You and your dog are both social animals. This means that you both have social needs to fulfill. Two of these must-have needs are to feel safe and connected. Now, what’s cool about this is that when you’re calm, you make a safe space for your dog to connect with you. This grows trust, cooperation and leads to a safe, calm and happy life.
In the world of dog behavior, there’s a lot of talk about “impulse control”. But I want to turn this idea upside down and inside out! Instead of training our dogs to control their impulses, I’m exploring how you can use your natural biology of connection to help your dog calm down.
As mammals, our biology is designed to support connection and help us feel safe. So, you could say that humans and dogs are wired to connect! Our hearts send signals to our body and brain that facilitates this connection which then helps to co-regulate our systems. This is what leads to feeling safe, calm and happy.
How your and your dog’s systems are wired for connection
With our first breath, we begin a lifelong quest to feel safe in our bodies, environments and relationships with others, and so do our dogs. Our autonomic nervous system is like our personal surveillance system. Its goal is to protect us by always asking the question, “Is this safe?”. It does this by listening attentively to what’s happening in and around our bodies, and to the connections that we have to those around us.
There’s a lot of research around this idea. The most current approach is aligned with the polyvagal theory, originally developed by Stephen Porges. This idea invites us to feel safe enough to fall in love with life and to take the risks that come along with it, even when life gets uncomfortable.
As social mammals, we come into the world wired ready to connect with each other. This means that when we feel safe and calm, and aren’t battling our defense systems, the social engagement system kicks in and we can connect. Our sense of safety is incompatible with danger, making it an either-or experience. Your system can either be open to connection and the possibility of change or locked in a protective response and stuck in survival mode.
How co-regulation affects our systems
There’s plenty of research to tell us that our autonomic nervous system learns through experience. This is the same for both humans and dogs. So, through repeated experiences of co-regulation we can shape our systems.
Now, our system listens intently to the inside of our body and scans our external environment. It searches for cues of safety and watches for signs of danger to help us take appropriate action in the moment. But this social engagement system is also looking for other nervous systems to connect with.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the calming and de-stressing effect dogs have on us. This effect has even shown a reduced risk for health problems, including heart attacks and mental and emotional health issues. When this happens, it’s our social engagement system at work!
The cool thing is – it works the other way around too…and we can help our dogs to calm and destress!!
What happens when your system gets stuck in survival mode
If you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, worried, anxious, your dog may be able to help you return to a place of calm. However, remember I said we can shape our systems? If you’re constantly in a state of stress, you’re conditioning your nervous system to be in defense or even in survival mode. Now, what happens when your dog’s system is co-regulating with yours? Yep, our dogs go there too.
Now, here’s where we can put this information to good use and turn things around, so both you and your dog can calm down…together!
When our system is shaped in a safe and supportive environment, our biological defenses only activate when there is a real risk. But on the other hand, when the nervous system is shaped in an unpredictable environment that leaves us feeling unsafe and disconnected, there is a systemic bias toward protection. This triggers our flight, fight or shutdown responses.
In this case, we’ve trained our autonomic nervous system to be on high alert and expect danger at any moment. Sound familiar?
Our nervous systems never switch off. They constantly gather data and seek connection with other nearby nervous systems. So, if you’ve trained your own system to expect danger, there’s a good chance you’ve also shaped your dog’s nervous system too.
If your dog struggles to settle into those safe, calm and happy feelings, it could be because you’re also finding it difficult to step away from defense mode and ease into connection. How can you turn this around? I thought you’d never ask! 😉
Co-regulation sits at the heart of achieving these positive relationships, enduring friendships and intimate partnerships – this includes life with your dog!
How to co-regulate positively
Let me say now – the ‘fix’ is simple … and the Dancing Hearts Partnership Lifestyle method is based on us learning how to be the partner that leads us and our dogs into a brilliant life of feeling safe, calm and happy.
In a nutshell: Co-regulation is at the heart of positive relationships, enduring friendships, intimate partnerships.
With a reliable, regulating other, we engage in a rhythm of reciprocity and build experiences of safety in connection.
Co-regulating connections invite a sense of belonging and feeling safely tethered in the world.
We suffer when our biological need for connection is unmet, and our suffering leads to autonomic responses of protection and survival strategies.
“We suffer when our biological need for connection is unmet, and so does our dog.”
Start being a loving leader and stop trust leaks
So what does all this mean for us and our dogs, in real life? To me, it means that we’ve got the capacity, the capability, and the responsibility to keep us and our dogs in the green zone of feeling safe, calm and happy. That’s our job, that’s our responsibility and that’s why Partnership works.
Social Learning and Cultural Learning give us and our dogs that strong feeling of BELONGING and are the key factors in how we can live cooperatively with our dogs in family units. It’s how the dogs (and the humans) learn how “we” behave … WHAT we do … What it looks like and feels like to cooperatively interact and socialize within the family and without.
It’s in the green zone that we GROW TRUST, and continually add to our TRUST ACCOUNT.
The common ways that we LEAK TRUST:
When we repeatedly put ourselves and our dogs into stressful and unpredictable circumstances BEFORE we have developed our connection and trained our nervous systems that our ‘default’ state is safety and connection … we are literally LEAKING TRUST like out of a fire hose.
When we allow our dogs to rehearse over-arousal and their bodies dump cortisol over and over … we are literally teaching our dogs that we cannot keep them safe.
When we do counter-conditioning and improper socialization ‘exposures’ so that our dogs ‘get used’ to something – that trigger our dogs survival mode, not only are we developing a default state of defense and survival, we are telling our dogs that we are not trustworthy.
When your dog feels this way, they’re more likely to get triggered and default to defense or survival mode. And so are you.
“When we’re not dependable, predictable, steady role models in life, our partnership starts leaking trust.”
When you’re a dependable, predictable, steady role model for your dog then they’ll see you as a loving leader that they can trust. This approach results in co-regulating those feelings of safety and connection and moves you out of survival mode.
Once you’ve trained yours and your dog’s systems to default to a place of connection and safety, stressful situations aren’t as damaging. However, if your systems and partnership aren’t ready, it’s just not worth the risk.
What to do in the moment – when a big emotion surges for you or your dog
Conditioning yours and your dog’s nervous system to default to safety and connection can be challenging. There will be stressful times when you or your dog are ready to have a meltdown! But there’s a simple strategy you can use to break out of these moments.
Pause. Breathe. Connect.
That’s it! Just pause. Breathe. Connect. Every time that you feel yourself getting triggered by your dog’s behavior, or a circumstance that is too difficult for you, you can return to this strategy.
- First, take a moment to recognize what’s happening. How do you feel in this moment? This pause will interrupt the cycle and stop the spiral.
- Next, take a deep breath (or three!). Focus on preventing your own system from going into survival mode. Only by regulating yourself can you begin to co-regulate with your dog, so don’t worry if your dog doesn’t instantly respond to you.
- The last stage is to connect. Here’s where I want you to think about a time when your dog made you smile. In a stressful moment, this can be a difficult thing to do, so I want you to think of one right now! Then keep this handy for those tough times. This should be a memory of your dog that makes you smile and your heart swell with love. While you’re feeling this, remember that your dog needs you. They’re not giving you a hard time, they’re having a hard time.
You can use this strategy whenever you’re feeling stressed about your partnership and need to refocus on being a loving leader. Just remember – pause, breathe, connect.
If you’d like to work with me and learn how to create a partnership lifestyle for you and your dog, you can request an invitation to join us in the Brilliant Partners Academy when the doors open for the next enrollment!
You can listen to everything I talked about in this blog post over on my podcast – Enlightened By Dogs. It’s episode 151, which you can listen to here.