Of all of the silly things I hear in regard to dog behavior the proclamation that ‘dogs live in the moment’ perhaps takes the cake. It is usually used to criticize owners for being understanding of their dog’s past and that unlike humans, that past doesn’t effect them. They are furry zen masters of ‘be here now’. The idea that it is the owner’s response to their dog’s fearfulness or reactivity that is the cause of a dog’s behavioral problem, not the animal’s history, is an uninformed one.
I’m going to back pedal here for a moment because certainly an owner’s response to their dog can and does effect their dog’s behavior, but to lead people to believe that the events, or lack of them, in a dog’s life have no impact on their current behavior is wrong. It makes no sense for an animal to simply ‘forget’ about things that they felt threatened by in the past. If that was the case then training, whether using rewards or punishment, would be a waste of time, what they learned today wouldn’t matter tomorrow.
Whether a dog is consciously thinking about a scary past event, or is responding based on how they were classically conditioned to respond, may remain a mystery to us as we work with our dogs. Though our dogs may not be worrying about the security of a bone they buried last week (or they might be!), they may be concerned about something that scared them last year. The more potent the emotional charge an event has for a dog, the more likely it will be remembered, consciously or unconsciously, and matter. And that we know something is safe or inconsequential doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people deathly afraid of things that have never harmed them or even have the potential to harm them.
Handlers do need to be aware that a dog’s behavior may be affected by their response to a situation. But they should never downplay the effect prior experiences can have on a dog’s ability to cope with the moment they are in.