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Have you ever thought you’d love to help your anxious dog feeling better on a daily basis?
A few days ago, I was scrolling on social media, and I came across a statement that I instantly related to: “ we don’t get the dog that we want, we get the dog that we need”. It couldn’t be anymore true… I think we all have that idea of what the ideal dog would be, but they are just like us, there is no such thing. They all have their personalities, qualities and faults, all those little things that make them unique and so loveable! Perfect would be really boring anyways, wouldn’t it? Even with their issues, they are always here for a reason, and they are 100% what we need!
Living with a fearful/anxious/nervous dog can be very hard at times! If you have one at home, you will know what I am talking about… We are all human beings, and no matter how much we love our furry ones, their anxiety/ fears can be a real challenge to address on a daily basis. Fear can be shown in very different forms depending on the dog we are talking about. Some will display aggression, some will flee, some will go hide wherever they can and distrust everyone around, other will destruct things etc… Fear and anxiety can also happen for an infinite number of reasons.
My own little dog Croquette had a terrible start in life: kept in a small kennel for the first 2 month of his life, taken out of it because he was very sick and after an intense vet visit, he was discarded and left in the corner of a noisy/busy room on a blanket, waiting to die. Due to the way he was kept during that period, and not being exposed to stimulations in the kennel , it was then way harder to adapt to new things. Add to that a congenital disease that generates sudden pain in totally random moments, extreme touch and noise sensitivity and you can easily understand why he isn’t the most relaxed little doggy in the world.
His way of expressing fear is through fleeing and hiding + shivering.
So he might not be what I could have imagined but he sure rocked my whole world, made me question myself, try to be a better person and guardian, and made me discover a passion for animal behaviour. I guess, in a way he was what I needed at that time of my life…
We have come leaps and bounds in 2 years together, and even if as a dog behaviourist, it is my job to help dogs and their humans with that kind of problems, I got to say some days I still feel a little helpless. Pain also affects dog behaviour a lot : how could he ever be totally relaxed when pain appears out of nowhere several times a day?
What can be a worse feeling than knowing your fur baby isn’t feeling good, not understanding why, and not being able to help them?
Do you sometimes feel like you are doing absolutely everything you can for your dog, and still not seeing a real change? We have all been there, feeling discouraged, overwhelmed, helpless, exhausted, at times even angry at them? This is all normal human feelings, and unless you have super powers that I don’t have ( and please, please, reach out to share them with me!!), you have felt them at least a few times.
A lot of questions come with the dog’s challenging behaviour : what have I done to make them that way? Am I doing enough? Did I train them right? If that makes you feel any better, yes you are doing enough, because you are trying. There is always something more we can do, but loving them, respecting them, learning how to understand them adapting their environment already means the world to them.
Anxiety and fear absolutely can get better, with a bit of training ( for you and them) and adapting their environment, you can really improve the way they see life 😉
Here are a few tips that helped make both of our lives so much easier :
1 – Learn more about canine communication to understand your dog’s behaviour
It can sound silly, but I would say the first step in helping your anxious dog feeling better is being able to spot signs of discomfort, by learning how to read their body language. It is so important, and it can be a great help in your daily life. How can you help them if you don’t know they are stressed?
Have your heard of the “ calming signals” before? I find them to be a great indicator of the dog’s state of mind. Calming signals are subtle signs the dogs use all day long, most of the time without us even noticing. They have a double function : calming themselves and calming an other individual, whether it is an other animal or a human being. Some dogs are better at reading them, and it usually depends on their level of socialization, but all dogs express them at some point in their lives.
You’ll tell me: it’s great to know what they are, but what do they look like? The most common are:
Licking their nose, looking away, yawning, pretending to sniff something on the ground, turning their backs on a situation, etc…
Dogs are absolute masters at maintaining peace, and they will only bite or display aggressive behaviors when they don’t have a choice and they have tried everything else first, without success. That is why it’s absolutely essential to be able spot those little messages they are sending. A lot of aggressions could be avoided if everybody knew how to read them, and a lot if discomfort for everyone as well. To be honest, if humans were that good at maintaining peace, a lot of wars would have been avoided… Just saying!!
A lot of times those dog behaviours aren’t interpreted as they should be. Let’s take the example of growling : it is often seen as a sign of aggressivity by dog owners, but it is quite the opposite. A dog who growls is warning that something is wrong, and will be very unlikely to bite if they are heard and accounted for.
More than avoiding aggression, spotting the signs of discomfort when your dog expresses them will help you knowing that something is making them uncomfortable and gives you the power to act on it to avoid the situation.
As an example, I learned thanks to calming signals that Croquette didn’t like people bending down to touch him ( and didn’t like being touched at all). Now, I always anticipate and try to stop people from doing it. If I am honest, a lot of people don’t understand and just think I am rude but I made a commitment to protect him when I adopted him, and his wellbeing goes before stranger’s feeling…
If you want to learn more about calming signals, I would recommend an absolutely brilliant book on the subject, called “ the calming signals, on speaking terms with dogs” by Turid Rugas Everything you need to know about it is in this book!
