Canine Fear/Anxiety Dos and Don’ts
Part V: The Big To-Do(s)
Finally, a few big “Dos” for your fearful or anxious dog:
1. Obedience exercises. Fearful dogs in trigger situations can be helped by giving them something else to focus on. Better than trying to distract with treats is to have your dog work for a reward. My favorite trigger situation obedience exercise is “lie down”, or even “over”/”on your side”. Down is calm, submissive, and trusting; showing belly even moreso.
2. Rewards. These have to come after #1, since many frightened dogs won’t accept treats. After refocusing and succeeding at an obedience ritual, they’re much more likely. Remember to use what I call “situational” rewards: whatever the dog would most like in that moment. Edible treats aren’t the only kind of reward! Try bellyrubs, verbal praise, hugs, walking, running, playing, throwing a ball, shaking a toy, and “long” rewards like bully sticks/rawhides.
3. Release. I end every obedience exercise with a verbal and sign language “release” command – e.g. “Ok!” with a snap and gesture. Properly practiced, the release command signals that he’s done with his work and now can go get that reward he’s been waiting for: e.g I encourage having your dog lie down and wait for every meal, then release him to eat. Likewise when entering a dogpark: he lies down at the gate, you open the gate and he remains down, then you release him joyfully in to run and play. The release itself becomes its own reward. Combined with whatever rewards he’s being released to, you’ve got a double-whammy of happiness!
4. Experiment. I recommend to everyone struggling with their dog that they experiment with new exercises, techniques, commands, and rewards. Every dog is different, as is every owner and every situation. There’s nothing like trial and error. I learn something new with every dog I meet.
What are your experiences with fearful or anxious dogs? I’d love to hear!