Downeast Dog News

The “Uh Oh Moment”

Bouncing Back from Perceived Danger
By | May 01, 2017
Photo by: google images This dog is way past her "uh oh moment" and is likely to bite if approached. She will need lots of intervention to help her feel more comfortable.

We’ve all seen it: the moment our dog has noticed but not yet reacted to something that worries him. It could be during a walk when a stranger approaches, when a dog starts barking in the distance, or when he encounters a slippery or novel surface. Everything seemed to be going quite well, then BAM, your dog goes from loose and happy to stiff and worried. I call this the “uh oh moment.” What happens next depends a great deal on your actions.

Some dogs go through life generally confident that all is well with the world and their personal survival is secure. Others are the opposite, convinced that danger lurks everywhere unless proven otherwise. Consider yourself lucky if you have a dog from the first category; your walks together are surely relaxing and fun! For those of us whose dogs think the world is out to get them, it can be a challenge to get through a simple walk without them spiraling into a veritable panic attack, triggered by the smallest thing. Imagine being someone who feels unsafe when faced with the slightest change in your surroundings. It would be very stressful.

It’s quite normal for a member of any species to be surprised by a sudden change in his environment. Take, for example, the time you were gardening, hands deep in the greenery, and a toad suddenly jumped out. You startled out of surprise, then almost immediately registered that it was just a toad, then you bounced back to gardening, the toad long since gone. This “bouncing back” mechanism allows us to quickly recalibrate back to normal, to a state of comfort and safety. A good bounce back contributes to a resilient individual. A resilient individual is able to weather the storm of unpredictability and is less likely to experience levels of fear that can lead to aggression.

Resilience is “the capacity… to maintain… integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.” (Zolli and Healy). Not everyone has it, however, in sufficient supplies.

What affects resilience?

According to Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., esteemed Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), there are two main factors that affect resilience: genetics and socialization.

Genetics. “The genetic make up of an individual can have a significant influence on an animal’s ability to bounce back, primarily by changing the function of multiple neurotransmitter pathways,” says Dr. McConnell. Many traits are passed down the gene tree besides the cuteness factor: resilience can be an actual life-saver.

Socialization. What happens during a puppy’s early development - even during his first few weeks - can dictate the level of his future coping skills. “Mildly discomforting events make individuals more resilient, while extremely stressful ones do the opposite.” [McConnell]

Solution: intervene!

If your dog has an “uh oh moment,” quickly assess the situation. Better yet, prevent those moments from happening in the first place. If you don’t think he’ll bounce back right away, intervene by helping him feel safer before he panics. This might mean simply inviting him aside in the case of an oncoming stranger and offering him a favorite and awesome treat or toy, visually blocking him from the source of his angst or making his route easier (then later build up his confidence). It will most likely mean adding distance from whatever he’s reacting to.

The more times our dog has an “uh oh moment,” the more he will automatically go there again in the future. The “uh oh! moment” can easily become a default reaction. The good news is that we can do something about it if we catch it early. With puppies, we must make it a priority to expose them positively to novel stimuli before they have a chance to create negative associations. With older dogs who have an "uh oh" default reaction, it takes considerably more time and patience. The bottom line is that our dogs want to feel safe and we can help them.

The ability to bounce back functions as an emotional shock absorber. Sometimes our dogs need our help with the rebound.