Be Your Dog’s Advocate | What to Consider

Be an advocate for your dog.

Have you ever stopped to think about what it means to “be an advocate for your dog”?

Merriam-Webster defines advocate as “one that supports or promotes the interests of another.”

As a professional dog trainer, I’m always encouraging my clients to be advocates for their dogs. To me, this means putting the physical and emotional well-being of my dog before my own needs. This includes protecting my dog from injury, from other dogs and from other people. It also means that I may need to speak up for my dog in a variety of situations because she doesn’t have the ability to do so.

Being your dog’s advocate builds trust between you and your dog. I want my dog to trust that I will only put her into situations that she can comfortably handle.

To keep the physical and emotional well-being of your dog in mind, here are some important foundation skills you need to develop:

Understand Dog Body Language

It’s important that you learn how dogs communicate, both with their voice and their body language. Take the time to learn and understand the frequent signals dogs display. It’s important to learn the nuances of that language, especially as it relates to stress signals, so that you can accurately read the dog’s body language and then draw a conclusion as to what your dog is feeling. Stress develops from an inability to cope with a current situation. By understanding and observing your dog’s body language, you’ll know when to intervene or how to change the environment to lessen the stress your dog feels.

Please remember that it’s important to look at the dog’s entire body, as many individual signals have different meanings depending on the context of the situation. Begin first by observing and noting each individual signal you see the dog display. Once you’ve noted the signals, you’re better able to draw a conclusion as to whether it’s a stressful situation for the dog. Breed characteristics can complicate the dog’s message, as can docking of tails and/or ears, so please also take these into consideration.

Know Your Dog’s Stress Threshold

There’s not one of us who hasn’t tipped over our own stress threshold. Imagine this scenario: You get up late. You have a flat tire on the way to work. Your boss makes a snide comment when you enter the office and when you get home that evening, your significant other is fussy about something you forgot to do that morning. That’s enough to make any of us lose our temper.

For our dogs, too, multiple stressors can compound the stress the dog is feeling. As you understand dog body language, you’ll begin to see how different situations may affect your dog. Is she happy or uncomfortable? Is she scared? As your dog’s advocate you may need to intervene or change the environment to help your dog.

Here are six things you can do to help your dog be more comfortable in a specific situation:

  • Embrace the situation. Don’t be embarrassed.
  • Assess the situation. Look around and attempt to determine the stressor that’s causing your dog to feel uncomfortable.
  • Increase distance between your dog and the perceived threat. Sometimes distance alone will help your dog become more comfortable.
  • Be prepared to remove your dog from the situation if increasing distance didn’t help. Don’t be tempted to make the dog endure an uncomfortable environment. Doing so can increase stress and also exacerbate the dog’s behavior.
  • Change your dog’s opinion about the thing that made him uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s a small child and the dog hasn’t been around children. Instead of a dog thinking, “A child is a bad thing!” you want her to think, “A child is a good thing!” Counter conditioning and desensitization is the appropriate way to accomplish this and is very effective when implemented slowly and consistently over time.
  • If you feel you’re in over your head, call a professional dog trainer who uses positive techniques and is also skilled in behavior modification.

Develop Situational Awareness

Whenever I am with my dog, her well-being comes first. She’s the most important member of our two-member team. Having keen situational awareness is like defensive driving. Your hands and feet are busy operating the vehicle while your forward and peripheral vision keep you and your vehicle safe from other moving vehicles. With my dog, I’m scanning the environment for changes in order to adapt appropriately if I see something that could adversely affect my dog.

Understand Mental, Physical and Health Needs

You don’t need to be an expert in canine physiology, but as your dog’s advocate you do need to understand that dogs need a lot more than food and water. Like us, our dogs need both physical exercise and mental stimulation. I see many clients who focus on physical exercise, but don’t always consider how mental stimulation is brain work for your dog. Explore ideas for enrichment (resource – Ditch the Dish WDJ article). By focusing on enrichment, in addition to nutrition and health care, you can reduce stress and improve your dog’s well-being. It goes without saying that your dog needs an annual wellness exam by your trusted veterinarian. This includes core vaccinations. In today’s veterinary medicine the focus is on reducing over vaccination. As your dog’s advocate, do your own research to understand what level of vaccination is appropriate for your dog and discuss with your veterinarian.

Now that you have an understanding of the foundation skills, let’s look at the various places to use them:

Vet Visits

My dog, Willow, was always over her stress threshold moments after we walked in the front door of our former veterinarian’s office. When she came into our home as a puppy, I was determined to positively condition her to not only like, but love the vet. Unfortunately, a chronic UTI that persisted for over six months. Despite treatment, this caused her intense fear of that particular vet practice.  It’s easier to help a dog develop a positive association with a new location vs. changing a negative association with a known location.  As her advocate, I decided to switch vet offices. The new location, combined with the new veterinarian’s low-stress handling skills, now has her feeling comfortable instead of scared.

Companion Animal Psychology’s website recently featured a study by Chiara Mariti of the University of Pisa in Italy that determined many owners don’t recognize when their dogs are stressed at the vet office. By learning dog body language, you’ll be prepared to recognize stress in your dog at the vet and make the appropriate adjustments.

