The Pressure Gauge

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.

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13 Responses to The Pressure Gauge

  1. lexy3587 says:

    Very interesting. I hadn’t ever thought of it that way, but looking back at a few instances where Gwynn was super excited at seeing a cat, but not sooooo excited that he wasn’t willing to redirect towards a treat, he definitely snaps it up with a lot less of the gentleness he otherwise shows. Really enjoying your blog – it gives a lot of great insight on my dog’s behaviour and reading it better 🙂

  2. Sam Tatters says:

    Oh so very true, I’ve often had a few odd looks when I’ve remarked to my dog that they just took that treat a little bit hard, and asked them what’s wrong (hey – it’s worth a try!).

  3. I’m working with a client who has a leash-reactive Golden Retriever right now, and her first sign of stress ALWAYS is her mouth getting “harder” as she takes treats. Great article! 🙂

  4. Kristin says:

    Thanks for the insight! I just experienced this yesterday with my dog Barkley. I was asking him to ignore some kids playing baseball (a huge trigger for him). He was holding it together and so I was giving him treats, and he nipped me instead of the treats. He’s normally super dainty and polite so I knew his stress levels were up. In this situation, do you use praise instead of treats? He responds to praise but not as well as hot dogs, especially in high stress situations. Thanks again!

  5. Sadie Cooper says:

    This is spot on and certainly true of my leash reactive mutt. When I walk her it is a sure sign of her stress or arousal level.

  6. Sonya says:

    With the targeting, which “force” of impact indicates stress? Can you explain a little more please 🙂

  7. Mia says:

    Excellent entry Nicole, this is so true! I’ve been going to obedience classes with my dalmatian for a few months and I’ve also experienced this ‘hardening’ of the mouth, especially when new dogs come in or when we’re doing new excercises. Any recommendations to reduce this stress level?

  8. Evelyn Haskins says:

    Thankyou! 🙂
    Like everyone else here (apparently :-), I’ve noticed this, but never ‘realised’ it.

  9. Matthew says:

    The amount of teeth I feel when my dog takes his “treat” when dealing with his fear triggers has always been an good indication of his stress levels.

    one of the things we hear is a dog stops taking food when stressed. while this is true, a dog can be under a good amount of stress and still take food. As such I use the feel of teeth and grabbing for the treat as a early warning that we have or are about to cross a threshold.

  10. Rebecca Rice says:

    Yep… I can tell when my Pixie-pup has gotten amped up on our walks by how hard she takes the treats. She’s generally a good dog, does have a tendency to reflect other dogs’ energy level, and I live in a neighborhood with several gate-charging dogs. We have worked hard on walking calmly past them, but if she has had to deal with other loose dogs on the walk, she definitely takes her treats harder when we pass the gate-chargers. It’s a handy reminder to me that “thresholds” are not static, and what kind of day you are having will shift what you can tolerate later.

  11. Jerry I says:

    When I walk my dogs, I carry Stop & Pepper Spray. I don’t ever want to hurt a dog or other animal for that matter. Often I am walking someone else’s dog for training. I hope the stop will work, but if not I have the Pepper Spray. I’m considering a CWP as well. We have a large population of poorly trained dogs. Mostly I just avoid being in places I know others bring their dogs. I own an indoor park and I supervise it. I also live on an acre. I am priviledged in that respect.

    See you in a few weeks Nicole, till then, I hope you don’t run into that jerk again. I am looking forward to meeting you.

  12. viveca says:

    Excellent. I am in full training mode with my action boy and am thankful his trainer told me to spot anxiety and arousal in how he takes his treats. Knowledge puts safety first.

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