Canine Fear And Anxiety Dos and Don’ts, Part I
Canine Fear And Anxiety Dos and Don’ts, Part I

I recently had the privilege to speak at yet another fun and educational seminar from the good people at Brooklyn Bark and FIDO, on “Canine Fear and Anxiety”. The title of my talk was “Dos and Don’ts”. I’ve distilled my notes from the talk into several installments; below is the first set.

Enjoy!

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Canine Fear/Anxiety Dos and Don’ts, Part I:  Preliminaries

Anthony Newman, CPDT

Preliminaries

1. It is the norm, not the exception, for dogs in urban environments to show symptoms of fear or anxiety. For instance in New York City, where I and my pack live and work:  tall buildings, concrete sidewalks, speeding cars, roaring buses, skateboarders…these things aren’t programmed deeply into dogs’ DNA. This doesn’t mean your fearful dog is destined to remain in that state! In fact quite the opposite:  most fearful dogs are happy to let go of their fears if shown the way.

2. Don’t medicate independently of working with a professional trainer. Medication can certainly help in some cases to make therapeutic training possible – to open what you might call a “therapeutic window” for dogs who would otherwise be too far gone to benefit from exposure and trust exercises. But medication rarely works entirely on its own: even with medication, what a fearful or anxious dog truly needs is for his owners to build a relationship of leadership and trust. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of anxiety cases I’ve worked with, I’ve recommended discussing medication options with a veterinary behaviorist for maybe five percent or less. Excellent candidates for medication are dogs whose anxiety is pervasive throughout large portions of their life – they’re scared indoors and out, on the sidewalk as well as in the dog park, around people and dogs, etc. If your dog is only fearful of particular stimuli in the environment – e.g. skateboards, or buses – then in most cases you should be able to crack into the fear and make excellent therapeutic progress without medication.

3. Lead by example. At least once a week I see a client who tells me their dog “doesn’t like going to the dog park”. Usually there is some truth in the statement: the dog is either afraid of other dogs, or is anxious simply leaving the house. Yet in almost every case the emotions are not only mirrored by, but encouraged by, the owner. The owner has had bad experiences with other dogs, or is afraid of their small dog playing with bigger dogs, or doesn’t want their dog or their own shoes to get dirty, or is afraid of potential germs in the park…etc. Nine times out of ten I get these dogs to the park and ask the owners to sit while I lead, run, and play with the dogs…and guess what? They love it! Dogs have evolved to read their leaders’ physical and emotional cues: if their masters speed up as they pass other dogs, while tensing up the leash, the dog gets the message that other dogs are frightening. Same thing if the master hides on a bench in the corner of the park, not interacting with other dogs or owners. Walk in, enjoy, and socialize! Many of these same points can be made for owners who tell me that their dog “hates the rain”. Sometimes dogs have genuinely deep-seated thunderstorm phobia, which is indeed a recalcitrant problem to treat. But in the vast majority of cases, we suit up in rain gear and head out to do fun things in the rain – run, play ball, sniff and pee on stuff – and the owner is amazed that their dog forgets about the weather. Who in this situation didn’t want to go out in the rain? Remember, your dog will look to you for emotional cues, just like a young child.

NEXT:  Part II, Leashing Up

 

17 comments

  • Fran Cullari says:

    I have an Aussie who has much anxiety and I’ve been trying to walk him and if we go early morning and do not run into people or other dogs the walk is very pleasant. If we go at night and run into dogs either on the road anywhere or behind fences I try to keep him walking and ignore the other dogs, but it takes all my energy to just hold onto him until we get far away. This is draining me, any suggestions?

    • Anthony says:

      There can be a million different causes for your Aussie’s so-called “leash-aggression” Fran, and each requires different therapeutic approaches. (And frankly, fear/anxiety isn’t normally one of the contributing causes.) E.g. if he is undersocialized he probably needs daily offleash play with other dogs (supervised and guided at first by a professional); if he is underexercised he might need three hour-long walks every day plus offleash playtime and running; if he lacks obedience training he needs mental stimulation; etc. Whatever the case, the walk itself needs to be done properly, you guiding in front from the start, with him on a loose leash, and this takes a number of different techniques and practice. Email me if you want to discuss further and please give your baby a bellyrub for me!

  • claudia says:

    I recently adopted a 2 yr old female pitbull thats shy and a bit anxious/skiddish. She will randomly run to her bed and curl up as if we were to beat her and doesn’t snap out of it for at least 10-30 minutes. She does it immediately after shes done something bad, but it will happen out of nowhere half the time…. or if i lure her with a treat to get down from the couch or something. She pees herself if anyone walks up to her when she has these fearful moments. Sometimes she pees herself immediately (on the furniture) and then goes to her bed. Shes fine outside but is hyper aware of everything. Shes great with other dogs and never shows any signs of agression. I’ve tried talking to trainers who tell me to medicate.. but i knkw theres a better way. Any idea how i can handle her when she goes into ptsd mode?

    • Anthony says:

      There are so many variables I want to know about! Does she go on long walks every day, and play offleash at the dog park every day? The first thing your description makes me think of is being pent up with physical energy and social/emotional needs as a result of not having sufficient daily outlets for physical exercise and social interaction and play. The second thing I’d like to know about is what are these things she does that are “something bad”? This will tell me a lot more about her needs and frustrations. Overall you can’t go wrong with more physical exercise and social outlets. If anxieties still persist after that, in addition to medicating there are calming leadership exercises we can do such as working the “lie down” and “show belly” in various trigger situations. Always followed by tons of rewards — treats, bellyrubs, and praise and play! Let me know how things go, I’d love to hear!

