Dogs learn to be comfortable with the world through experience. Some dogs take most novel things in stride while others struggle to deal with anything different. Behaviorally healthy, well-socialized dogs have an easier time handling the unexpected than dogs who had rougher starts in life or are naturally less go-with-the-flow.
Learning to cope with new experiences is a lifelong process because there are an infinite number of them. For example, few dogs have had to deal with a child doing handstands, but Marley is one of them. He is accepting, though not particularly thrilled, about this activity. Here he is as my son wanders around him while walking on his hands. (Normally I encourage my son to be thoughtful of the dog and do his handstands at a greater distance from Marley, but I needed a video . . . )
Two factors may explain Marley’s lack of reactivity. One is that Marley is generally not reactive to anything. Sure, he gets pepped up when food or a walk are in his immediate future, and when he sees his guardian or any dear friend after a long absence, he is enthusiastic, but that’s about it. He does not react to popping balloons, power tools, crowds of people, bikes, skateboards or children giving him love. The other factor is that he has been around my son doing handstands for a number of years now, and it probably seems reasonably ordinary to him.
It would be extraordinary for any dog to be relaxed when seeing a child doing handstands for the first time. I once observed an extremely well-adjusted dog startle when he experienced this, presumably for the first time. Several years ago, my son was doing a handstand by the baggage claim area in an airport. (Don’t judge. If you’ve never taken an active 8-year old on a 10-hour plane flight, you may struggle to understand why I said yes when he asked if he could do a handstand. Like dogs who have not had a chance to exercise, my son was in desperate need of some activity.)
Regrettably, I failed to notice that a drug-sniffing dog was in the area, and when the dog came near us and saw my son, that dog visibly flinched. Thankfully, my son noticed and came down from his handstand just as I was telling him to do so, AND the dog’s wise handler immediately turned the dog away from us. Once he was at a good distance from us, the handler cued the dog for a sit and a down, which I suspect was a purposeful attempt to calm him down. I can imagine the handler’s despair at thinking his dog had been taught to deal with so much—people with canes or wheelchairs, kids running around and screaming, crowds of people in all manner of dress and carrying every large or awkwardly shaped item—only to have his dog confronted by the sight of a child walking on his hands.
From the dog’s and the handler’s point of view, it’s certainly possible to consider this bad luck. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to be exposed to yet another new experience and learn to accept it. It served as a reminder to me that no dog’s training and exposure to the world is ever complete. Every dog, even a highly trained working dog, still faces new experiences throughout his life.
Has your dog faced something so unexpected that you never thought to expose him to it on purpose?
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.