Developing psychological shock absorbers 3

I think it’s time to talk about developing psychological shock absorbers in our dogs’ training.

I am thinking of this because I’ve gotten a few comments about the bus video I posted where people are chiding the dogs for not being tucked perfectly out of the way, showing mild interest in other people, and one dog sniffing another dog’s butt, all while doing this very stressful brand new thing called riding a bus for the first time.

I think too many people place way too much emphasis on their dogs being perfect, and not enough emphasis on letting their dogs develop the psychological shock absorbers necessary to become happy, well balanced service dogs.

What do I mean by psychological shock absorbers (and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Brad coined this term)?  I mean that when something new and strange happens that they haven’t been trained for, they should be able to be mentally flexible, adaptable, and tolerant. 

A dog can’t be this way if they are expected to be perfect robots in every situation.  They need to have the freedom to do calming behaviors, to explore a bit, to learn about this new thing, and to decide on their terms how to react to it.

I’ll be the first to admit that it has taken me some time to learn this.  I was lucky that Ollie naturally was flexible!

For example, the first time I rode the bus with Ollie, I was SO concerned that he appear 100% perfect.  I told him to get underneath my seat, and he got close to doing so but didn’t.  I told him again.  He repositioned, and still didn’t go under the seat.  

I was so nervous that someone was about to scream “faker” at me that I started pushing him underneath the seat.  He wouldn’t move, so I pushed him harder and harder, and eventually was shoving him with almost all my might!  All that stress, and then my friend pointed out that our seats were over the wheel well, and there was actually no available room underneath these particular seats.  I had been shoving poor Ollie into a wall!

The first time Hestia took public transit (hers was a subway) I handled it very differently.  We got on, and I didn’t ask her to do anything.  I let her choose what position she felt comfortable in. She sniffed the floor a bit, trying to figure out what this new thing was.  That was fine by me.  She walked around a little bit to explore.  Again fine by me.  She looked around A LOT!  She especially was very interested in watching the doors open and close.  I let her look around in safe ways close to our seat.  She took in her environment, decided on her own terms what she was comfortable with, and extremely quickly became totally confident with the public transit environment.

Yes, eventually Ollie did become comfortable with public transit.  But it took longer than with Hestia.  I was lucky that Ollie was able to overcome my perfectionism and develop psychological shock absorbers on his own, because I certainly didn’t give him the freedom he needed.

So when you have a young dog that is beginning their journey as a SDIT, my point of view is that you shouldn’t be such a perfectionist.  Let them safely explore a bit, let them engage with the world on their terms.  They will develop mentally much more healthily, and by doing so, they will develop the psychological shock absorbers a good SD needs to handle all the unexpected things that come at a team during their lifetime.

I kinda just wish I had the personality to tell that to the commenter who forced her puppy to tuck perfectly and have continual eye contact with them for their first bus ride.  Poor puppy.

A small black and white service dog stands on the bus with her owner standing next to her.  Another large white service dog lies down at the back of the bus in the background.
A small black and white service dog stands on the bus with her owner standing next to her. Another large white service dog lies down at the back of the bus in the background.

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3 thoughts on “Developing psychological shock absorbers

  • Abigayle Dort

    I love this, I am a service dog handler and I also train dogs so a lot of times it feels like there’s a lot more pressure on me to have a perfect behaving dog. The thing is dogs are dogs and they are helping us however they are still dogs. It was a profound insight that I had to find out on my own.