Clearly, one of the best ways to help your dog have a better quality of life is to reduce the amount of stress she experiences. The first step is to make as complete a list as possible of everything that is stressful for her. This includes mild stressors as well as the significant ones. Stressors stack up like building blocks to push your dog beyond her ability to cope with her environment; eliminating even the milder ones can help keep her below that threshold. Here are five strategies for reducing stress:
- Classical counter-conditioning. This involves changing your dog’s association with the thing she finds aversive by associating it with something wonderful (such as delicious bits of roasted chicken). This is a slow process and you must be sure to keep the intensity of the stimulus below threshold – so the dog sees it (or hears it) and is aware of it but isn’t stressed. Your goal is to convince her that other dogs (children, men, sounds) are wonderful because they make bits of chicken appear. It is not about reinforcing a desired behavior; her calm behavior doesn’t make the chicken appear, the presence of the aversive stimulus does.
- Operant conditioning. This involves reinforcing desirable behaviors. You can use this in a couple of different ways. If you teach your dog to adore a certain behavior (or behaviors) such as “Touch,” “Find It” and “Walk Away,” you can use her very positive association with those behaviors to put/keep her brain in a happy place even in the presence of a stressor. As with counter-conditioning, this works best if you can start with a low-intensity stimulus.
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