In this post, I’d like to talk about something I call recovery time. It’s a huge concept to understand if you’re dealing with anxiety, aggression, or fear.
Let’s dig deep into this. A dog’s nervous system controls its ability to process stress. Fear, anxiety, and aggression all come from a place of stress. Your dog’s nervous system dictates how well he or she will press that stress. A strong nervous system can handle a lot of stress, while a weak one can only handle stress for a shorter period of time.
The nervous system is also a lot like the muscular system. If you want it to grow, you need to stress it! If I want my biceps to get bigger, I do curls and give it proper rest. That will make my bicep not only grow in size, but also grow in the ability to lift more weight for a longer period of time. That’s just how it works.
The same thing happens when you’re dealing with anxiety and stress. I’ll use the example of a doorbell, which causes many dogs pressure and stress. The doorbell response is actually a competing blend of emotions and feelings. At its core, the dog is often excited because someone new is around. There’s also fear because an unknown person is entering the house and a territorial pressure to defend the house. Overall, the situation is stressful.
That’s why so many dogs get aggressive, jump all over the place, or dart out the door. How do we get rid of these negative behaviors? By stressing them in a different direction. Put a dog bed twenty feet away from the door and tell the dog to sit on it every time the doorbell rings. Give the dog a strategy for coping with the stress. At first, the dog won’t want to do this—he’ll prefer to jump, bark, bite, or run away. But by using proper correction and motivation, you can get your dog to go there.
Just because the dog sits on the bed, however, doesn’t mean that he’s recovered. Many dogs will sit down, but keep barking . That’s because he’s still feeling the emotions that lead to negative behavior—fear, territorial anxiety, aggression—but if he’s been trained well, he’ll stay put. A lot of dogs will recover ten minutes later. Their bodies will be calm, they’ll stop freaking out, and they’ll be ready to greet someone.
After a handful of repetitions, ten minutes will turn into nine. Nine will turn into eight, and eight into seven, until the dog recovers immediately. That’s the goal: to have the dog recover within seconds.
Compare this to bicep curls. Maybe you start with twenty pounds, and once your muscles recover you can manage twenty-five. Maybe you can only run a mile in seventeen minutes but keep stressing yourself, and soon seventeen becomes twelve or even six. Recovery times get lower over time.
If your dog used to take your dog ten minutes to recover and now takes thirty-eight seconds, that’s literally the nervous system getting stronger. It’s now able to handle more, do more, and be more. That’s how stress can be positive.
A lot of dog trainers and vets will tell you to avoid stress and make sure that everything is rainbows and butterflies. But that’s not the real world. Your dog is going to feel stress. But you, as the owner, can harness that stress and create growth.
If your doctor told you to get stronger but told you not to lift weights because it would make you sore, you’d think they were being ridiculous. No door would ever say that. Unfortunately, many professionals say similar things about your dog’s brain. “Don’t stress the mind,” they say. “It’ll break.”
Of course, you can damage your bicep by curling too much weight or having bad form. You can also damage your dog by using stress. When done correctly, however, stress can help your dog push through challenges quickly and become much happier.
Track your dog’s recovery time, no matter what behavior you’re trying to reform. Push your dog to get better, and they’ll thank you!