In fact, we all do. Known as the amygdala, it consists of an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe. This part of the brain plays a key role in the processsing of emotions, and when we're working with dogs who are overreactive, it is this part of the brain we as dog trainers are contending with.
The amygdala is hungry, selfish, horny, and when stimulated, more often than not, produces feelings of fear. Critical for survival in the wild, the role of the amygdala modulates our reactions to events that warn us of imminent danger. What we also know is that the amygdala also informs our reactions to events like the presence of sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and food. (And now you know a big part of why positive reinforcement trainers love to work with food - it's neuroscience!)
This is where we, as science based dog trainers working with reactive dogs, live and operate. To help a reactive dog become less reactive and better in control of his or her own emotions, we must quiet down the lizard brain and get our dogs working with their limbic system. If we can get our dog's lizard brain's to quiet down, we can start to effect the change in associative behavior we need. But how do we get the amygdala to just shut up?
1. Slow down. Instead of charging our dogs into every scary new interaction or situation, we need to slow things right down. Take our time getting out the door. Engage with our dog's higher reasoning long before anything frightening is on the radar. Control of this nature takes time, patience, and forethought, particularly with a dog that is used to charging out the door, but it can and should be achieved with every dog.
2. Get space. Not all dogs need to be interacting with everything they encounter. My Cocker Spaniel Gus, for example, has a real fear of unusual things left out on the street. One great example is the pair of us walking at around 9pm last fall, and just down the street someone had left a sink on the curb. About 30 feet from the thing Gus comes to a dead stop and stares at me. Confused, I tried to encourage him along. The only way he was going to proceed was to do a big wide arc around the sink - he had no interest at all in engaging with this inanimate, shadowy object in the distance. I had a choice here: I could have dragged him past it at my convenience, and paid no attention to a fearful reaction based on no real or present danger, but what would be the point? To add to his terror? To save me a few extra steps?
Acknowledging your dog's fear allows you to moderate the response, keep it from becoming a full blown panic attack, and going forward, gives you the opportunity to do some conditioning work to change the reaction. But it doesn't have to happen all at once. What's the rush, anyway?
3. Get some help. Sometimes we're so close to our dogs it can be hard to see the forest from the trees in terms of their behavior. Identifying what triggers emotional overreaction in our dogs is not an easy task, particularly when those triggers are numerous and the fear response incomprehensible to us in those particular situations. Figuring out how to manage an ever-changing environment to ensure your reactive dog has the space he or she needs can be challenging. Knowing how to systemically and humanely that underlying fear requires a number of interrelated approaches applied according to schedules and intervals of reinforcement that can be, particularly at first, difficult to apply consistently. Finding someone who specializes in helping fear reactive dogs to support and teach you how to do this work will allow you and your dog to have a much happier, calmer, and more enjoyable life together.
4. Get educated. If your dog trainer isn't imparting these handling principles to you, and teaching you how to apply what they do in an everyday way, find a new one who will. There is nothing mysterious in dog training. We are not magical, dog-speaking animal whisperers to whom the secrets of everything dog have been imparted. We are specialists, and the best of us do this work with a hope that what we know and have learned to apply to our clients becomes common knowledge. So that no dog has to suffer in fear without help any longer than absolutely necessary.
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Toronto and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She is the author of two books on dog behavior: Pandemic Puppy, Decoding the Dog Park, and the Big Book of Dog Training.