'The Jolly Routine'
It's a Dog's Life
"The Jolly Routine" is a term coined by the renowned canine behaviorist William Campbell. It means a pet parent "acts" relaxed and happy, even in moments they may feel otherwise, as a way of convincing their dog that no threat is present.
My dog Fred had developed some reactivity issues toward other dogs (as they move toward him, in tight, indoor spaces). When Fred was first released from his duties as a service dog (for a child with autism), we had several incidents during which another dog would move toward Fred (usually while he was lying down, and/or backed up against a wall or in a corner) and Fred would growl. So, just as Fred had been conditioned to react this way as a defense mechanism to keep perceived danger away, I, too, became conditioned to get anxious and tense every time another dog approached – worried that Fred would lash out.
We were caught in a negative feedback loop. My anxiety was only reinforcing Fred's feeling that something was wrong, and that we ought to be on the defensive, ready to ward it off! So, I began enacting "the Jolly Routine", and it has worked wonders! This was a form of counter-conditioning, where my aim was to change the association of a dog approaching from negative to positive in Fred's mind, and also to teach Fred a different way of reacting in this situation. We were "rewiring" his thought patterns, in a sense.
In order to do that, I had to consciously rewire my own as well. When another dog would approach, rather than tense up and say in a warning kind of tone, "Fredddddd, dooonnn't......", I would happily say, "Fred, where's your ball??" Nothing makes Fred happier than a tennis ball. So the more we practiced this, the better we both felt about dogs approaching us! Fred has now repeated this exercise enough times that, when he starts to feel nervous or tense as another dog approaches, he will pick up his ball himself, without my even saying anything; he will stand up and walk away with the ball in his mouth, and his tail wagging! Whether an actual ball is nearby or not, Fred has learned that instead of getting defensive at what once triggered him, he can just get up and walk away! It's brilliant!
It is just one of a hundred different ways our dogs take emotional cues from us. So, the lesson here is... if our dogs' behavior leaves something to be desired, we must look within to understand what's going on, and how to change it for the better.