What Is Your Nervous System Saying to Your Dog?

brindle babe

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.

Yappy Hour at Planet Dog

If you’d like to learn some fun exercises you can use to better communicate with your dog, come join The Evolved Dog and Natural Dog Training at Planet Dog Company Store for Yappy Hour on August 14th from 1-3 pm.

Kevin Behan, the founder of Natural Dog Training, will be demonstrating the five “core” exercises that anyone can (and should!) be practicing with their dog. These exercises build emotional rapport with your dog, creating a lasting bond. They also aid in keeping your dog grounded and well-balanced in any stressful situation.

Planet Dog is located at 211 Marginal Way in Portland, Maine. Hope to see you there!

Sometimes NOT Training IS the Training


Freya and Eva recently spent some time at the farm (doggie rehab) since I still needed help with Freya, and had also reached some sort of (albeit manageable) plateau with Eva. Kevin’s prescription for us: DOWN. That was basically it. He said, “If you don’t have a down, you don’t have anything.”

He also said it’s going to look like a lot of obedience work. Which normally, NDT is not focused on obedience, although eventually you do get the standard obedience behaviors from working the five core exercises.

The problem I had was that I loved the active exercises: the bite, the bark, the push. But I loathed the collection and could not settle myself long enough to relax my dogs into a rub-a-dub. I believe my nervous system has been fairly out of whack (on screech) for a good many years. That means I’ve been stuck in fight or flight, and in avoidance of the freeze response. Collecting and relaxing feel much like freezing (to me), and the reptilian brain only goes into a freeze response when unpleasant things are happening. So it’s understandable why someone with unconscious trauma may avoid these types of collection exercises. And it’s not that I had avoided them altogether, it’s just that my collection work was way out of balance with my projection work.

As a result, I’ve been overstimulating my dogs. So when we got back home, I set up “Leah’s Sober House For Owner Addicted Dogs” (and dog addicted owners). Eva and Freya were on bed-rest. Meaning, they were crated much of the time. After a couple days of protest to her crate, Eva settled into long naps full of guttural snoring. She was catching up on years of sleep (as was I). But they spent the sunny hours of the day taking turns relaxing in the yard. I’d look out at them in the yard and I’d have to check if they were still breathing, because I’d never seen them so relaxed before. Sometimes Freya would be sunbathing, and if I looked closely, I could see her nose working the air, just the muscles of her shiny black nostrils analyzing her environment.

The little training we did consisted of working the down, walking nicely on the leash, and evening massages before bed. This was the antidote for all the surging I had allowed in the years prior.

And it worked. I was no longer using my dogs to express my unconcious trauma. I was just letting them be dogs. It also reminded me of something I’ve heard Kevin say: “Up fixes down, down fixes up.”

So I would say what I have learned from all this that it’s not neccessarily that the down is the key to all of it (although in my particular case it was) but that if you don’t have balance, you don’t have anything.

And also, if you are a type-A, “too-sensitive,” over-achieving perfectionist, you may be unconsciously over-training your dogs in one way or another as an outlet for your unresolved emotion (which is basically fight or flight energy that never got discharged). You could very well be stuck in a load/overload cycle of addiction, even if your drug of choice is dog-training. Give yourself and your dogs a break. Un-training is the new training!

An Excellent Problem to Have


I thought I had created a slight problem with Freya when I recently did a little bit of box-work with her inside the house. I used her crate as the box, and it seemed to have all gone very well, helped her settle and find her “place.” After a few times of successfully settling on the box, I now had an issue getting her in the box when I simply wanted to crate her and not do a box challenge. Whenever we got anywhere near the crate, she was surging upwards to get “on the box.” So I found myself muscling a 65 pound dog into her crate. She was panicky because I was leaving, I was stressed because I was late for an appointment, and it was quite a struggle. This had never been an issue for us before! Ugh…

I pondered my dilemma as I drove away. I was kicking myself for creating this problem, but then the answer came to me: “I need to get the inside of the crate to be the end of the box challenge.” But would it work?

When I got home, I let her outside while I rearranged the furniture in my office. I took my flimsy folding table and put the crate on top of it. As soon as she came back in, I had her hop into the crate, easy peasy! She actually wanted to get in the crate (which was now also a box). As an added bonus, the table was wobbling under her weight, just like a balance board. So she had to settle herself in the crate in order to find solid ground. Cha-ching! I’d struck gold.

Later in the day after she went out again, I invited her back into my office while I was working (since she still needs supervision in the house). The Pergo floor doesn’t offer much comfort for a dog and she had no soft place to lay down. So she actually went over to the table where her crate was and asked to get in! Brilliant. I opened the door and she hopped in. There’s a wool blanket in there, and after rooting around for a minute while the table gently wobbled, she plopped down and had a nice snooze.

You see a video of how this setup works on My YouTube Channel.

When Your Adopted Dog is… Pregnant

And she gives birth to the most adorable puppies, but only one survives and then you have to give that puppy up for adoption. Yeah, it sucks. But, at least we saved two dogs from certain death. And gave the lost pups a proper funeral.

Freya Falcon Wings

Freya, the wonder dog, flew from Miami to Maine to find a home with me.

Preggo Freya

To many this dog would appear obvi pregnant, but me, I thought she was just a bit more oblong than my other females.

She had seen three different vets after being released from Miami Dade Animal Services, and NO ONE guessed she was preggo?! They kept saying, she must have just had puppies. Hello, milk!!! Where are the babies?


Selena My Moon Goddess

My name is Selena and I’m sweet as pie

Cutest Pit Bull Puppy

After I was weaned from mum, I got to go live on a horse farm in Durham, Maine, with a super nice lady named Pam.

This photo essay is just to get you caught up on the drama. You can read a fuller version of the story here: Just Say No To Dogs (Don’t Be a Hoarder).