FRIDAY FIX of GORGEOUSNESS - AND HOW TO OVERCOME ANXIETY
Living with an anxious dog can feel quite overwhelming because there often seem to be so many things that unnerve them. Sometimes it's noises from outside. Sometimes it's the sound of the new fridge-freezer cranking-up (yup, we've had this and the dog's family were a bit worried they might have to send it back to the shop!). Sometimes it's an unexpected crisp packet blowing across the road.
ANXIETY AND HORMONES Anxiety can develop early on in a puppys life, particularly once their adolescent hormones start to come through.
Adolescence is a bit of a mish mash of developmental, sex and stress hormones and teen dogs often don't have much control over how they react to their feelings.
They can suddenly start to feel that the wheely bin they walk past every day on a walk is Totally Terrifying. They may duck away from it, put the brakes on or they might try barking at it to see if they can scare it off. Most wheely bins aren't overly bothered by barking teens and tend to not budge...
OUR REACTIONS FEED OUR DOG'S REACTIONS How we react to our dog in this scenario is likely to inform her subsequent responses to things that worry her. As a species, we're quite talky, and it's natural to want to soothe and reassure. Or maybe we'll take the "there's nothing to be worried about, come on, don't be daft" approach. Or we may feel irritated and tighten the lead and force her past whatever is upskittling her.
DISTANCE BUILDS CONFIDENCE None of these responses is going to increase her confidence. What she needs is a bit of distance so that she can look at the bin safely from far enough away that it can't get her (because you can never tell what a wheely bin might do when you turn your back on it... 😁).
Letting her look at it calmly gives her time to process information about what she can see and smell. Her thoughts might go:
Too dark and lurky!
Smells of plastic, food and other dogs' wee.
Bit of an overwhelming mix of sniffs
Nope, still don't like it.
I don't want to be this close.
And this is the bit that matters. Can we read and respond to our dog's signals that say they need a bit more distance? Can we be patient enough to pause on our walk and let our dogs take time to investigate things safely, at distance, and in their own time? If we can, we can build strong, confident foundations but if we rush them, they're likely to stay insecure beyond adolescence.
SET-UPS FOR SUCCESS We can help our anxious dogs in other ways, as well as helping them take time with things that bother them on a walk.
If there are specific things that bother them, we can notice those things when we're walking or driving around and use them to set-up very short training sessions.
Maybe there's a stack of wheely bins in a pub car park. If we choose a very quiet time, we can set up a training session to do a bit of desensitisation with the bins to build confidence.
HOW TO SET THINGS UP.
Prepare a mugful of tiny, tasty treats.
Park up about 5 metres away from the scary object.
Lay a Sniff Trail between your car and the scary object, about 1 metre away from the car. Include a bowl of water.
Pop a snuffle mat in the boot or on the backseat - wherever your dog travels - and leave the door open. This gives her access to jump in if she wants to and the snuffle mat will help her self-calm. A bit of snuffling always takes anxiety down a notch and is one of the most important tools in our kit. Contact our Claire for her Hide and Seek Mats on Facebook, or you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Put another Sniff Trail behind your car (plus another bowl of water) and load both trails up with treats. Have your treat pouch loaded-up as well and calmly get your dog out of the car.
Let her sniff around both Trails and then follow her if she wants to move away from them. Stop and play the Countdown Game if she isn't completely calm and make sure you angle your body and head away from the bins so that you're not directing your attention at them. Give her time to discover them on her own.
If she hasn't seen them, start to make long, looping walk-bys, at a really good distance away from them, so that you're approaching them in a lazy zig-zag. This gives her time to see notice them without getting too close.
Whenever she sees them, even if it's as soon as she's out of the car, only approach them if she clearly wants to move towards them and always approach them on several lazy loops. I'll explain in a bit why fast, direct approaches aren't a good idea.
Every time she connects with you, mark-treat with an ok-release, throwing the treat on the floor AWAY from the bins. This helps her take her mind off them briefly and adds movement into the situation, which flushes the body with feel-good hormones like dopamine and endorphins.
If she stops to look at the bins, keep your body and face angled away from them. This gives her a clear message that you're not going to make her get close to them. Watch her carefully and the instant she turns her head away from them, do a nice, cheery, "ok" and drop the treat on the floor away from the bins.
BREAKS AND STRESS SIGNALS This is the first time she's looked at the bins, and we always give a brain-break after the first look, so take her back to the Sniff Trail BEHIND the car, away from the bins, and scatter treats around and onto the Sniff Trail items.
Let her take her time over it and then check her out carefully. Is she panting? Are her ears set back? Are her eyes quite round with large pupils? Are her movements quite fast and agitated? All these things can indicate stress - at the very least, they show she isn't entirely comfortable and doesn't have her Thinking-Dog 3 Cs (Calm, Connected and self-Controlled).
If she doesn't have her 3Cs, try taking her further away from the Sniff Trail and do a few Countdowns to Calm to settle her. If she still isn't settled, end the session and go home. She can calm herself with the snuffle mat in the car but remove it once she's finished it if she's a shredder.
3Cs MEAN SHE CAN CHOOSE TO APPROACH If she is settled and has her 3 Cs, take her back to the Sniff Trail between the car and the bins and let her snuffle around until she shows you what she wants to do. She might be happy to approach the bins again, so repeat the zig-zag approach from before (avoid letting her pull you straight over to them - she doesn't have her 3 Cs if she rushes her approach and is likely to react when she gets close to them because she hasn't taken her time to process them).
Let her look again, marking and treating with an ok-release, and then stand and see if she wants to look at them again. Once again, ok-r when she looks away. If she still has her 3Cs, she can look a third time, then calmly walk her back to whichever Sniff Trail she chooses.
End the session there the first time you do it.
APPROACHING THE BINS CLOSE-UP Some dogs may be able to approach the bins calmly and comfortably in the first session, in which case let them sniff the bins and OK-r as soon as they move away from them. Then take them back to do a Sniff Trail and end the session. Ending on a Sniff Trail calms things down and adds a big dollop of feel-good to the session.
MARK-TREATING for DISENGAGEMENT We always pay for disengagement rather than for engagement because we don't want to encourage our dogs to stare, or to approach things too quickly, or sniff things for too long. Because if the thing they want to investigate is another dog, it would find all those things threatening: staring, fast and direct approaches, and intense sniffing are all bad etiquette in dog language! So we pay our dogs for keeping things short and polite.
You can repeat the session as many times as you need until your dog is comfortable with whatever scary object you want to build confidence with.
SNIFF TRAILS WORK WITH ALL THINGS! This method works with many, many things. You can do set-ups with people, traffic, horses, sheep, dogs etc. Anything that either bothers your dog or that she's overly interested in. These methods are especially successful with dogs with high prey drive or who are scared of traffic.
You can see the video of Rexy and how beautifully her dad handles her. She usually barks and lunges at cars, people and other dogs and we will be using these Thinking-Distance methods to help her overcome her anxiety with everything that triggers her.
She was very uneasy with me the first time we met but, with slow, gentle work, she was much more confident with me this time. In fact, Eryn trainer was behind me at a safe distance during the entire session and Rexy did no more than calmly glance at her a number of times.
GOING AT OUR DOGS' PACE GETS THERE IN THE END. Letting our dogs lead the pace (as long as they have their 3 Cs!) increases their confidence. Because making good choices creates self-belief, and when any one (dog, person, child, cat, octopus...) is able make decisions that feel good, they become more sure of themselves and the world around them.
Rexy is learning that the world around her isn't as intimidating as she used to think- and her dad is doing some very nice work with her 😊🐾