Downeast Dog News

"Uh oh!"

What to do now?
By | May 01, 2021
Photo by: This under-socialized older puppy is having an "uh oh" moment when presented with a simple surface challenge. We had to make it much easier for her to get from Point A to Point B with confidence.

Some dogs go through life confident that all is well with the world: their metaphorical supper dishes are perpetually half full. 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 the way life should be! For those of us with dogs convinced the world is out to get them, walks can be a real challenge. Triggered by the smallest things, these dogs risk spiraling into veritable panic attacks. Imagine an existence where you are under the delusion that you may be attacked at any moment. It would be very stressful, to say the least. Sadly, some of our canine friends go through life this way.

It is normal for a member of any species to be surprised by a sudden change in his environment. A good “bounce back” mechanism allows us to quickly recalibrate back to normal after a surprise, back to a state of comfort and safety. A resilient dog is able to weather the storm of unpredictability and is less likely to experience the level of fear that can, in some cases, even lead to aggression. The ability to bounce back functions as an emotional shock absorber. Sometimes our dogs need our help with the rebound.


We’ve all seen this pattern:

1. Dog is happy

2. Dog notices something (we’ll refer to this as “the trigger”)

3. Dog has an “Uh Oh Moment”

4. Dog either a) quickly returns to “happy” (preferable) or b) fixates and over-reacts


The “Uh Oh Moment” is the moment our dog has noticed, but not yet reacted to, a potential trigger. A trigger could be an approaching stranger, a dog barking in the distance, or even a change in floor surfaces.

What happens next depends a great deal on your actions and will determine whether you help your dog build resilience or become more sensitive to future triggers.

Your dog has had an “uh oh moment.” What to do?


If you don’t think he’ll bounce back within 3 seconds, intervene! The bottom line is that you must help him feel SAFE. It is counter-productive to try to push a dog through his fears by enabling him to continue to react or to repeatedly expose him to his triggers without support and skills training.



Orient him away from the trigger.

Block his view with your body. If your dog is small enough, pick him up and face him away from the trigger (if this is safe for you, too).

“Get out of Dodge.” Create sufficient distance between your dog and the trigger so that he feels safe again.

“Change the Subject.” Engage your dog in his favorite game as long as he can focus on it. This may mean moving away from the trigger.

TRAIN fun behaviors that you can "take on the road." Refer to my April 2021 column for suggestions on how to weave triggers into training.


What affects resilience?

Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), states that there are two main factors that affect resilience:

1. Genetics. “The genetic makeup 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 is a lifesaver.

2. 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]

The more “uh oh moments” our dogs have, the quicker they will go there in the future. “Reactive” can become a default reaction. We must make it a priority to positively expose puppies to novel stimuli before they have a chance to create negative associations. It’s not too late for our older dogs, but it takes time, patience and know-how.

Trigger-Stacking is when there are multiple triggers present. Individually, these triggers wouldn’t cause an “uh oh moment” for your dog, but when stacked together, it’s too much for him to cope with.

Happy Training!