The Critical Role of Virtual Behaviour Therapy for Fearful Dogs

The Evolution of the Canine Behaviour Industry

The canine behaviour industry is going through an extraordinary evolution in research science and as a result, there's been an important shift from focusing on what a dog "does" and instead prioritizing how a dog feels. For a long time, talking about the "feelings" of animals was highly controversial and often lead to a label of unprofessional because it was believed that dogs don't have emotions like humans do, and if they did, there was no way to record data to support that claim. 

Traditionally dog trainers focused only on the outside expression of the behaviour with skill building and obedience exercises. The training plan of traditional obedience trainers, if you could even call it a plan, often involved punishing a dog for performing certain behaviours, without having a regard for why they are doing it in the first place. In other words, they would often put a dog in a situation that they couldn't handle, and then when their behaviour expressed this inability to cope, they were punished for it rather than helped through it. During this time, dogs weren't seen as sentient, intelligent beings but rather, just a dog that needed to obey his master. 

Over the past 20 years, behaviour science emerged that introduced systems involving positive reinforcement and this quickly became very popular among the dog training professional circles. One system in particular is Karen Pryor's Clicker Training which brought over a maker-reward system that marine mammal trainers had been using to train animals in captivity.

The use of food rewards to influence an animal's behaviour choices was a much better choice for professionals who were looking for a way to work with dogs that didn't involve the use of pain, intimidation or fear.

Dogs Are Not The Only Ones Being Conditioned

Dog guardians and enthusiasts have been conditioned over the years to believe that raising a dog means that you teach them to sit, stay, come and heel which requires a dog trainer to be present, but with advances in science and a greater understanding of the inner influences of the body and how its internal state is connected to behaviour, professionals today know so much more about what is going on inside of the dog than we ever did before. Most importantly, we know that raising a happy dog, has nothing to do with training a dog to be obedient but rather, to raise a happy and successful dog, we must focus on their emotional well-being, their ability to cope with stress and how well they can adapt to change. 

In the past, animal trainers would simply put dogs in the situations that caused the problematic behaviour and then they would use consequences to influence a change in response. Today we know that allowing the dog to practice or perform the behaviour that we want to change, is only making the process of reversal even more difficult. We also understand that by putting a dog in this type of situation, we are purposely causing them stress in the name of "training" which does not value the importance of the animal's welfare and emotional health. 

Many dog guardians are reluctant to register for virtual behaviour therapy sessions to work on their dog's behaviour, because they strongly believe that a professional must be present in their home to facilitate the behaviour change program, but this is actually not true at all. In most situations, when a dog is fearful or is unable to relax in the presence of a new person, in home sessions can slow down progress and even cause the dog unnecessary stress. 

Why Virtual Behaviour Therapy Sessions are Better in Some Cases

To expect a dog to be able to learn while in a defensive state is unfair and unethical. In addition to the ethical and moral objections to this type of practice, accessing the canine learning brain requires a commitment to ensuring the dog feels relaxed and safe so that they can enjoy playing the learning games that create cooperation and partnership. To access the canine learning brain and create cooperation, you first need to ensure that your dog is calm and relaxed that way they feel safe and connected in a way that allows them to not worry about what is in the environment and focus on playing fun learning games with their caregiver.

If a dog is afraid of humans or they are generally over-aroused when people come over, in home work with a professional is not recommended. It is actually more effective to build a foundation of trust and partnership before adding in distractions or competing motivators and a qualified canine behaviour therapist is able to guide you to do this through a virtual platform. Looking back 5 years, virtual consulting was rare in the dog behaviour profession but it has become a normal and preferred platform for educating guardians on how to raise and support their dog to success and happiness. 

If you're still not convinced, let's look at a few great reasons why this has become my favourite way to work with my clients: 

1. Virtual therapy sessions are better for dogs who are fearful of humans. 

As I mentioned before, if your dog is fearful of people, having a behaviour professional in your home will mean that your dog is exposed to unnecessary stress that can easily be avoided when you meet your professional on Zoom instead. This may not seem like it's a big deal but new emerging studies have shown that prevention of rehearsal of the behaviour we would like to change is imperative for success. 

This is especially true when we are working with behaviour that is based in fear because fear is linked to survival and the more it is experienced, the harder it is for the brain to let go of those memories that are anchoring fear into the traumatic experience. Dogs cannot learn when they are in a defensive or survival state and the priority of the behaviour support needs to shift from focusing on what the dog is doing, to how the dog is feeling. If your dog is afraid, they will only be thinking of their fear and not the concepts that you are trying to teach him. 

2. Virtual therapy sessions allow you to build a foundation of calm, connection and cooperation.

Dogs are intelligent, sentient beings who naturally want to belong to a family unit that provides comfort, connection and safety. If your dog is experiencing difficulties on walks, outings or when people come to your home, this chronic stress is toning his nervous system to default to a defensive state, rather than a relaxed one. A defensive or over-aroused internal state, turns on the body's inner surveillance system into overdrive which means that the autonomic nervous system is scanning constantly for signs of danger or threat with a negativity bias, rather than a safe bias. 

