Dogs are very sensitive to body language, so the least little tense movement–a change of gait, a slight hunching of the shoulders–can be observed and interpreted as something being amiss. When we’re upset, our voices can go up slightly in frequency as well. Dogs get these nuances in ways most people don’t.
Masking strong feelings by acting like things are OK may not always work, either: It’s quite likely that dogs can smell fear, anxiety, even sadness… The flight-or-fight hormone, adrenaline, is undetectable by our noses, but dogs can apparently smell it. In addition, fear or anxiety is often accompanied by increased heart rate and blood flow, which send telltale body chemicals more quickly to the skin surface.
It makes for a trifecta of revelations to a dog: a bouquet of visual, auditory, and olfactory cues that makes dogs incredibly tuned in to how we’re feeling.
–Maria Goodavage, in Soldier Dogs
These paragraphs from Soldier Dogs really resonated with me. I’ve finally come to realize that I’m communicating much more to my dogs with my nervous system than with any amount of dog training. If I even just relax the muscles in my face and change my tone of voice, I communicate so much more to them than months or even years of training can. (I have found that the imprint of the training is there, and now that I’ve learned to chill out a little bit, the dogs can finally express all the positive things we’ve practiced. So I’m happy that I put in the work, but even moreso now that I can finally enjoy it.)
From a conversation I had with Kevin last fall, I came to understand that the five core exercises are meant to be used to rehabilitate the dog, not to be used indefinitely. If you go on with them for years and years and the dog stays the same, then the problem is not in the dog.
I now see that if I have a continuous and unchanging problem with my dogs, it usually means there’s some part of myself that I haven’t yet integrated. And that is actually fine as long as I recognize and manage the situation. But at the same time, I should also work to gain some self-awareness about what is up with my issues around: load/overload, addiction, fear, etc. Because I’ve been known to get caught in a feedback loop with my dogs in which I’m stressed, so the dogs are stressed, so the dogs act out, which makes me stressed. And so on.
I now believe that dogs are like perpetual children who can’t yet self-regulate, differentiate or self-actualize. They are always are in a process of attunement, and constantly looking to us for the “answer.” Their nervous systems get entrained with ours, et voilà, your dog is your mirror. When my dogs look at me, they are analyzing my body language, and especially what I’m communicating with my face, which is connected to my vagus nerve. So if I’m feeling stressed by my dog’s behavior, and then stressing them out with my behavior, I have to break this cycle of disregulation. I basically have to change my default settings. (Which is incredibly difficult to do and can take years of self-work, therapy, an act of God, or a willingness to believe in some sort of networked intelligence for the human heart, i.e. our ability to self-heal.)
This is not to say at all that the training is not necessary and that we can magically fix our dogs by fixing ourselves. Absolutely not. But if you’ve put in the time and done your work with the NDT core exercises (or as I like to call them: doggy somatics) and your dog is still acting up, or just can’t seem to change, then you gotta look at what you are REALLY communicating to your dog. Are you unconsciously telling your dog that the world is not safe by your subtle body cues? By your startle reflex, hypervigilance, and body odor full of stress hormones?
Does your dog training feel like serious work because lives are depending on your ability to “get it right”? Do you feel physically tired and emotionally fragile? Then you need to take a break, get yourself a massage and learn how to calm down. If you start to self-regulate, so will your dog. That way, when you practice your dog training, it will come from a place of emotional grounding instead of a stressed out nervous system.