Any human being who’s ever experienced panic attacks or an acute anxiety episode knows that symptoms like trembling, inability to concentrate, accelerated heartbeat, labored breathing, sweating, consuming restlessness, involuntary paralyzation, and/or an intense need to flee are serious. And, when you’re in that extremely debilitating state of mind, it’s unlikely you’ll be easily coerced or talked out your suffering.
What if, then, your most trusted friend (the one you counted on to protect, love, and show you the ropes in life) shoved you around, forced you to perform for their attention, and stood hovering, chanting orders that you’ve never heard? Would that ease your troubled mind?
Unfortunately, when we attempt to assert ourselves and use popular interpretations of “dominate” in the name of training, we only make unwanted behaviors more frequent, and often, much worse.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind about anxiety and how you can help your dog.
Change is a big trigger for anxious behavior. Like humans, some dogs are naturally more anxious. If your beloved dog already has nervous energy or frets about mealtime changes caused by daylight savings, he’ll likely struggle with a new person in the house, a move, schedule change, or dramatic rule changes. Even positive alterations can send your dog’s understanding of what to expect from you and his sense of security into a behavioral frenzy.
My dearest Finn moved with me many times and took countless road trips, stayed in hotels, motels, friends, and families’ homes, and always did it with a beaming smile. Because, before the journey, we took a long jaunt. And, the instant I dropped my bags inside the door, even before I unpacked, we took another long stroll. Finn absolutely adored his walks. They were a predictable part of our routine. I knew traipsing through any new environment would help him settle into the novel space with ease.
And, I always took Finn’s favorite dog bed, giving him a familiar place to rest (when he wasn’t stretched out on my bed) gave him a safe space in unfamiliar surroundings.
Remember, even if the life change is good for your dog, it’s an adjustment. And, he needs a consistency remnant or two in routine. Multiple changes in a short amount of time require even more thoughtful, proactive interactions to help your dog understand the addition isn’t a vexing switch, even if your dog loves your boyfriend or girlfriend who just moved in.
Gentler is better.
I recently met a lovely couple who’s adorable chihuahua Frankie exhibited new and really unsettling fear aggressive behavior, including biting the man he’d known (and loved) for over a year. Their research led them to militant training techniques, and in no time, their sweet dog’s aggression worsened.
Frankie offered oodles of anti-conflict behaviors during our session when I approached (from a far distance) his treasured bed, one of the areas triggering aggressive displays. I watched Frankie’s body relax when I stopped moving towards his bed. His face softened when I let him take small steps into my space, at his comfort level, rather than abruptly touching or moving towards him.
It may sound dramatic but the darkness and weight lifted from everyone’s face and their entire home. Frankie’s parents are nice people who didn’t want to bully their furry best friend. They were desperate.
We also learned that, despite advice they’d read, Frankie downright hated the additional walks they were taking him on to tire him out (hoping that would improve his behavior).
Please remember, not all dogs enjoy walks, even less so when they suffer from sound sensitivity or stranger danger and live in a busy neighborhood. Adding mental and physical stimulation can absolutely help build a dog’s confidence, but it doesn’t have to be a walk outside. With every head drop, retreat to his mom, yawn, and tongue flick that Frankie offered when I pulled out his harness and leash, it was clear to me that walks were actually adding tension to Frankie’s family situation.
Not all behaviors can be drastically altered in a short amount of time. Frankie’s mom emailed me a few days after our session to tell me that focusing on exercises to build his confidence, playing inside games to burn anxious energy (instead of taking him on walks that he didn’t enjoy), and teaching him good things happen when they go near his resources, rather than taking them away to show him who’s boss, was much more aligned with who they are as people and let them see the dog they knew and loved again.
Patience. Alter plans. And, more patience.
I worked VERY hard after Gavin and I were attacked on a walk to make sure he had tons of good doggie interactions. And he surprised me. He waltzed through the neighborhood wiggling his butt, smiling at every school child who remarked, “oh, he’s so cute!” and never veered from his obsession to chase my neighbors’ trees, despite being an uber-sensitive little dude. Lil’ Big Head once avoided the kitchen for a month because I dropped a spoon onto the floor while I was cooking, nowhere close to him.
However, the number of dogs in our neighborhood has tripled in recent months. Gavin started digging his heels into the sidewalk and blinking his eyes whenever he heard but didn’t see a dog barking from inside their home. The behavior came to fruition pretty quickly one day, when we were still about ten blocks from our condo. I noticed his face. The subtle change wasn’t his usual “I-wanna-go-play-fetch-the-OTHER-way” halt.
Gavin looked miserable. His head hung low, ears back, and true panic on his big, block-headed face. I bent down to let Gavin know I would protect him. This tactic always relaxes Lil’ Big Head when he’s a teensy bit nervous. But, he completely turned away from me and laid down, then looked up at me with such a helpless expression that my heart shattered into pieces onto the sidewalk.
Gavin loves his Chuck-It balls. But, I knew, at that moment, he was what trainers call “over the threshold,” and nothing was going to get him moving. So, I scooped him up and carried him. As soon as I did, he planted a kiss on my cheek, and his whole body relaxed in my arms.
Drivers slowed to watch us as I walked, carrying my 65-pound, muscly, aesthetically tough-looking dog.
And, after about 100 feet or so, I put him down to catch my breath, and he bounced along next to me like the world was right again. We’ve been doing pretty well since that day with a new herbal supplement, relaxation protocols, Thundershirt, and timing our walks, so we see lots of people (the more school kids, the more excited Gavin is to move), and using his Chuck-It balls as a reward for being a big, brave boy.
None of those solutions was a panacea, and we weren’t completely back to his carefree self on walks, but Gavin wasn’t so stressed when walking that I contemplated calling my vet to rule out any medical issues.
One day this week, we had the perfect storm of events working against us. Gavin had a late play date with his buddy, Homer. So, he was too tired to get up for the morning rush hour. And, the velcro on his Thundershirt rubbed his no-fur chest and shoulders, causing some irritation, so I had to leave that part of our strategic-dog training package at home. After he played fetch, we moved along beautifully, and he heard an airplane that caused him to pause. I grabbed my second Chuck-It toy and laid it a few feet in front of him to keep him going into full MAYDAY mode.
But, because Gavin’s slobber had saturated the ball, it slipped out of my hands as I went to pick it up again to encourage him to keep walking. Once he had BOTH balls, he laid down. I knew waving my arms around in an attempt to get him moving and rapidly repeating, “come on, come on, come on,” appears anxious to most dogs, and would only harm the progress we’ve made in the past week.
So, I scooped him up again and carried him. Thankfully, there were no cars around. Because I realized when I passed a large window that we were both wearing bright, Barney-purple colored fleece jackets. So, it likely appeared that I purposely dressed myself to match my dog.
Gavin and I both collapsed when we arrived home. And, since then, I’ve made new alterations, adjusted our route, and thankfully, we’ve had a few walks that everything about Gavin’s body language tells me that my happy-go-lucky boy is still in there. We’re on the right path.
Anxiety is a very serious behavioral issue and not a choice for our precious pups.
Identifying the cause and developing individualized solutions is a science that many dedicated and passionate training and behavior consultants spent years cultivating. I’ll be kind and patient with my fragile boy to reduce his anxiety, will you?