How dogs learn to cope

The question of how dogs learn to cope with fear became relevant to me when my dog Nishi met with a horrific accident and as a result developed a fear of dogs, making her dog-reactive. I will spare you details of what exactly happened, but my quest for answers led me to two significant pitstops – Turid Rugaas in Norway and the streeties (the free ranging dogs of my city).

Turid got me to take a step back from obsessing about how I could change Nishi’s behaviour to learning to see what Nishi - the individual - was capable of

Turid got me to take a step back from obsessing about how I could change Nishi’s behaviour to learning to see what Nishi - the individual - was capable of. When I did that, I got to see that not only did she already have the tools to cope with her fear, but over the years, I saw her go from a dog reactive dog, to a dog who became exceptionally good at convincing other dog-reactive and dog-wary dogs to befriend her.


Streeties exhibit the cognitive ability of dogs

Then there were the streeties. Observing streeties led me to a very interesting realization. Fear is a big part of all our lives, humans and non-human animals. It is critical for survival. Traumatic experiences are a reality of most of our lives, more so in the lives of free ranging urban animals, particularly streeties. While most streeties are excellent at peacefully resolving conflicts with each other, there still are the occasional fights and they are also subject to human inflicted abuse and accidents. But what streeties do not have is the luxury of allowing their fear or fear induced reactivity to dictate their social interactions. For a hyper social species like a dog, their social interaction with both dogs and humans is critical for their survival and so they have to find a way to cope. It is not uncommon to see streeties with clear signs of past abuse and trauma being incorrigibly friendly. Dogs that know how to do this are the ones who are the fittest to survive on the streets of India. And thus, knowing how to cope with fear is an essential part of their ethogram. They do not need humans to teach them how to do it.


How are streeties coping with fear, what are the tools they have, what is their motivation and what prevents our dogs from using the same?

At BHARCS, our motto is “Learning to learn from dogs”, which means we observe free ranging dogs to help us understand more about the behaviour of dogs. So obviously, the question on our minds was, how are streeties coping with fear, what are the tools they have, what is their motivation and what prevents our dogs from using the same. Seeing streeties do this so well, we were convinced that the tools are part of the ethogram of all dogs (and we are guessing of all human and non-human animals). Their hyper sociability provides the internal motivation, which too is hard wired. So, then where’s the rub? What’s missing or what is different in the lives of pet dogs? We identified three things :

  1. State of mind of the dog : Free ranging dogs that show ability to cope well are in general a lot calmer and far less adrenalized than pet dogs.

  2. True agency and free will : Being free ranging means that a dog gets to move away from triggers and approach only when they feel ready for it, at the pace that is right for them. They get to back out of the exercise at any time with no external influences or biases. No one egging them or pushing them. No pressure in the form or rewards or punishments.

  3. No interference : We have noticed that when streeties are trying to figure out how to deal with something scary or new, interference from humans or other individuals almost always impacts them significantly. In some situations that are not fear-related and but to do with cautious exploration of novel objects or situations, dogs do seem to take social cues from other individuals (dogs and humans) and this can have a expedient effect on them habituating to something novel. But if they are dealing with fear, then it just makes it hard for them to focus with interference and puts a spanner in the works. It can even so far as making the fear worse or having them develop new fears. But a side effect of having true agency is that a streety can pick the situation based on his/her needs in a given situation and avoid working in an environment that is unfit for the task at hand. A dog that needs social input from other individuals may chose to work in an environment that has other dogs he/she trusts and a dog that does not need interference may choose to work when there is low probability of other individuals.

Being free ranging means that a dog gets to move away from triggers and approach only when they feel ready for it, at the pace that is right for them. A side effect of having true agency is that a streety can pick the situation based on his/her needs in a given situation and avoid working in an environment that is unfit for the task at hand.

A close examination of the second and third point tells us something about how are pet dogs are in a very different situation. Our presence means that we are not only likely to interfere, even when we intend not to, but also influence their pace and process heavily.


Dogs are extremely sensitive to our facial expression, tone, body language and even the tension on the leash. Our latest ongoing studies on streeties show us that extremely subtle aspects of the body language influences a dog’s response. Something as subtle as a shift in weight, a smile, change in breathing, dilation of pupils etc….can result in the dog reading our desire and allowing it to influence their process. Dogs being such incredible team players, may end up responding to our bias and desires, by pushing themselves further than what may appropriate. While being egged-on to push themselves just a little more may be a great thing in competitive sport, it is not always ideal when learning to cope with fear. It may backfire badly, making it all worse and setting the individual back in their journey. Our experience has shown us that even a second more or an inch further can result in a complete collapse of the process and we see these dogs lunge or react badly. When we reach out to our own experiences of learning to cope with fears, we can appreciate how important our process is and the significance of it being done at our own pace. There is no reason to believe the same is not true of dogs and our observation of streeties and comparison with our work with pet dogs confirms this.

