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5 January 2024 in Tips & Advice

Navigating the Window of Tolerance: A Symbiotic Journey for Dogs and Their Owners

Timothy Pratt. Diverse Dogs Pty Ltd
Timothy Pratt. Diverse Dogs. Banora Point NSW. Tweed NSW. Kingscliff NSW. Coolangatta NSW. Holistic dog trainer

“Animals don’t follow unstable pack leaders; only humans promote, follow, and praise instability” (Cesar Milan)

Introduction: Prior to founding Diverse Dogs, my journey took me through the challenging realms of a corrections officer and tactical response dog handler. Fifteen years on the job resulted in cumulative PTSD, leading me to discover the transformative power of breathwork. In this blog, we’ll explore the profound effect of presence and breathing on emotional regulation for dog owners, drawing on my personal experience and expertise in breathwork. This not only aids in managing our own emotional states but also creates a ripple effect on our canine companions.

Understanding the Window of Tolerance: The Window of Tolerance, a psychological concept applicable to both humans and dogs, influences how individuals respond to stressors and navigate their emotional landscapes. As a dog trainer, I’ve noticed a striking correlation between the emotional well-being of dogs and the regulation of their owners’ emotions.

The Interplay in Dogs: Dogs are perceptive creatures, attuned to their owner’s emotional energy and state. They possess an innate ability to distinguish between a calm facade and the reality of emotional dysregulation within. When an owner is dysregulated, dogs often pick up on the subtle cues, leading to behavioral problems and associations with specific situations. This intricate dance highlights the need for both humans and dogs to operate within their respective Windows of Tolerance for a harmonious coexistence.

Leadership and Emotional Regulation: “Animals don’t follow unstable pack leaders; only humans promote, follow, and praise instability” (Cesar Milan). This profound statement by Cesar Milan goes beyond the surface, emphasizing the profound link between effective leadership for our dogs and our own emotional regulation. It prompts us to delve into the intricate dynamics of the owner-dog relationship, shedding light on how our emotional states influence our dogs’ perceptions of us as leaders.

Dogs, as pack animals, inherently seek safety and security within their social structure. This structure relies heavily on the stability and emotional balance of the pack leader, who sets the tone for the entire group. An emotionally stable leader fosters a sense of calm and trust, creating an environment where dogs can comfortably operate within their own Window of Tolerance – the optimal range for effective functioning.

However, many dog owners find themselves struggling to embody this stability, inadvertently impacting their dog’s sense of safety and security. Responses to behaviours by owners may be emotionally charged, reactive, and inconsistent, creating confusion and stress for the dog. Without clear communication systems in place and the owner’s confidence in managing the dog’s behaviour, a significant gap in leadership may emerge, hindering the development of a strong, secure bond and feeling of security.

Translating this to the dog-owner relationship, we see a direct correlation between the owner’s ability to lead with stability, confidence, and effective communication and the dog’s emotional well-being. In my previous role, during responses to critical incidents, a confident incident commander on the scene instilled a greater sense of security for me within that immediate environment. If I did not have confidence in the supervisor on duty, my sense of safety would be greatly reduced. A dog looks to its owner for the same reassurance during situations when they feel threatened or unsafe. The owner’s emotional regulation and ability to provide calm confident guidance becomes a cornerstone, shaping the dog’s perception of safety and trust in the human leadership they depend on.

Therefore, as responsible dog owners, it is incumbent upon us to recognize the profound impact our emotional states can have on our dogs. By cultivating emotional regulation, consistency, and effective communication, we not only enhance our leadership skills but also contribute to the overall well-being and confidence of our cherished canine companions.

The Power of Presence and Breathing: One of the most potent tools for regulating emotions is the practice of presence and conscious breathing. As a dog trainer, I encourage owners to engage in breathing techniques and mindfulness before and during training sessions. This not only sets the stage for success but also positively impacts the co-regulation between humans and dogs.

The Transformative Power of Breathwork: My own journey led me to the Transformational Breathing Method (TBM), a breathwork facilitation method developed by Trey Williams. TBM specifically targets the activation of the central nervous system through breathing, significantly increasing the Window of Tolerance and improving emotional states. Remarkably, a single one-hour session of TBM did more for my PTSD recovery than a year of traditional treatments.

This personal transformation extended to my relationship with my dogs. Despite providing them with excellent leadership and enriching activities, my dysregulated nervous system was affecting our connection. Once I discovered how to effectively rebalance my nervous system through breath –  a profound shift occurred, deepening our bond.

This profound realization inspired me to become an accredited facilitator for the TBM, empowering me to provide clients with solutions for emotional regulation. By sharing these techniques, clients can position themselves to support their dogs effectively, creating a harmonious environment for both human and canine.

Practical Strategies for emotional co-regulation with your dog

1. Mindful Training:

  • Begin each training session with a few minutes of mindful breathing, focusing on the present moment.
  • Practice breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, counting to 4 for inhalation and 8 for exhalation. This activates the parasympathetic response, lowering stress levels.

2. Consistent Routine:

  • Incorporate regular breathwork and mindfulness exercises into your daily routine, fostering emotional balance for both you and your dog.

3. Bonding Activities:

  • Engage in breath work and mindfulness activities with your dog, creating a shared space of calm and connection.
  • Grooming your dog, whilst practicing mindful breathing is a powerful way to build a space of shared presence between you.

If you would like more help to ‘calm’ your dogs reactive or anxious behaviour and have the awareness to consider there could be a correlation of their behaviour with your own emotional state, consider looking at options to help you work on your emotional regulation first, such as the TBM or other breath work and mindfulness modalities. Then put your attention back to your dog, with strategies centred around clear communication, leadership and counterconditioning techniques.

Tim Pratt