Tonight I was reminded of how stressful events can effect a dog, even days later. I have this fantastic dog in one of my classes, he’s a really amazing guy with a tragic background. I’ve had him in class for 7 weeks now and he’s been amazing, the first week he wouldn’t take a single treat and was completely overwhelmed. He’s had the difficult task of learning how to learn, but he’s made some good progress in many areas. He’s always been very social with people, even the first week when he didn’t take treats he was eager to be pet/handled. Tonight I was petting him in a way I had done many times before (not in the beginning, but he put himself in the position a few times so I started petting him like that). It is a pretty rude setup (me looming over him–BAD TRAINER!) but he’s responded to me in that set up many times by leaning into me for more petting (he even gave this response before class started). Well, after class he was not happy about the attention and he let me know with a very deep chesty growl and followed up by a big reaction.
As soon as I felt the growl, I got my hands off him, turned sideways, looked down, and yawned… as soon as he had a pause in his reaction I gave him more space. Startled by the completely uncharacteristic behavior, I asked the handler. It turns out the previous weekend (so 4 days prior), the dog had to go to the vet where he got shots and got his nails clipped. He had as similar reaction to the person who cut his nails and then two other big reactions to people in the store (the vet was in a pet store). Now somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes later, he was coming up to me for pets and treats like nothing had happened. This reminded me of two things… 1. I need to be more aware as a trainer… what I was able to do many times before (even earlier in the class) doesn’t mean the dog will accept that handling move this time 2. this is a prime example of a dog that has had a reaction being more prone to another reaction.
When a dog has gone a time without having a reaction or being overly stressed their brain chemistry will be at a baseline level. This baseline can cope with sub-threshold stress levels and return to normal easily. But, once a dog’s stress level has surpassed the threshold and had a reaction, it takes between 7 and 10 days to return to the original baseline. Their “new baseline” is much closer to a reaction than before the first reaction took place. That makes no sense right? Well, hopefully this diagram will help a little.
Does that help? Essentially, after a dog has a reaction they are more likely to have another one until their brain chemistry gets back to baseline. If they continue to have reactions, the “Baseline” will continue to get closer and closer to “Reaction.” This is why it’s so important to try and keep dogs under threshold, especially after a reaction. There is a certain level of stress (subthreshold) that a dog’s body is able to recover from quickly but once a dog has a reaction it’s a longer process for the body to return to normal and each subsequent reaction sets back the dog’s return to baseline.
So, what about this particular dog? My suggestion was to give him 10 days with no reactions to let him return to baseline and then reassess the behavior. Given how quickly he went from “whoa I’m not okay with that right now” to “Okay, you can pet and feed me,” I am hopeful that it is just a situation where my movements and positioning reminded him of the vet and his body chemistry was already on edge (add in he was tired after an hour long class).
Lesson learned.. don’t be a bad dog trainer and keep my grabby hands to myself!