10 simple steps to tackle dog anxiety, fearfulness and aggression
The most challenging dogs have been traumatized early on, unless their genetic predisposition and breeding has made them naturally fearful and anxious, but even then, as we know, genes are only a small part of their overall personality expression. Epigenetics, the influence of the environment on gene expression, plays a far greater role.
Most of us have seen nice chihuahuas and also the piranha-like ones!
Nevertheless, early age traumatic experiences and uncertainty deeply affects puppies, the same way it impacts people, and changing the behaviour of an anxious and fearful dog takes patience, time, and most of all a good understanding of the problem.
My plan today is not to give you a simple recipe on how to make an angel from a dog that has fear-based aggression, or how to create a confident pup from a fearful one.
Instead I will do my best to verbalize what I have learned about dog anxiety from working with dogs for more than 30 years in 10 simple steps.
After all the points I list, I would like to add an asterisk *with some rare exceptions, because not all dogs can be helped due to the fact that some may suffer from an irreversible mental illness.
Expose your dog to unfamiliar dogs and people often
Dogs are pack animals (party animals) and it is normal for them to seek the company of other dogs. If a dog doesn’t like other dogs, it is more likely due to fear or discomfort than their nature. Adopting a dog should therefore come with the natural assumption that meeting dogs means meeting dog people. I know from countless conversations that most dog lovers prefer dogs to people. But dogs need other dogs and they help us overcome our own discomfort over meeting strangers.
If someone prefers solitude they may be more suited to adopting a cat.
Suggestion: Make friends with dog owners in your area, perhaps you can go for walks together, form friendships and eventually allow sleep overs. Look up dog friendly places where people hang out with their dogs, but avoid crazy dog parks where dogs get bullied and tumbled by rowdy dog hooligans.
I have seen many dog lovers stop breathing when they see their anxious or fearful dog nearing other dogs. Perhaps it is because of a bad experience they had previously, or they may know their dog is reactive.
Our dogs are super sensitive to our energy shifts, and for them our anxiety signals danger, which can easily ignite an aggressive response.
Suggestion: Practice deep calm breathing every time your dog is about to meet another dog. Ideally, try not to get involved too much, step aside if your dog is not generally reactive and let them sort it out.
Of course again, with some exceptions!
We all know that not all dogs are okay with other dogs, and with a little experience, we can recognize a reactive dog by their body language. In such cases, I ask Pax to WAIT or COME, then I ask the other dog’s owner:
Is your dog reactive?
Do not use the question “Is your dog okay?” because okay doesn’t mean okay with other dogs. Instead, ask something like “Is your dog reactive?” or “Is your dog okay with other dogs?”
Note: Some reactive dog owners downplay their dog’s reactivity or say something like “Most of the time.” In such cases, I breathe, secure Pax if he is off leash, and move on.
Do not scream!
Unfortunately, most people in a heated situation, especially when two dogs have a scrap, yell and scream, which signals danger to dogs.
You scream, they scream, we all scream!
Personally, I like to let dogs sort out a heated conversation if they look like they will not break into a major fight. That said, if a dog is growling and snarling, it is better to keep them apart. We can’t use a one-approach-fits-all method, but less involvement if possible, in my experience, is better in non-aggressive dogs.
Note: There is a difference between an older dog holding a younger rascal by the scruff, lip, or pinning them down gently, and dysfunctional aggression.
If a puppy is being a little brat and disrespects the boundaries of other dogs, the adults will correct them as a part of normal communication. It takes practice to be able to differentiate such behaviour from aggression, but it is possible.
Sit and reward
I have a neighbour whose dog politely sits by the side of the road every time I am driving by. For a long time, I was puzzled how his dog was so well behaved - until I asked.
He trained his dog to sit by giving him a treat every time there was a car going by and now he sits every time he sees a car! Fantastic!
Note: If you have a reactive dog, it may be a good idea to do the same when there is a dog coming close and see what happens. If your dog is food driven, they will easily associate the presence of other dogs with treats and will be thrilled to see them.
Take your dog everywhere you can
People often ask me how Pax came to be so well adjusted. His personality helps, but taking him along as often as possible makes a huge difference. Europe is especially easy because dogs can be taken to most restaurants. Shops are generally dog friendly, with the exception of shopping malls.
Suggestion: No matter where you live, take your dog out whenever you can, especially if they are shy. It will make a huge difference.
Celebrate off-leash time
There are many dogs who rarely get off leash time and they learn to bark and flip out at other dogs when they are on leash. Perhaps it is the only entertainment they have or it may be that they feel:
Hint: Start training your dog by asking them to sit and give them a treat when you see a dog. Feed more treats as the other dog is going by and if they start barking, use Dr. Dunbar’s “shush method.” What he suggests is to take a treat when your dog is barking, put it in front of their nose and they will stop barking, as soon as they stop, say shush and give the treat.
Dog’s can’t bark and sniff a treat at the same time, and this is why this simple technique works.
Dogs are our satellites
In the past, I have written about our dogs acting out our own suppressed emotions. If someone suppresses their fear, anger or frustration, they can bet their dogs will act these emotions out for them.
Our society puts great emphasis on boxing emotions into good and bad ones, while in fact, they are just emotions. From an early age, children are made to suppress their anger which ultimately leads to more violence.
All emotions are equal and allowing ourselves to feel them all is a part of good health, as long as they are handled in a non-aggressive way.
Most dog lovers’ anxiety around their dog represents their fear of their dog being attacked, or attacking other dogs. Use your intuition and beware of falling into the unreasonable fear spiral. At the same time, if you don’t feel comfortable, do not push it, but try to give your dog as much of an opportunity to socialize with non-aggressive dogs as often as possible.
The best remedy for dog depression
Taking dogs along and allowing them to meet other dogs should not be seen as a bonus in their lives, but a necessity and primal need of every dog. Without doggy friends, human friends, and plenty of social exposure, dogs often become depressed, insecure, and reactive.
A dog living in a condo who gets two walks a day is much happier than a dog in a backyard who lives a lonely and sad life. 🙁
Dogs are social creatures, and they also like denning. Small homes are fine, as long as we take them out on adventures.
Note: In my opinion, anything less than 30 minutes is not a dog walk, but a pee break. In my mind, every dog should get out and about for at least 2 hours per day. The good news is that this means two less hours in front of a TV or a computer for you or your family member! 🎉
Some people may insist that their dogs are fine without knowing other dogs, the same way they are fine not interacting with other people, but I believe there’s another part to the story they are leaving out.
People who have been traumatized socially at school, or have a social anxiety, have come up with plausible excuses for themselves and also their dogs to avoid socializing.
The reality is that all people suffer from a degree of social anxiety and nervousness, which can only be overcome by repeated exposure, and the same applies to dogs.
Let’s give it a try…
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