When the body is stuck in a negative feedback loop, signs of threat can be picked up when there is no actual risk present and this can lead to a really full stress-bucket which leaves no capacity for coping with new stressors or excitatory stimuli. For a lot of dogs, having a person in the home creates this type of stress response which as we talked about above, means that the learning brain is not accessible. 

Virtual therapy sessions allow you to give your dog a break from the chronic stress that they are regularly experiencing and give you the opportunity to focus on creating a foundation of calm which leads to regulation, connection which leads to feeling safe and once your dog feels safe, their inner surveillance system stops looking for danger or threat and opens up the opportunity for cooperation and learning. 

3. Virtual therapy sessions are still a better option for dogs who are easily excited with new things. 

You might be thinking, "well my dog isn't fearful or aggressive, he's just really excited to meet new people or dogs!" Dogs who perform reactive behaviour are often greatly misunderstood and mislabeled. I actually despise the use of labels for dogs and am making an effort to change the way I refer to dogs using these types of behaviours and hopefully, this will overtime influence the way the public views dogs as well. 

The important thing to remember is that activation is activation in the nervous system. it doesn't matter if the activation is triggered by stress or excitement, once the individual shifts from a relaxed state into an aroused state, the internal environment is changing to support the needs of the animal. In other words, over-excitement is going to trigger a similar biochemical response as stress and the same approach is necessary to help the dog work through it. 

Virtual therapy sessions are still a better option for dogs who are easily excited because they won't be triggered into an over-aroused state which will prevent access to the learning brain. Allowing your dog to practice the over-excited behaviour over and over, will only make it more difficult to reverse it and help maintain a state of calm, connection which ultimately leads to cooperation. 

4. You can work with any behaviour therapist no matter their location and have more flexibility. 

In the points above I outlined the important benefits for the dog when you choose to do virtual sessions over in-home sessions. These points are also beneficial for the guardian because everyone can feel more calm and connected when there are no triggers present. I also love virtual sessions for the flexibility around scheduling and location. When you choose to do virtual therapy sessions you are not just limited to those in your area but have access to any behaviour professional from coast to coast. 

The flexibility of location means that you can find a behaviour professional who specializes in the specific challenges you are facing and has the expertise and experience to support you to success. Most behaviour professionals are only insured in their own country so be cautious when searching for a professional online and ensure that you still check their qualifications and insurance meet or exceed industry standard. 

5. You will get more personal feedback and access to additional support. 

Many years ago when I was developing my online and hybrid programs, my main focus was providing the support that families needed to be successful but also ensuring that any family could afford it no matter what their financial situation was. Private therapy is a big investment, and I wanted to make working with me more accessible to families everywhere so I created a hybrid program that combines many facets of support, education and practical learning exercises. 

Often guardians seeking behaviour support for their dog are immediately turned off by an online course or virtual therapy sessions and many for a good reason if they had invested in an online program in the past without success or if they have tried to navigate YouTube videos on their own. CPU Online, the university I created, is different and what makes it different is the unlimited support members get and the many options to enrol that will fit any budget. 

By enrolling in CPU Online you will actually have significantly more personal feed back than you would in an in-class or in-home session where you would only get feedback in that one hour. CPU Online provides community support between sessions and offers an entire library of videos, learning guides, webinars, masterclasses and chat options to ensure your success. So when you register for virtual therapy sessions, you aren't just signing up for the hour a week of private therapy, but also an entire program with learning material that will help you for the entire life of your dog. 

In CPU Online you have access to the online content 24/7 and can ask your questions 7 days a week and most days get an almost immediate response. You can submit videos for feedback or ask questions and even after you make the modifications that were suggested, you can request further feedback or guidance on how to master the concepts and have success. Additionally, you have access to personalized written notes and personalized reference points in the community to help you incorporate the lessons into your lifestyle. 

In Summary...

Dogs are a big part of our lives today. They have become family members who are valued and loved as such. Research has shown that dogs look to humans as caregivers similar to parents and their attachment to us reflects this role. Dogs need us to raise them, not train them and seek to understand their communication, needs and abilities so we can teach them to thrive in life. This requires an unwavering commitment to their welfare and ensuring that their feelings or emotional needs are prioritized before social and learning experiences. 

Virtual therapy sessions for families with dogs are a really good option to keep everyone feeling safe a relaxed which means more of the information provided will be retained and more effective change can occur. Virtual therapy also allows for the flexibility to find the right professional with the best experience to help you overcome the challenges you are facing. 

Most importantly, when you find a professional who is truly set up for virtual therapy and online support, you can access so much more than just one on one therapy, or just an online course without the support. CPU Online gives you the best of both worlds and provides you with the individual guidance you need to succeed as well as unlimited support and feedback that is important for each individual and the unique situations they are facing. 

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