So you are standing at a party, or in your office, or on your front lawn. Someone you know only vaguely walks up to you. He walks up very close, face to face, close enough that you can see up his nose and smell his breath. He starts a conversation. What do you do?
What you desperately want to do is step back! You may or may not do it, depending on the social situation or a host of other reasons. But when someone we don’t know well enters our personal space bubble, it can be very uncomfortable.
Everyone has his or her own bubble. In addition to individual preferences it is also dependent on age, gender, and culture. So I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that dogs vary in their sense of personal space as well.
How sensitive is your dog to this kind of pressure? How big is his or her space bubble?
What Kind Of Pressure?
I talk about body pressure a fair amount, so I thought it was time to define and demonstrate it for those who may not be familiar with the concept.
There are different kinds of pressure, of course. Humans have non-concrete types of pressure. Pressure from our jobs, from societal expectations. From owing money.
Dogs seem to experience pressure from expectations as well. We can certainly stress them out easily enough when we train with poor technique, even with positive reinforcement. And of course they respond to physical pressure, touching or pushing, either by yielding to it or with an opposition reflex.
But when I talk about “body pressure,” it is pressure from proximity and body language. Not touching, but the nearness (and body language) of another person or dog.
Pressure from Humans
So it’s not only what we do (get close) but how we do it. Standing and staring straight at one’s dog is very different from brushing by them in the hallway, even though you might be closer in the hallway scenario.
Some of the common ways that dogs feel pressure from us include:
- When we stand facing them straight on
- When we look at them directly
- When we stand tall or lean over them, especially for small dogs
- When we reach out with our hands
- When we walk into their space
I do have a very pressure sensitive dog: little Zani. And I also have a very non-sensitive dog (Clara). In the video I show what their differing responses to proximity to my body look like.
Is Sensitivity to Pressure a Problem?
It can be. Most of us tend to misunderstand or disregard dogs’ body language. You can find thousands of videos on YouTube of dogs who are desperately indicating that they would prefer that the humans back off, while the humans actually talk about how happy the dogs are.
Zani is extremely pressure sensitive, as a lot of hounds seem to be. She is what people call a “soft dog.” She bounces back pretty well in most cases, though. Considering the problems of most dogs in this world, be they hungry, neglected, or abused, I would say that Zani has a pretty good life with me. However, from her point of view I am severely lacking. I am an insensitive clod. So I do work on exercises to make her more comfortable.
When a dog is uncomfortable with something, there are a couple of ways to address that discomfort. One is by using desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC). In this situation, to do that I would pair being close to me with great stuff, non-contingent on what she was doing. We have done some of that with handling, and also with a fear she had of my elliptical trainer.
If a dog is only mildly uncomfortable with something, one can take an approach where the dog is more active. This is sometimes called operant counter-conditioning, or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior. The game I show in the video where I am dropping a treat when Zani crosses a line on the floor, coming close to me, is such an activity. She was comfortable with the distance I set when I was turned to the side. I had envisioned slowly turning towards her, then decreasing the distance between the line and me. But as is clear in the video, Zani told me there was a huge difference in body pressure when I started turning towards her.
I could have adjusted the distance and continued with that plan. But instead I decided to do a combination of DS/CC and some operant games that isolate just one part of the body pressure at a time. I will report back about our progress in the future.
Who else has a pressure sensitive dog? Have you worked on it at all?
- The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
- Punishment is not a Feeling
- Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
- What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?