Updated: Apr 18
Most of my behavioural work involves dogs that are dealing with some kind of fear and anxiety.
Whilst my caseload varies hugely, one of the most common worries is triggers outside, usually dogs, traffic, children, bikes, and scooters.
When I ask my clients what they have been doing to try and help their dogs feel better in these situations there are many tactics often tried but the most common one is trying to distract the dog with food, but I usually then hear it doesn’t work or has limited success, so why is this?
Now I must stress that there are several reasons a dog won’t take food, illness, pain, depression, lack of interest in the type of food, excitability, to name just a few
However, anyone that has worked with me would have heard me give this analogy.
Imagine someone is running at you with a knife, if someone then started to wave some cake in your face asking you to look at their new haircut, would you?
Your dog’s body and brain go through a lot when stressed whether that be acute or chronic. Long-term stress can really impact your dog’s health and certain stress hormones stay in the body for days, you may think your dog is starting a walk afresh the next day, but this may not be the case.
One of the hormones released in times of stress is Cortisol.
In survival mode, the optimal amounts of cortisol can be lifesaving. It helps to maintain fluid balance and blood pressure, while regulating some body functions that aren't crucial in the moment, like reproductive drive, immunity, digestion, and growth.
During stress, cortisol aids in moving blood flow towards the brain, large muscles, and limbs rather than towards the digestive tract. Therefore, the dog’s body is not concerned with digestion
and actually suppresses it in this mode.
I also personally feel that if you keep waving food in a dog’s face when they are feeling acute stress, we could do what I call “dirty the food”.
If food keeps appearing when a dog is feeling stressed could the food be linked to the stress?
I am not saying that food can’t be used, but it must be used correctly, and the timing is crucial.
Now, what I am NOT going to do is to advise what you should be doing because that would be hugely irresponsible as each dog’s situation is different. What I would say though is that a reputable behaviourist that understands what happens to your dogs’ brain and body during these times of stress and anxiety is key.
One thing I would hope we can all recognise is that doing anything aversive, such as shouting, jerking, water spraying, or as one client was told ‘to bark and growl’ at their dog is only going to increase stress not help to change it