dog who likes that, quiet time (or read aloud!) with a dog who is not so touchy-feely).
- Arrange for one-on-one play with another friendly dog or visit a well-maintained dog park.
- Arrange a walking club. For dogs that may not be comfortable with off-leash play, introducing a dog friend as a walking buddy (when both dogs are leashed and kept at a comfortable distance) may be helpful.
4. Sense of autonomy. Autonomy means, for a dog, having a choice. And let’s face it, the dogs in our lives do not have many choices: we decide the what, where, and when of her eating, going to the bathroom, playing, sleeping, going on a walk, visiting the vet, and so on. Providing opportunities for a dog to choose what they want to do, when they want to do it.
- Use the basic principles of no force. A no brainer if ever there was one – never, ever force your dog to do something she does not want to do.
- Teach behaviors that the dog can initiate herself, such as ringing a bell to go outside or going to a quiet spot.
- Teach the dog tricks. This gives the dog appropriate behavior options to offer to you and also, when you ask the dog to perform a trick, you’re setting up a situation where the dog really does have a choice to perform the trick or not (with no negative repercussions).
5. Healthy and Balanced Internal Physiology. Just like humans, it is hard for dogs to behave well when they are feeling bad. And beyond veterinary care and good food, dogs need mental and physical exercise to be at their best.
- Time outdoors. Given her own experience and the results of many research studies in humans, Dr. McConnell feels that time outdoors can be profoundly therapeutic to dogs. While I do agree, this is something that Luna struggles with because A) squirrels, B) sticks, C) people walking down the sidewalk, D) noises…you get the picture.
- Regular exercise. This is so critical for so many dogs. A tired dog is a happy dog, some say – although really, it should be, “a satiated dog is a happy dog”. Overworked and overwhelmed dogs are tired, yes, but happy? Nope.
- Mental games, like teaching and performing tricks and using puzzle toys. Luna is so helped by mentally taxing work, especially scent work. Sometimes she is not able to go on our near-daily walks, but she is always able to play “sniffy boxes”. If you have an anxious dog, I highly recommend finding a trainer who does scent work.
Have you tried any of these strategies with an anxious or un-resilient dog? Do you have any suggestions for building resilience in dogs?