Thursday, August 25, 2022

Environmental Processing

What is Environmental Processing?

Dog's naturally process any environment they use looking at things, sniffing things, listening to the sounds, etc. While this is a natural occurrence, some dogs do a better job of environmental processing then others do. We tend to focus so hard on teaching our dogs to walk nicely on leash, ignore distractions, and focus on us as handlers that we often don't take the time to let them process their world as a dog. And this seems to be the #1 thing I see in any dog that struggles with fear, anxiety or a lack of confidence...they simply never learned to process new environments or changes in the environment. This leads to being easily triggered by new things coming into the environment such as that person who is approaching or that dog on the other side of the park. And this leads to the behaviors that we as people don't appreciate our dogs repeating; barking, lunging, jumping, pulling, etc.
One of the reasons I like to meet with new clients at or near a local park is so that I can see how their dog processes the environment we are meeting in. Does the environment stress them? Do I stress them? What coping mechanisms have they developed? And many other questions like this. Then the first thing I want to teach them is how to process new environments safely and effectively as a team. AKA - Take a sniff-a-bout at the start of the training session and slowly work up training new behaviors.

In this video, Azul is wearing a longline attached to a back clip on his harness. We are walking in one of his favorite parks because there is tons of shade no matter what time of day. The layout of this park allows provides us an area of park surrounded by a sidewalk, slower traffic roads, and houses on the other side of the road and from any place in the park we can see all the way across the whole park. While this makes for a small area to explore (roughly the size of a small city block) there is plenty of distractions present that we can work at a safe distance from. Azul pretty much leads this walk by moving in any direction he wants to move as long as he doesn't cross the sidewalks that create our boarders. Together we zig-zag around, moving at his pace (as long as he doesn't pull by trying to go too fast). This video is just under 2 minutes long, but we generally do this same activity for roughly 10-15 minutes and hotter days, we often stop and sit under a shade tree to watch the distractions all around us.

In this video Azul and I are using a longline on a rarely used trail. This trail is a mowed section inside a marsh that connects to a paved bike trail. Here we tend to see more wildlife than people with the occasional off leash dog. We use a longline for safety to make sure Azul doesn't chase wildlife or approach another dog uninvited. But it's a good environment to practice our skills together. This is his walk, on his time as he had been working for me all day. By exploring and processing this fun environment he can empty his stress bucket if he needs to. You will notice I hurry him on a few times. I don't like to do that on HIS walks but this day we only have 15 minutes to make the loop and it's much hotter then normal so I want to get us back to the vehicle for water ASAP. I spend most of his walk managing the longline and watching his body language. I can learn so much about how he's feeling by watching his movements.


In this Video, Azul has already taken his sniff-a-bout around the park and has chosen to lay down to "watch the world go by" while resting in the shade.

I've done this with Azul since he was a puppy and honestly this is how I survived adolescence! Huskies are known for being hyper and active breeds that often want to to go-go-go so I've made a point of reinforcing his ability to simply relax and watch things. By doing so Azul has learned to process things using his eyes and ears more thoroughly instead of relying solely on his sense of smell as many dogs do. Azul gets plenty of opportunity to process smells every day. But as a Service Dog, he needs to be prepared to go in lots of new and different environments, many of which he shouldn't be sniffing everything. So watching and listening are invaluable tools in his environmental processing toolkit.

More about processing new environments as a Service Dog coming up in the next blog!




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