Observe the Room

Observe the waiting room before you enter. Position yourself so that your dog has sufficient space. Take toys or food to keep your dog busy. Speak up if you feel your dog isn’t comfortable with a certain vet handling technique. I know that Willow is more comfortable with me than the vet tech when restraint is needed for a blood draw. I ask to have the blood drawn in the treatment room rather than the back of the vet practice, or I ask to accompany her to the back where I can be the one to hold her.

You can also be proactive in training your dog to enjoy body handling, as well as getting your dog comfortable with restraint, a collar hold (if you have to remove the leash) and even a muzzle. If your dog has already learned to “love” a muzzle, it will be one less moment of stress should a vet need to use one.

Parades, Parties and Outdoor Gatherings

While enjoyable for us, many dogs aren’t truly comfortable at loud events unless the dog has been appropriately and positively conditioned to enjoy the variety of sights and sounds at events like parades. If you’re unsure how your dog will enjoy a specific event, leave her in the safety and comfort of your own home or be prepared to create as much distance as necessary for your dog to feel comfortable. You may even need to leave the event.

This dog would be so much happier at home vs. at the festival.

Even when you’ve implemented the best training you know how, things can go awry. After four years of training and socialization with Willow, who had proven to very comfortable at a variety of loud outdoor dog sport and other public events, I felt she was ready to accompany me to one of our local, small-town parades. I armed myself with her favorite treats so that I could use the food, as necessary, to pair any new and unusual sights and sounds.

It didn’t take long to discover that the dune buggy-type vehicles whose drivers were loudly racing their motors as they approached caused Willow to shy away and pull me away from the noise. We retreated 30 or 40 feet and when I offered a treat, she looked away from me. My food-motivated dog had stress anorexia. As her advocate, we scurried a couple of blocks away where could sit together and observe the parade from a distance where she was comfortable enjoying yummy treats.

Your Own Home

As my dog’s advocate, I have learned to offer a polite “no” response to well-meaning friends who ask if their dog can accompany them to our home. Not all dogs immediately enjoy an interloper in their own home. It’s much more fun to visit with my friends without worrying about how our dogs get along. Besides, we have cats in our house, so I don’t trust unknown dogs around our furry felines. And just because your own dog has always interacted well with new, unknown dogs, you need to be proactive and consider leaving your dog at home when visiting a friend or relative.

Acknowledge Training and Behavior Needs

It’s important to help our dog’s learn to navigate in our weird human world. We often frown upon behavior typical of their species such as of digging, biting, barking, jumping and chewing. As your dog’s advocate, take time to enroll in a positive training class with your dog. You’ll learn how to appropriately socialize him to the variety of sights and sounds he will encounter in his life. You’ll also learn how to teach your dog good manners both inside and outside of your home. Today’s positive training classes are fun, effective and build trust between you and your dog that enriches the human-animal bond.

Dog Training Classes

There are many training classes and workshops available today. Do the research to find a force-free, positive training class. This is where the focus is on teaching the dog what to do vs. punishing unwanted behaviors. Interview the trainer and ask probing questions about the exercises that will be taught.  Also discuss what techniques and methods will be used. If something doesn’t sound right or raises concerns, look for another trainer.  Find one who will your dog’s best interest in mind.  And don’t ever use a training technique on your dog just because the trainer said to do so. You are your dog’s advocate. If you’re not comfortable with the situation, you have the right to say “no thank you.”

Dog Training Workshops

Unlike group classes where a dog has the ability to become accustomed to the new environment throughout the length of the class (normally six to seven weeks), workshops are usually one or two days. A workshop environment with many handlers and many dogs can be overwhelming. Some dogs adjust relatively quickly.  Others may take a few hours. Others may not be able to make the adjustment in this short length of time. As your dog’s advocate, it’s better to pack up and leave so that your dog can be comfortable.  It’s better than forcing her to endure a stressful environment. Once your dog is secure and happy at home, you can return to the workshop and observe and learn.  You can do so without the worry of an uncomfortable dog at your side.

Fostering Other Dogs

I have such appreciation for those who foster dogs. If you decide to become a foster home for a needy dog, please keep in mind that your ultimate responsibility is to insure the comfort and safety of the current dog or dogs already in your home. A constant flow of new dogs in and out of a home can be extremely stressful to family dogs.  I’ve seen more than a few family dogs develop stress-related behavior issues because of dogs coming and going. As your dog’s advocate, carefully consider if fostering is right for you and your dog.

Children in the Home

Protect your dog from young children and help children learn to respect the dog. It’s recommended that dogs and young children always be supervised. But even if children and dogs are supervised, children’s play can still be very stressful to a dog. Never let a child “ride the dog” as they would a pony, and no hugging and kissing either. Check out Living with Kids and Dogs Without Losing Your Mind by Coleen Pelar.

dog advocate

When you bring a dog into your home, you’re committing to a 10- to 15-year relationship. A relationship with an amazing creature that doesn’t have the ability to say “no”.  It’s up to you, as your dog’s advocate, to ensure his well-being. Set your sights on becoming not only an advocate, but an informed advocate. Your dog will thank you for it.

Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer), a Pat Miller Certified Trainer Level 2, Faculty for the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior and the founder of Cold Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina.  She enjoys providing behavior consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities and distance consults for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S.  


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