From Chaos to Calm – The Complexity of Mood Control in Pets
When it comes to mood control, dogs and cats are not experts.
One thing that is said to me commonly is that
“When meeting another dog, my dog barks and lunges aggressively and will not listen to a thing that I am saying. I pull him on the lead and say ‘BAHH. Bad Dog’- and he never responds”.
The reason is that the dog has reached an over-aroused state where it cannot think in logical processes – and at that state of arousal ‘stupid English communication’ rarely works. Neither will Japanese, Russian or Cantonese!!
So the dogs goes from a state of calm, to a state of chaos.
He or she will regain the state of calm at some stage because all behaviour has:-
- a beginning
- a middle-bit and
- an end
Working with the ‘calm to chaos to calm cycle’ is a vital part of behaviour modification and the goal of behaviour modification is to move the ‘end’ up to the ‘beginning’ thus eliminating the problematic middle bit.
Now considering your dog or cat, look at the graph below.
The pink dog or cat is likely the one you are worried about.
Let’s look at the time-line of the graph
On the time-line of the calm to chaos cycle a ‘stimulus’ occurs that heightens your dog’s arousal level. (That’s the oval circle on the graph.)
In cases that I see, the stimulus is often one that worries a dog. (In more correct terms the dog becomes anxious about the doomful event ahead).
Common anxiety-inducing stimuli are
- another dog approaching
- a thunderstorm developing in the distance
- an owner getting ready to leave for work and doing the ‘run to the line’.
In some cases the stimulus might be one that creates a happy state of arousal such as the opportunity on the way for a dog to chase a ball or play tug of war. Later, we will talk about this ‘happy state of arousal’ can be used therapeutically.
As the matter progresses, left unchecked, the dog’s anxiety increases to the point where it finally goes above the ‘blue line’ to a state of over-arousal. Then there is such a conflict of neurotransmitters that the dog has no ability to respond to ‘stupid English words’.
This over-aroused state is commonly referred to as the flight and fight response. When worried about an approaching anxiety-inducing challenge, some animals will flee (think of a gazelle being charged by a lion) and some dogs and (more so) cats will flee.
However, dogs are predators. Fleeing is not a common response for predators and dogs will therefore often proceed to the fight version instead where they raise their hackles, start to vocalise by barking or growling and then will lunge forwards. Sometimes as they get closer to the anxiety-inducing challenge they will change from fight to flight.
Freeze and fiddle are two other alternatives when pets are over-whelmed by anxiety. A ‘freeze’ is often seen by cats when they are overwhelmed and a fiddle is less common but often involves self-grooming including licking or scratching or whole body shaking (shaking off the anxiety) or playing with a toy.
Pets are both similar and different to humans when it comes to moods and mood control.
- Humans and pets become emotional at times of duress
- The emotions can reach a state of chaos where
- humans yell, scream, cry and sometimes become violent
- Animals bark, meow, whine, growl, hiss, spit and often become aggressive
- Humans can practice mood control and supress or reverse the cascade towards bad moods
- Even at a state of chaos the majority of people can inhibit their aggression and violence
- In many cases people can ‘plan’ the solution to their own incorrect moods and work forwards to a solution by planning the solution when they are calm
- Animals are terrible at mood control! They ‘wear their heart on their sleeve’. While they can practice mood control they are not good at it.
- At a state of chaos an animal can’t learn and can’t listen – the are in flight fight mode
- They cannot plan the solution to their own inappropriate moods and cannot work towards a solution on their own
- They quickly worsen their own bad moods by ‘predicting the doom’ of an event and expecting a similar event will result in similar outcomes.
What to do about a pet that’s chaotic
There are many potential strategies but let’s pick out some important principles.
Avoid anxiety-inducing situations
- While this may sound like ‘wimping out’, avoiding the ‘dragons of discontent’ is really important.
- When a pet is traumatised by a situation, (e.g. being threatened by another dog) the next similar situation (the next challenge by a dog) is very likely to make his or her anxiety worse. Avoiding the dragon at least stops the behaviour worsening and slowly allows the mood to ‘deflate’.]
- Work the time-line
Remember all behaviour has:-
- a beginning
- a middle-bit and
- an end
So using a strategy that hastens the ‘end’ of the behaviour gets rid of the problematic ‘middle bit’ where the anxiety is self-reinforcing.
Better still, watch for the ‘beginning of the behaviour’ where the mood decay is commencing and derail that early so the ‘middle bit’ doesn’t even occur.
How do you know when your pet’s mood is decaying? You need to know the ‘signs of anxiety’ which his too complex for this article but yawning, lip licking and an increase respiration rate are early signs.
But, for dogs on a walk, there’s an easier way.
During the walk, ask your dog to ‘SIT’ every 20 metres or so.
- If your dog responds to SIT he or she is in ‘emotional control’ and you can proceed on your walk.
- If your dog cannot SIT, his or her ability to respond to ‘stupid English words’ is evaporating and you need to calm your dog – increasing distance from the challenge is often one way of doing that.
Refer to the Sit-A-Lot routine for more detail but the simple summary is:-Asking your dog to SIT regularly is by far the easiest and most exact means of determining how your dog is coping with his or her emotional load.
Teaching your dog to SIT reliably is easy for most dogs and the process is well described in our favourite routine called the Circle of Commands.
Pulsing a calm state
Another strategy we find very useful is to ‘pulse’ a calm state after deliberately creating a state of chaos – but ‘joyful’ chaos not anxiety-induced chaos.
While that may sound confusing, an example will help.
We mentioned earlier that the expectation of a ball being thrown or to play tug of war can be used therapeutically.
Many dogs love ‘tug of war’ games and will vigorously take up the challenge when their owners offer a tug toy (for instance) to set up a contest. By encouraging the ‘rat shake’ of the tug toy you are creating a state of joyful chaos. Turning that off by using the Leave routine (elsewhere on this website) and then getting the dog to do a laser lock SIT for 5 seconds pulses the dog from a state of chaos, to a state of calmness.
Generally the three-step ‘tug the toy’ à ‘leave the toy’ à ‘Sit and be calm for 5 seconds’ is easy to teach a dog.
That three-step process is called a pulse.
That three step pulse can usually be repeated many times in quick succession.
- Let’s say you complete 10 repetitions of that pulse.
- You do that twice daily.
- And for seven days
The mathematics says you have pulsed a calm state from one of chaos 10 x 2 x 7 = 140 times in seven days.
That’s good – very good – and the graph below shows the process on a time line.
Also view the video below for a demonstration of this technique – in the presence of an infant baby cats and confusion!!
- When a pet is in chaos, it cannot respond to word-based requests
- Don’t yell, scream or hit – that creates more chaos
- Avoid the situation – run away from it!
- The solution comes from watching for the first stages of arousal (see graph above but remember the power of SIT) and resorting to a state of calmness from that.
- Reward a return to calmness using the Laser-Lock Sit (refer to the Leave routine for details)