Dogs are extremely sensitive to our facial expression, tone, body language and even the tension on the leash. Something as subtle as a shift in weight, a smile, change in breathing, dilation of pupils etc….can result in the dog reading our desire and allowing it to influence their process.

With Nishi, we saw the impact of this influence, not only on how she responded to us, but also how other dogs responded to her and us. This video here is of Nishi interacting with a group of streeties. By the time we shot this, Nishi was well past her dog-reactivity and had become an expert at dealing with hostile dogs. This group of streeties lived in the space that we visited for our “sniffaris” and at first they were very hostile towards our dogs. Thankfully for us, this was a very large space and they were okay as long as we stayed about 500 meters away from them. Nishi did want to get them to change their mind but we were having no success, until one day we began to wonder if we were somehow negatively influencing this process. So we attempted to factor out our influence by changing our leash handling. We use an extremely long light leash and we used the length of the leash to stay as far away from Nishi, while at the same time keeping the leash as slack as possible and orienting our body slightly away from the entire interaction, while at the same time keeping an eye on the dogs. This was not easy to pull off, but we instantly saw the dynamics changing and the beginning of a more cordial social interaction. As soon as we felt more confident in the dynamic between the dogs and the environment, we took the leashes off and that is when we saw the most progress.

Given all of the above observations, we have now arrived at some sort of a formula, if one might call it that. When working with fearful dogs, the first thing we do is to address the mental state of the dog. We work on calming the dogs down. We do this with lifestyle changes that get their activity profile to more closely resemble that of free ranging dogs. This means, more calming activities like sniffing, chewing, exploring and less of adrenalizing activities. It also means a period of no exposure to triggers, through avoidance. This not only helps the dog calm down, but also shows the dog that the “option to walk away” is one that is always available to the dog, should he/she chose to take it.

When working with fearful dogs, the first thing we do is to address the mental state of the dog. We work on calming the dogs down.

Once we notice the dog is less “wired up” and see them thinking through situations, without having to do anything different, we also notice that the dogs chose to not avoid, but instead consider approaching their trigger. The first few times, it does not actually involve the dog approaching their “trigger”, but just considering it from a distance. And just this act is sometimes so intense that we notice these dogs end up sleeping for hours after their first experience of this nature.

After this, the dogs take different approaches and strategies, based on their personality and their personal needs. Once their cerebral process kicks in, then our role is limited to just two things :

  1. Find creative ways to control the environment, so that the triggers are few and far away, so as to not overwhelm the dog and always give the dog enough time and space to avoid and walk away

  2. Find ways to minimise our interference, by staying quiet, altering our handling of our equipment, being mindful of our body language, movements, our distance from the dog and reading the dog closely enough to respond according to their needs. Do they need us to shut up, so they can focus or do they need us to reassure them? How much of each do they need and when do we call it all off and walk away before it all backfires?

Our role is limited to just two things : 1. Find creative ways to control the environment 2. Find ways to minimise our interference

Of course, some dogs may have underlying pathological issues that influence their social interaction and emotions like fear. Obviously it then requires a multimodal approach. Some dogs, may have the skills to cope, but their idea of being social may not be what we picture it to be. Cheeru, my younger dog has demonstrated amply that she has good social skills, but reserves those for the few dogs and people she likes and for the most parts prefers to avoid social contact, much like me. Some dogs may need us, some dogs may benefit from the presence of other dogs they trust, some may need social input for part of the process and not for the rest. Each dog is different and observations of streeties tells us that beauty of true agency and free will is that to a great extent, one gets to put themselves in situations that work for them. So, as guardians of pet dogs, paying close enough attention to be able to tailor the situation to the needs of our dog is really our main role. If we do that, often, the tools that are already part of a dogs ethogram kick in and do the rest. Dogs want to learn to cope because it feels good to know how to deal with fear. Dogs do use opportunities that help them learn to cope because dogs, like every other individual, want to feel better. Feeling better is the internal motivation and that is already inside of each us and our dogs.


Dogs are extremely resilient animals that are highly equipped to deal with the man made world. These are skills built into them through more than 40,000 years of symbiotic coevolution. When we see streeties deftly navigate the insanely chaotic and heavy traffic of bangalore or being able to identify friendly and helpful humans at a glance, we know that these animals are capable of a lot more than we may be aware of. The question is, what is the environment that allows us to see the full extent of their cognitive abilities.


About the Author

Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist, an engineer by qualification and an educator in Bangalore, India. She is passionate about ethological studies of free ranging dogs in India. Sindhoor is the founder of BHARCS.BHARCS offers a UK-accredited level 4 diploma on canine behaviour and ethology and boasts of students from all parts of India and across the globe. Sindhoor is also the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE). While she wears many hats, being doggy-mommy to her dogs, whom she considers her inspiration and her greatest teachers, is her favourite role.


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