2- Always respect their comfort zone!!
f you know something is going to scare your dog, or make them feel uncomfortable, avoid it at all costs. If your dog is anxious in busy environments: don’t take them to the bar or to the city center on a Saturday afternoon. Your dog’s behaviour, when observed is a great indicator of the way they are feeling, listen to them.
You ‘d think it goes without saying, but sadly, I have heard so many times things like “ what, your dog is afraid of crowded places? It’s fine, take them to the market on a busy day, and they’ll get used to it”. Sometimes they will, but most of the times, you will just make it worse…
This is called “ flooding”. It consists in putting the dog in a situation that is known to scare them, at a very high intensity, hoping that when they ‘ll be submitted to a lower intensity, they will cope better. I have to admit, I absolutely don’t believe in that method, which to me can, at times, be considered as abuse!
Imagine you are afraid of spiders ( a lot of people will relate, myself included), and we lock you in a room full of huge and disgusting (to me at least) tarantulas. Maybe you will be less afraid next time when you see an average sized spider, or maybe you ‘ll just be traumatized, and start distrusting the persons who put you in that situation in the first place. Well it is the same with dog behaviour and anxious dogs.
They should never be pushed to face situations that are too much to handle for them, no matter what age they are, and their comfort zone is something we need to respect to make them grow into happy and confident adults. Their comfort zone can be of course be extended, and they absolutely can get more comfortable in situations they were not before. It is all about going progressively, and taking your time.
I have talked about what you shouldn’t do, but here is what I think you should go for:
Habituation : it is a technique that consists of placing the dog under their threshold, and expose them to the stimulus at a level they are still comfortable with.
Then, making a positive association with the stimulus will slowly extend their comfort zone and their tolerance will build up! The spider is actually a very good example. Let’s say we are trying to get a human to be okay with the presence of spiders. We will expose them to the sight of a small spider, at a great distance from them, and give them a €10 bill. When they are not spooked by the small spider anymore, we’ll show them one a bit bigger, then a bit closer, still with giving them something pleasant at the same time ( it could also be a piece of cake or a candy) . Treats, toys, pets and hugs are you best friends to create positive associations with your scared dog’s environment.
You might have heard that if you protect your dog too much, they will turn into an (even more) anxious dog. Well, I totally disagree. On the contrary, they will know that they can trust you and that you will guide them with kindness, avoiding them to feel distressed whenever you can, which is essential. Comforting your scared pooch won’t create fear, it isn’t a dog behaviour you can reinforce.
3- Adapt your dog’s training for a better control of the environment
Boost their self confidence on a daily basis : the more your dog will be able to do dogs things : being off lead to enjoy a sniffy walk, playing with other dogs if they like it, running around, etc., the more their self- confidence will be boosted.
The thing is : to be able to do that, you dog must answer in a very reliable way to all the basic safety training skills ( recall, stop, stay) and needs to be able to focus on you despite an environment they could consider hostile / scary. The only way to obtain that is frequent training, using positive reinforcement : free from force, violence and fear. I always recommend reward based methods no matter what and they are the only one I will ever teach you if you come to me for dog training. The importance of those methods is even bigger with a nervous/fearful/anxious dog, for more than obvious reasons. They need even more than the others to see you as a kind guide, not as someone they should to be afraid of. Positive training is also excellent for the dog’s self esteem : they are working and they get rewarded for it.
Here are a few examples of situations when reliable dog training is a major asset to avoid your dog being in an uncomfortable position:
– Your fearful of people dog is peacefully enjoying his sniffing walk at the park and a group of kids arrive in your direction. Your dog is way ahead of you, between the kids and you. Only a bombproof recall will stop him from being in a very uncomfortable / dangerous situation. If you are going to be the one who protects them from those events, they need to be able to come back to you as soon as called. If their recall isn’t 100% yet, I would recommend walking with a long line, to be able to enjoy a form of freedom during the walk, which will be a lot more profitable for them than one in a short leash. Of course, that’s when it is possible, and sometimes reactivity makes it very hard to do just that..
– Being able to “stay” and focus on you can also be a very useful for a dog who is fearful of other dogs/ people passing through on walks. If they properly answer to that command and look at you in the eyes when the “ threat” is passing, they won’t mind that much. I know, easier said than done. Just remind that all those things take time and a lot of work. Never feel ashamed to get some professional help from a dog behaviorist if you feel overwhelmed. It is our job to assist you in your daily life with your fur friend.
– My little dog is really nervous when walking on the lead, probably because he can’t avoid close contact with people walking by as easily as he’d want to. Knowing that, we have been working really hard on teaching him how to walk safely off lead in all kind of environments, and that helps a lot.
In a lot of cases, anticipation the key to avoiding difficult situations. It is sometimes exhausting to have to watch every detail of the environment, but it still is the best way respect your dog’s comfort zone.
The more you know them, the easier it’ll be for you to spot what makes them afraid, and manage it.
Just remember to be kind to yourself, it can be very hard to leave with a fearful dog, especially when we love them so much. Nobody is perfect, and even as a dog behaviourist, I have to admit there are days I am struggling with my little one’s fears.
And some other days, I feel so proud of him and the work we have done together. He is the way he is, and easy or not, he is the reason I decided to become a dog behaviourist, and we love him just like that!!
Lea Chevalier – Harmony 4 Paws