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Friday, May 6, 2011

"It's okay..."

"It's okay" is a phrase I hear all the time in the waiting and consultation rooms. It is a phrase that should never, ever, be uttered to a dog. Our reaction to our dogs' fears and anxieties, however, is entirely understandable. We immediately want to extricate the fear reaction by telling our dogs that "everything is okay." But it's not. You are simply rewarding a dog for negative or unwanted behaviour, invariably telling the dog that it's okay to be fearful of loud noises, to be fearful at the vet, fearful of a stranger, to growl or bite the vet, to walk across the street, to bite the hand that feeds him. You are reinforcing a negative behaviour.
I tell clients that it's entirely natural to say "it's okay," as we are the dogs' caregivers, we love our pets. It's natural, but it's not okay.
Redirecting a fearful response is far healthier for the pet and will stick long-term. You can do this by using the dog's favourite treat (literally: something the dog loves to snack on). When your dog is exhibiting fear or anxiety and you find yourself starting to utter "it's okay," bite your tongue (often literally), and have the dog perform a simple command like "sit" or "stay" or "heel" and reward them immediately for having completed the task. This redirects the behaviour away from a fearful one and rewards the dog, rendering the entire experience a positive and beneficial one.

This is never okay!