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.
Canine Fear/Anxiety Dos and Don’ts, Part I: Preliminaries
Anthony Newman, CPDT
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