I’m sure many from you share memories of your childhood when you were warned not to touch the thermostat in your homes. I remember my dad always yelling when we set it too hot or too cold. Now, years later, I find myself equally as concerned about a different kind of thermostat, this one in my dog. Her emotional thermostat.
All too often, we place too much emphasis on our dog’s behavior and not enough on their emotional state. The truth is that our dogs’ actions are a direct result of their feelings – and if we can help them to regulate how they feel, we can help them to behave in ways that will ensure their long term happiness. In other words, we can help them keep the emotional thermostat set at a perfectly comfortable level. This is what friends do for each other. They help each other to feel better and to be happy.
I work with a client who has a 2-year old boxer named Bear who becomes overly excited when he sees another dog. He pulls, barks, jumps and even defecates when another dog passes him on the street. His emotional temperature becomes too high. Getting Bear to regulate his emotions is helping him to not only make life easier for his human friend who walks him, but it also opens new opportunities for him to make friends with other dogs and increase his happiness.
There are a few ways to help your dog reset his or her emotional thermostat:
1. Attention. Conscious attention is limited. A dog cannot pay attention to all things at once. The larger the slice of “attention pie” your dog has on something, the more intense her feelings will be about it. When she has laser focus, the emotional intensity can be very high. By using distractions, like a treat, toy, calling her name, giving her a task (“Sit”), touching her, you can take a part of that slice away. The lower the percentage of attention to something, the less intensity of feelings.
2. Posture. Most of us believe that feelings and emotions will determine our body postures and movements. When feeling confident, we stand erect, and when feeling sad we may slump. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown that the reverse is also true: Posture and movement can impact feelings and emotions. With your dog, changing his posture from standing and jumping to sitting still can help lower the emotional temperature. In addition, if a dog is nervous or fearful, getting her moving can raise the temperature.
3. Physical touch. There are two basic systems at work in your dog’s body: the sympathetic nervous system which is the “fight/flight/freeze” response to stress, and the parasympathetic nervous system which is the “rest and digest” response, also known as the relaxation response. By practicing massage and breathing with your dog a few times a week, you can activate the relaxation response almost at will. These calming breathing exercises are simple to do, and you can learn how here.
4. Synchronization. I don’t think many people would try to stop a running horse by standing in front of it and blocking its path. That would not be a wise move. Rather, running alongside the horse and gradually slowing it down would probably work better. It’s the same with your dog. When our dogs become too heated, or even too cool, aligning ourselves with their feelings allows us to join with them and gently guide them back to comfort. This requires a degree of empathy and understanding on our part. When we can get into their hearts we begin to help them become fully happy and find equanimity.
In only a few short weeks, Bear has made remarkable improvement. He was able to sit calmly while I walked my dogs past him, and he even solicited play when allowed to interact with them. Each time his emotional temperature became too high, he was able to reset his his emotions to a comfortable level. I think Bear and his human are finally going to enjoy many new adventures together, at a very comfortable temperature.