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  • Holly Leake

How to Manage Your Dog's Startle Reflex


If you haven’t read Part 1 to this article here’s the link. Why Does my Dog Snap if I Wake him? Understanding Startle Reflex (pawchores.com)


It can be a relief to learn that a snap or bite upon being woken up, is a normal canine behaviour and not a sign of true aggression. That being said, it doesn't make it any less nerve wracking. So how can you manage your dog's startle reflex and keep yourself and your family safe?


Training


Can you train your dog to overcome this behaviour? Unfortunately, you can't really train your dog not to do it, as it's not a conscious choice. It's an instinctual behaviour; one that can be prominent in certain breeds, such as Grey Hounds.


Punishing the behaviour would definitely be a dangerous way to address the behaviour. If you physically harm or shout at your dog when they experience startle reflex, they will associate the punishment with you. After all, they can't possibly associate the punishment with their response to being woken, because the startle reflex is not a conscious choice. So please avoid punishing your dog, as you will only create a fear of both sleep and you. In fact, your dog could potentially become aggressive when you approach, even though they are awake.


If your dog has anxiety or suffers with chronic stress, addressing these issues can reduce startle reflex in some cases. For example, you could enlist the help of a qualified canine behaviourist and/or explore anti-anxiety medication with your vet to address the anxiety and hopefully this would help your dog to feel safer. This doesn't mean there's a magical pill or training method to resolve startle reflex, rather it means diagnosing generalised anxiety and/or conditions that influence mood and behaviour, could contribute in reducing your dog’s startle reflex.



One form of training that would be beneficial, is settle work or boundary training. This involves shaping behaviours and teaching your dog to settle on a mat. With this training, you could teach your dog to retreat to a designated mat when you feel they need a break, and could then close a child safety gate behind them, to prevent them being disturbed. While this training would definitely be beneficial, the safest option is to implement management.


Management


Refraining from waking your dog is the most obvious method to avoid being snapped at or bitten, however there may be times where you do need to wake your dog. If this is the case, avoid touching, kissing or placing your face or body near them when they are resting or sleeping, and ensure any family or guests do the same. Instead, stand a safe distance away and then calmly and quietly call them, to rouse them awake. This is a much safer approach than physically touching your sleeping dog.


It is imperative to provide sleeping areas for your dog that are away from highly trafficked areas in the home, so your dog will not be disturbed. If your dog sleeps in your bed and has an extreme startle Reflex, it may be safer to provide a bed away from your own. This would be considered for severe cases of the behaviour and would require training to help them adjust.


Dogs should always have somewhere to escape any children in the home. Having gated communities, (a term for separate areas for your children and your dog(s)), such as barriers, child safety gates or pens, can go a long way in preventing bites and add another layer of security when you are unable to supervise.



Many parents state that they always supervise their children with the dog but often this falls under ‘passive supervision’, whereby the parent is in the room but they are on their phone or doing the dishes etc. It is usually during this passive supervision that children are bitten. ‘Reactive supervision’ may occur when children are allowed to harass the dog and the parent has to stop an incident. In worse case scenarios, parents may use ‘absent supervision’, where they briefly leave the room. Ever read cases where the parent, claims, “I left the room or I turned my back for one second!” Sadly, that is all it takes.


You need to be ‘proactive’ by putting management in place to prevent your children having access to the dog when you cannot ‘actively supervise’. Never leave your dog alone with your children. It is unfair to expect your dog to tolerate inappropriate treatment and it puts everyone involved at unnecessary risk.


Educate


One of the most effective way we can prevent bites, is education. It is very easy to look down on parents that allowed their dog to bite their kids, especially when the dog is a certain breed, but the truth everyone needs to acknowledge, is that any dog can bite. Aggression is not a personality trait or something a dog is necessarily born with; it is a survival trait and one that every dog will use when threatened.


Similarly, startle reflex is also an instinctual behaviour and one that dogs have no control of. So just because we believe our dog would never consciously bite anyone, it doesn’t mean it could not occur unconsciously. Thus, regardless of how loving and tolerant your dog may be, there is still a chance that they could bite. This is by no means a poor reflection of the dog’s temperament or training, as the most affectionate dogs can bite, rather it is an acknowledgment that dogs are animals subject to instinctual behaviours.



Therefore, parents, need to be educated about startle reflex and how to prevent situations where children can disrupt a resting or sleeping dog. This involves teaching their children to leave a sleeping dog alone and prevent them from displaying inappropriate behaviour towards the dog, such as jumping into the dog’s bed, stealing resources, cornering them or jumping on their back. These are all common scenarios that can result in a bite, and just because your dog has seemingly tolerated this behaviour for months or years, does not mean they will or should forever.


If after reading this, you still won’t accept that your dog can bite, consider if your belief is worth the risk? Surely it is easier to put safeguards in place, to protect your children and your dog’s life, just in case. As long as people continue to disbelieve their dog can bite, bites will suddenly occur ‘without warning’, and studies have shown that this inevitably involves injury to children and the euthanization of the dog.

So please, safeguard the welfare of your dog and children, and let sleeping dogs lie.


If you would like help with training your family dog and children, I am a KAD Approved trainer, meaning I specialise in teaching canine body language and dog safety to children. For more info please see the link. Kids Around Dogs | Paw Chores


For more resources on keeping your dog safe around children, please see Kids Around Dogs (KAD) and Family Paws. Both organisations have qualified trainers, excellent resources and support groups on Facebook.







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