If you ever spend time with a concept trainer in person, then you'll quickly discover that we spend a lot of time talking about managing our dog's 'bucket'.
Imagine that in every dog's brain there is a metaphorical 'stress bucket' that holds stress from all the positive and negative experiences they have throughout the day. An example of positive stress might be the arousal experienced during a play session with a friend. Being barked at by a dog across the street, or being startled by a passing vehicle are examples of what may be negative stressful experiences. Some dogs have a large bucket and some a small one. The larger the bucket, the greater the amount of stress a dog can tolerate before the bucket overflows and we see negative behaviours such as barking, lunging and pulling on lead.
Every bucket has a hole in the bottom that allows our dog to ‘let go’ of the stress they encounter each day. Again, some dogs have a bucket with a larger hole than others and so can more quickly let go of stressful events that might really worry dogs with small buckets that have tiny holes! The size and breed of the dog is irrelevant – large breed dogs can have shot-glass sized buckets with holes no bigger than a pin and tiny chihuahuas can walk around with bottomless buckets the size of a bath tub.
Dogs who react strongly to their environment, whether that’s barking at passing dogs, pulling on lead to anxiously get to the park, or lunging at people in sunglasses and odd hats need help from their humans to empty their bucket and get back to a calm state of mind. After every ‘bucket overflow’ or reactive behaviour incident, a dog may need up to 72 hours to truly come back down from it and rid their bodies of the stress hormones that flood their systems during these episodes. When we constantly take our fearful or less confident dogs out, and repeatedly put them in situations that they find stressful (and for some dogs, this could mean their daily walk) they do not get a chance to empty their bucket and truly get back to a relaxed state.
Many of us are confined to our homes and yards right now, and this may just be the best thing that could happen for our dogs. Think of this time as a ‘bucket holiday’ for your pup. A time where you can safely provide them with physically and mentally enriching experiences in the safe environment that is your home. A time where they do not have to worry about loud traffic whizzing by, an off-leash dog running up unexpectedly or encountering people who do not understand that social distancing should *always* be a thing when it comes to dogs that aren’t their own unless they ask and the dog is comfortable. A calm state of mind means less reactivity, better choices made and a happier, healthier dog.
The good news? We can play games to help increase the size of our dog’s bucket and the size of the hole…tips for both will be coming in a subsequent post.
Challenge: For one week, replace 1 daily walk with some interactive game play with you at home and follow it up with a frozen kong, liki-mat or long-lasting chew for you dog to enjoy. You will likely notice that you dog is more calm and able to cope better with things that previously would tip them over their threshold.