fearful dogs are not broken
Anxiety, fear and stress are adaptive emotional states that help dogs survive and thrive.
These terms are labels that have been constructed to describe an emotional state. Labels made up by people outside of your own experience may not be strictly accurate. As an example, answer this question, ‘what colour is a banana’?
If you answered Yellow, does that mean that this is no longer a banana.
To answer accurately, we need to think deeply, ask more questions, look for evidence and make our answer longer. Next time someone asks you ‘What colour is a banana’ you can begin your answer with ‘it depends… ‘
Likewise if we label a dog as stressed, what does that mean and what should we do about it. I find it helpful to think of stress in terms of demands. How many demands is a dog experiencing on their attention, fitness, personal space, etc. The dog may be enjoying the stress, studies have shown that positive stress presents like joy. However, if the dog needs to limit the number of demands then escape is essential, if a lead, barrier or lack of space prevent escape then the dog may become anxious.
In the short-term anxiety is functional. It helps a dog stay alive and encourages them to move away from anxiety provoking situations. If no escape is available, the dog enters a state of chronic anxiety which is then dysfunctional.
Fear is also a functional emotion, fearful dogs are not broken, it is normal for a dog to feel fear. You have not failed as a dog owner because your dog sometimes displays a fear reaction and remember the dog decides what is frightening, not us.
Many dogs who come to my classes or consults have experienced trauma, often in the form of a dog attack. The fear reaction during the attack becomes linked to the environment, scent, sounds, people, location etc. The brain is geared to survival and anything that reminds the dog of the event begins to trigger a fear reaction.
Signs to look out for
The response is overblown compared to the actual danger – for example a dog that always runs away from, hides from, avoids or is terrified of harmless novel objects and people.
The anxiety or fear continues past the stressful event – for example after an evening of fireworks one would expect the dog to be behaving normally by the end of the next day. They would still react to any bangs or anything that sounds familiar to a firework, but they should be able to go outside, eat, play and sleep during daylight hours.
Everyday activities are affected. The safety of the dog or people is compromised.
Hyper-ventilation, when dogs pant excessively, their mouths are drawn back, ears are back and they may appear to be frowning (smooth haired dogs in particular).
Increased body temperature – dogs don’t sweat like we do but under stress they may ‘sweat’ through their paws, leaving wet footprints on a hard floor.
Shedding – stressed dogs may shed a lot of hair in a short period. Some dogs naturally shed a lot of hair due to genetics rather than stress.
Shivering or shaking – as the body goes into a stress response the muscles begin to tremble
Diarrhoea, vomiting, inappropriate urination – the digestive system is affected
A desire to bolt. Your dog may have an overwhelming desire to remove themselves from the situation, this can be dangerous and even lead to death. Keep a stressed dog on a lead or line or secure inside.
How to help
The number of remedies and solutions for canine reactivity, fear and stress, appear to be on the increase.
You’ve picked your solution and need to know if you are on the right track?
Gather evidence, any solution you apply should begin to work relatively quickly. For a diet change, supplement or veterinary medication, a month would be reasonable (short term veterinary medications are designed to work faster). A behaviour programme should yield some changes within the week. If things aren’t improving, go back to the drawing board, speak to your vet, trainer or behaviourist and adjust the plan.
Having to adjust your plans is not a sign of failure. Professionals bring their learning and experience to a situation and predict what will help your dog. Sometimes the prediction is incorrect and an adjustment is necessary. For me, an unexpected response to a behaviour program is a cue to go back and ask more questions.
After a stressful attack your dog is left feeling exhausted. Give your dog plenty of time to recover from one stressful event before introducing them to another. If your dog experiences too many stressors at one time we get Trigger Stacking read more here:
This is my preferred way to help dogs suffering after a traumatic event. The first step is to put ‘emotional first aid’ into place. This may include a visit to a vet, a diet change and/or environmental management.
Many attacks have taken place whilst out walking and owners want to help dogs enjoy their walks again. My strategy is:
Lead skills for people, including environmental awareness
Environmental management techniques
Allow the dog to assess in safety
Teach the dog new behaviours
The exposure must be:
Prolonged - build up the time
Independent – the owner must feel confident to walk their dog without me
Sensitive exposure changes how the dog thinks about the environment and other dogs.
Sensitive exposure weakens the link between stimuli and the fear response.
The key word for owners and trainers is ‘controlled’; use a dog run or other safe space to practice all your skills before you hit the park. You cannot learn the skills of keeping your dog safe whilst trying to manage an unpredictable environment. When you do visit the park I suggest two people, one to manage the dog and one to watch the environment. If you are a trainer with a client who requires a lot of feedback, bring along an assistant to watch the environment for you.
Other ways to help
Appropriate exercise before or after a stressful event can helpa dog relax and be able to learn. The key word here is appropriate, we don’t want a dog too physically exhausted or mentally over aroused to learn. Include mental exercise in the form of games, play and scent work.
Build a list of the activities your dog enjoys, such as searching, chewing, hunting, chasing, retrieving, herding etc. Build these activities into your dog’s daily routine.
Keep a diary or chart. The more information available to your vet or trainer, the better they can apply accurate solutions. If your dog is stressed, you are most likely stressed as well, keeping a diary can help remind you of the progress you are making or the things you need to talk to your trainer about changing.