Canine Fear/Anxiety Dos and Don’ts
Part IV: Avoiding Avoidance
1. Don’t avoid! Don’t cross the opposite side of the street when you spot your dog’s arch-enemy coming your way; don’t chart walks with your nervous dog on quiet mornings down streets when nobody else is around. Avoidance at best simply delays the problem; at some point you’ll round a corner and come face-to-face with a kid on a skateboard. At that moment you’ll wish you’d put in the time training in more controlled environments. At worst, avoidance can actually reinforce fears: your dog sees his enemy coming, his hackles raise, he growls, and you cross the street…so his enemy disappears! His fear and reactivity worked; so be certain he’ll rely on them even more next time.
2. Sure, avoid the overly-intense triggers that you and your dog aren’t yet ready to handle. But there are always lower-intensity situations in which you can start working his rehabilitation. Instead of seeing your dog’s triggers as annoying, frustrating, stressful land mines, try to reframe them as opportunities – each encounter is an opportunity to help heal a wounded part of your best friend.
3. Don’t allow the “flight” response. You’ve heard of “fight or flight”, right? Most conscientious dog owners are very good at stopping their dogs from following through with their “fight” response: if Fido growls or snaps or lunges we yank back on the leash and exit the situation. But if the dog runs away from the trigger instead of attacking it, most owners readily if not happily accept it. After all, nobody gets hurt! But that isn’t the case: the dog himself is the one being harmed. The flight response seems to “work”, from the dog’s perspective; so he never learns that it isn’t needed, that his owner has him in a safe environment, that he can relax and enjoy. Instead he remains trapped ever deeper in his cave of fear and reactivity. Ultimately, the flight response is just the flip side of the fight response: corner a fleeing dog, and his only other option will be to bite.
4. Don’t tighten the leash, or let your dog pull it tight. This concrete “don’t” is what I see as the physical manifestation of all the previous points. A tight leash can cause psychological tension where there wasn’t any; and if your dog is the one pulling, he is trying to act out either the fight or the flight response. Simply being restrained doesn’t stop the fact that he’s trying to get away; so when he and you both survive, his fear will have been reinforced. The key to not allowing fight or flight is to be found in a loose leash. Block with your body; tap his stressed-out body with a hand or foot; snap/clap say his name to snap him out of his reaction. A loose leash is the first step on the road to recovery.
Next: Part V, The Big To-Do