Zero Pressure

When a herding dog works a flock of sheep, he mostly does it with what herders call pressure. The dog uses his body language to make a statement: “This is my space. You can’t have any. The only space you can have is over there.” There’s no way the dog can occupy that much space at one time, but he pressures the sheep into thinking he can.

The same concept applies with our interactions with dogs. Your dog will start to back away if you get too close, although the definition of “too close” varies from dog to dog. Patricia McConnell uses pressure to keep a dog from breaking a stay–just as the dog starts to shift, you “take the space” first, a technique she calls the “body block.” This is incredibly useful, especially because it’s less aversive than the direct physical pressure of something like pulling on a leash. (Less is an important word in that situation. Be aware of what you’re doing.)

At the same time, it’s also important to keep in mind the more conventional definition of pressure–as in, the pressure of having high expectations. This is the kind of pressure you exert when you encourage a shy dog to take a cookie from a stranger, for example.

Pressure, of either kind, is not inherently bad, but very few of us pay it enough attention.

Most importantly, let’s state the obvious–pressure creates stress. 

Stress is also not inherently bad. It’s stressful for me to watch an episode of Mad Men, but I do it anyway. (If you talk about the current season in the comments, I will block you, people.) It’s stressful to get a promotion at work, but you wouldn’t turn one down.

When you have a dog who is already way out there on the stress charts, though, you need to be very careful about how–and how much–you add to that burden. Also, with a fearful dog, you’ll never know if they are truly improving, or if you’re just providing a pressure that is more powerful than their fear. That’s why the previous example, of having your dog take cookies from strangers, isn’t always the best thing to do.

The opposite of pressure is free choice, which is something I’ve been using with Silas a good bit lately when it comes to his various phobias. After all this time, I trust him to tell me when things are too much for him. And, hopefully, he can trust me to listen to that. He wants to leave the park after seven minutes, when it turns out to be busier than I expected? We go. He wants to take one step out of the garage, and then go back in the house? Fine by me. My job is to be happy but neutral, as long as he’s not endangering himself. No leash pressure. No bribing. No moving him a certain way with my body language. This isn’t to say he’s getting a free ride all the time–I still expect manners in regular, non-fear situations, although I always try to handle as lightly as possible.

What I find very compelling about this system is it’s pure, simple effectiveness.  Once Silas realizes that he can choose when to stop engaging with something, he will often deliberately go back to it, and with much more confidence than if I’d compelled him do it.

5 thoughts on “Zero Pressure

  1. Love this!
    This is a really good description of body pressure, which was an important tool for working on maintaining long sit and down stays with Moses and Alma. Or, more practically every day, how we get them to give us space when we come home or stay out of the kitchen when we’re making food (a rare occurrence, but does indeed happen).
    I’ve also used the free choice to address when Moses gets wary of inflatable lawn ornaments or horse statues (lots of horse statues in Calgary…), though I’ve never specifically called it that. But I just let him figure it out in his own time and at his own pace.
    Requires a tonne of patience, though, which I admire you for!


  2. Such a great post! I like the “body block” technique, too. As for the metaphorical pressure, I struggle with it differently. I find myself managing/tweaking/arranging everything so as not to put pressure on Lucas, which, as you pointed out, doesn’t enable improvement. It’s difficult for me to allow him to experience that uncomfortable point of “free choice” rather than crafting our lives around his fear. It’s something I need to work on.


    1. It’s a dynamic I struggle with myself, and it’s easier to set up with some things than others. I would say that 95% of the time, I just have Silas’s life arranged to suit him.

      We have a “go see” cue for scary-but-harmless objects, which is kind of the small-scale iteration of this. I tell Silas, cheerfully, “Let’s go see!” then I walk over to whatever it is. He can choose to follow at his own pace, or not. Usually he’ll come over, take a sniff, back off, then come back and decide it’s fine. Now that we’ve practiced it so much, I can even send him to “go see” without going myself.


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