  • Allison says:

    I just adopted a mix breed 11 month old puppy (I think she’s a bull terrier lab) 3 days ago. The first problem is that she’s afraid to go on walks. I don’t pull her any further than she wants to go and give her treats when she walks. She also has bad separation anxiety. Even if she is in the crate for 10 minutes alone, she tries to escape and has cut up her face. I know that exercise will help with the anxiety, but she doesn’t want to walk.

    • Anthony says:

      This story sounds all too familiar. Anxieties are usually interrelated: where there’s one there tend to be others. They are also what I call “self-reinforcing”: if left untreated, they tend to get worse rather than better. The good news is that treating any one of the anxieties can help fix the others. The kind of collar you use can definitely help, as can your body language, attitude, how you leash up, whether you’re leading or following, and how fun you make the walk. Treats are often unhelpful for very anxious dogs because they won’t be lured by the reward in the trigger situation. Look for alternative means of rewarding and motivating — such as running, play, tug of war, balls, toys, meeting other dogs, hitting a dog run or dog park, bellyrubs, sniffing, peeing . . . even just physical exercise can itself be rewarding and calming. Don’t underestimate the rewarding power of social play with other dogs: many dogs I’ve met who are anxious on walks simply haven’t been led to fun enough destinations, which most often means the dog park. Keep experimenting and rewarding, and keep me posted!

  • Tyress says:

    I have 1 year old shih tzu mixed Norfolk terrier since young she was scared when I picked her up from her breeder she urinated on me it took a month or so to get used to me but that was because I let her sleep with me . But now she is 1 she still gets scared easily plastic bags makes her go crazy. When she sees people she hides she runs from other dogs the only dog she is close with is a puppy I just got to socialize her more. When I walk her outside its hard I have to walk her early in the morning or late at night when no one is on the street because she would walk but always look behind her get scared and stop and won’t walk it’s driving me crazy I don’t know what to do anymore

  • Alix says:

    I adopted a 10 year old terrier mix a couple months ago and no matter what I do he is still fearful on the bus panting and shaking it is very rare when he is calm not sure what to do

    • Anthony says:

      Exercise, socialize, and work!
      Daily offleash physical exercise at the dog park running and playing. Daily offleash socializing with other dogs.
      Daily leadership rituals and obedience work at home, out on leashed walks, and offleash in the park.
      This will give you a base to start adding calming trust exercises in stressful situations. Contact a professional to help guide you through — someone who puts a premium on physical exercise, leadership, and socialization, not just treat-based obedience tricks!

  • Lauren Murphy says:

    My fiance and I adopted a wonderful three year old beagle/lab mix two weeks ago. We live across the street from a very large dog friendly park and when we go on walks as a pack (myself, fiance, and dog) we have a great time. The issue is when we take her out solo she is very inconsistent. I took her on a Sunday evening walk by myself last night and she did great, but in the morning before I leave for work she seems terrified and has no interest in going to the park. This happens every week day morning where I feel like I’m pulling her down to the park and she’s pulling me home. Is this something you’ve seen before? Would love to discuss! Thank you.

    • Anthony says:

      How you enter the dog park, not to mention how you walk there, is extremely important. Your dog is looking to you as a leader. If you follow her fear, it will worsen. Lead her out of it, show her you love going to the park and interacting and playing and running with other dogs . . . she will open up.

  • Rachel says:

    I have a 9 month old Pyrenees and German Shepard mix, we have walked her a lot since we got her at 6 weeks, and on one of those walks she was attacked by a German Shepard who got out of a fence. Before that attack she was very playful around other dogs, now she’s not so sure about them and I don’t know how to help her enjoy being around other dogs. She doesn’t seem aggressive, just doesn’t want them to touch her at all.

    • Anthony says:

      The important thing is how you handle this incident afterward. She’ll forget about it if you lead her calmly and happily and confidently in and through other packs of dogs — every day, multiple visits to the dog park. Don’t follow her, lead. Work obedience exercises and show her how to interact and play around other dogs. She wants to forget the trauma; help her by showing her new memories!

  • Kira says:

    My dog is scared of roads. We live in an apartment and it’s on a busy street. She hates leaving the building (or even the elevator). If we drag her out and across the pavement to the car to take her somewhere else she is good once she gets there. We don’t know whether to stop taking her out to places she likes and just focus on leaving the elevator/ building? If we do she might not actually go out to the fun stuff for ages? What do we do? She is still terrified at 5am if I take her then when it is quiet.

    • Anthony says:

      First of all we need the right tools. I recommend a Martingale collar adjusted correctly, so you can lead and prevent planted feet and pulling. Second I recommend getting out out out, as much for as long as possible as frequently as possible — through the tough streets, but always visitng joyful fulfilling spots which e.g. perhaps pet stores and friends houses, but primarily for most dogs the offleash dog park. With lots of other dogs to play with. Then we add calming obedience rituals out on the streets . . . but nothing beats gettin your dog positively reinforced physically and socially for walking through his fears!

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