Have you ever slacked off on diet or exercise for a week or two? Well, you know what happens. It’s the same with behavior modification practice with dogs. After teaching a weekend seminar in southern CA and then attending a 4-day seminar in Houston, I’d been off morning park duty for at least a week. My husband had taken the dogs out once while I was gone, which was nice, but it wasn’t the type of walk where anyone with four legs got any feedback on how to act around other dogs.
This morning, after Sierra and I made our usual loop around the short hiking trail at the park, we came down the final hill, which runs alongside a house with a yard. This yard is often inhabited by a German Shepherd who takes his job seriously. Sierra anticipates the possible encounter and becomes hyper-alert, so I’ve taught her that on that final descent (yeesh, can you tell I’ve been flying too much?), her job is to walk by my side and ignore anything that’s black and tan and raising hell. She’s been doing well, but this morning when I went to reward her with a treat for sticking by my side, I got an unpleasant surprise. It was a sharp, intense pain on one of my fingernails. She’d taken the treat, allright, but clamped down very hard when she took it. Her aim was a bit off, too.
Fortunately, I understood that taking treats with that sort of forceful gusto can actually be a sign of stress. Here Sierra was, trying to keep it together and do what I’d taught her, but her arousal level was so high that she literally couldn’t help herself. Of course, her arousal level wouldn’t have gotten that high had she been thinking about what she was supposed to do, rather than spiraling out of control emotionally.
The force with which a dog takes treats can be a good indicator of their stress levels. Not only will a dog grab a treat out of over-arousal as in Sierra’s case, but it can happen when a dog is afraid of the person holding the yummy treats. Many people try to lure a fearful dog to them, assuming that treats will create a good association. But if the dog’s desire for the treat outweighs the fear, at least temporarily, the result is often a dog who stretches forward with the muzzle and front of the body (the back legs are waaay back), snatches the treat roughly, and retreats.
Even when doing targeting (having the dog touch their nose to your hand), the force with which the dog jabs the nose at the hand is a good indicator of stress levels. Every dog comes with a built-in pressure gauge in the form of their mouth. Smart humans notice and make use of it.