Any human being who has 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 one is in that extremely debilitating state of mind, it is unlikely you will 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 starting shoving you around, forcing you to perform for their hugs or conversation and stood hovering, chanting orders that you have never heard because you would not “snap out of it”? Would that ease your troubled mind?
Well, unfortunately, when we attempt to assert ourselves and use popular interpretations of “dominate”, in the name of training, on our precious pup who’s once leisurely walks now include frequent grinding-halt-moments or shows signs of aggression after years of a fairly easy-going life together; the all-too-common bullying technique can only make unwanted behaviors more frequent, and possibly, much more severe. Here’s 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, there are some dogs who are naturally more anxious. And, when your life changes, your beloved dog who tends to have a lot of nervous energy or becomes fretful over feeding time when daylight savings occurs will likely struggle with a new person in the house, a move, schedule change, and dramatic rule changes. Even positive alterations can send a dog’s understanding of what to expect from you and sense of security into a behavioral frenzy. My beloved Finn moved with me many times and took countless road trips, stayed in hotels, motels and 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. Because, my Lug absolutely adored his walks; they were our routine and I knew traipsing through the novel ‘hood would help him settle in with ease. And, I always took his favorite dog bed so he had a familiar place to rest when he was not stretched out on top of my covers.
Remember, even if the life change is good, happy and welcome for your dog; it is an adjustment. And, he or she 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 pooch understand the addition (even if your dog loves your boyfriend or girlfriend who just moved in) is not a vexing switch.
Gentler is better. I recently met a lovely couple who’s adorable chihuahua was experiencing some really unsettling fear aggressive behavior, including biting the man who he had known and enjoyed his company for over a year. Their research led them to some militant techniques and with time, they found their sweet dog became worse. During our session, I observed this dog offer oodles of anti-conflict behaviors when I approached his treasured bed; one of the areas he was becoming aggressive over, and, saw him light up when I let him come into my space on his own terms.
Before we started the exercises to help the anxious little nugget; I told them that based on what I was seeing, they should take a gentler approach. And, a huge darkness and weight lifted from their home and faces. Most kind, intelligent people do not want to be dictators to their furry best friends. They have no desire to force their dog to sit before going out for a walk that the dog does not find rewarding. Not all dogs ENJOY their walks like my Finn; even less so when they suffer from sound sensitivity or stranger danger, and live in a busy neighborhood. And, 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 the additional walks they were trying to take him on to tucker him out were actually adding tension to the situation.
And, while not all behaviors can be drastically altered in a short amount of time; this dear anxious boy’s mom emailed me a few days after our session to tell me that focusing on exercises to build her dog’s confidence, playing games to burn anxious energy instead of taking him on walks that he did not enjoy and teaching him good things happen when they go near his resources, rather than taking them away to show him who’s boss, were 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.
But, 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, did not 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 was not his usual but 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 is 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, in that moment, he was what trainers call “over threshold” and the sight of his prized orange and blue striped rubber toy was not 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.
Quite a few 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 have been doing pretty well since that day with a new herbal supplement, relaxation protocols, Thundershirt, timing our walks so we see the most possible 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 were a panacea and we were not completely back to his carefree self on walks; but, Gavin was not so stressed when walking that I contemplated calling my vet to assure there is nothing medical going on.
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 the 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 we played fetch, we were trucking 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 from 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 went down. Gavin barely eats treats on his best, big-boy day, so waving my arms around in 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 have 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 knelt down that we were both wearing bright, Barney-purple colored fleece jackets so it likely appeared to anyone who may have seen us that I purposely dressed us to match each other. We both collapsed when we arrived home. And, since then, I have had to make new alterations, adjust our route and thankfully, we have had a few walks that everything about Gavin’s body language tells me that my happy-go-lucky boy is still in there. We are 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 of us dedicated and passionate training and behavior consultants have spent years cultivating. I will be kind and patient with my fragile boy to reduce his anxiety, will you?