Do you have an anxious dog? Does your dog fear other people or dogs? Do they fear leaving their home? These are some of the most common things owners call me to help with. If this is something that you are experiencing with your beloved dog, then this blog post is for you.
Anxiety can be frustrating for us humans. We know that there is nothing to be fearful of, yet our dogs do not understand that. Even if our dogs could speak fluent English (or whatever language their owner speaks), it wouldn’t take away their fear. It is no different for humans. You can tell an anxious human that everything is fine, that they are safe, that there is nothing to be afraid of…but those words will not take their anxiety away.
Here are 3 key factors in working with anxious dogs:
- Be patient with your dog. Working through anxiety is challenging. While there may be no actual threat present, your dog perceives a potential threat. Put yourself in your dogs paws. Think of something that scares you. For me, one of my fears is clowns. According to my mom, I have been scared of clowns since I was 6 months old. It is a completely irrational fear. I have never had a clown hurt me or anything like that. Yet, I am scared of clowns. Oddly enough I am not afraid of mimes. They don’t scare me at all. Both characters are covered in makeup and are typically nice and friendly people, but clowns just scare the crap out of me. Here is a hypothetical scenario with two possible outcomes; my husband and I are at a festival and the only path we can take has a clown in the center. I would have to walk past this clown to get where I want to go. I stop walking. I am frantically looking around for another route to take. When I see that there is no where else to go, I try turning around and heading back to the safety of our car. My husband really wants to see all the vendors up the road and I don’t want to disappoint him, but I am so scared of the clown. Now what should my husband do? Option 1; he gets irritated with me. He tells me there is nothing to be afraid of, but when I don’t move forward he gets more frustrated. He grabs my hand and tries pulling me instead. When I resist, he starts yanking hard on my hand. The harder he tries to pull me the more my anxiety increases and I refuse to move. Option 2: he is patient with me. He doesn’t rush me or try to pull me past the clown. He offers words of encouragement. He rubs my back and shoulders to loosen my tension. He lets me decide when I am ready to continue forward. Which option would you choose? How would your choice effect your relationship with your dog? If my husband chose to be frustrated and forceful then it would definitely effect our relationship. I would not trust him like I had before. I would be hurt by his lack of understanding. If he chose option 2 then our relationship would be stronger than before. His respect for my “silly” fear and understanding of my emotions would absolutely increase my trust in him. I would feel more secure trying to work through my fear.
- Building your dogs confidence is a big key in working through anxiety. I like to use play in a lot of my training, but with anxious dogs using play is critical. Let’s say your dog loves playing with toys; like a ball. When you bring a ball out, your dog gets so excited and is circling around waiting for you to toss them the ball. That kind of excitement is exactly what you want to work through anxiety. Now lets say your dog is fearful when a stranger comes to your home. If you bring the ball out and play with your dog close (but not too close) to the stranger then slowly their emotions in the moment begin to change. Your dog has already made a positive association with the ball. The ball makes them happy. Your dogs attention will be divided at first. They will feel anxious when looking at the stranger, but happy when playing with the ball. Before long, your dog will not be as focused on the stranger and more focused on the ball. They are still aware that the stranger is there, but their emotions begin to change as they focus on the ball instead. Their confidence begins to increase and often I will see dogs become curious and go over to sniff the stranger. The more a dog is able to focus on what is causing their fear, the more their fear increases. Using activities that already make your dog feel strong will help them bring that strength into fearful situations.
- Setting your dog up for success is also very critical. If you push your dog too much then their fear will increase. Baby steps is the best way to move forward. Going back to the example of my fear of clowns. If my husband just pulled me past the clown and nothing happened…the clown didn’t go after me or even interact with me at all, I would still be fearful of clowns and possibly more fearful since I was forced to pass the clown. If I chose to move closer on my own then I am working through my fear. I might take 5 steps closer and with my husbands praise and encouragement I might be willing to take 5 more steps and so on. If your dog is fearful of a stranger in the home, I would set up a scenario where they could be receive praise and rewards for every step they choose to take towards the stranger. If they get stuck then I would play ball in the closest space to the stranger they are willing to be in. Some dogs make a turn around right away and other take longer. Every dog is different. You should not put a timeline on how fast your dog succeeds. Rather you should focus on each milestone that your dog achieves and make a big deal about their success. Your progress will move much faster and smoother this way.
Sometimes a professional trainer is still needed and that’s okay. If your dog is fear aggressive, then a professional is absolutely needed. Aggression is a natural fear response. It does not mean that you have a bad dog. Fight or flight is instinctual and if your dog feels that they cannot leave the situation then their instincts tell them to protect themselves. Positive only training is essential to work through this issue. Any fear or pain based methods will not take away your dogs fear. Those methods will only temporarily suppress your dogs actions since the fear of punishment is greater than what caused the fear in the first place. This is only temporary and will not help your relationship with your dog. Trust is important in any dog/owner relationship.