HOW CAN I HELP MY FEARFUL AND ANXIOUS DOG?
Just like humans, dogs have different personalities: Some are naturally playful, exuberant and outgoing. Others are more reserved and perhaps even wary in the face of strangers or unfamiliar situations. And some dogs are on the shy and timid side of the spectrum. There is nothing wrong with these different temperaments. But what if your dog’s tendency to be shy and timid is bordering on chronic anxiety and/or fear? And how can you alleviate separation anxiety in particular? This article contains easy-to-apply information on how to help fearful or anxious dogs. But let us begin by explaining common causes for canine fear and anxiety.
WHAT CAUSES CANINE FEAR AND ANXIETY?
Canine fear and anxiety can be passed on from parents to puppies. Despite a breeder’s best efforts to breed well-balanced, confident dogs, some puppies of their litters may be overly timid. Responsible breeders will exclude such dogs from their breeding programs, as breed standards typically do not permit dogs with fearful dispositions. Such shy and insecure puppies may never reach their littermates’ levels of confidence. Nevertheless, they can make wonderful house dogs and family pets: These dogs are generally easier to influence than strong-willed and boisterous individuals.
The predisposition to develop fear and anxiety is breed-related – at least to a certain extent: The odd insecure puppy may be born in litters of confident cattle dogs or tenacious terriers. But more often than not, naturally shy dogs belong to breeds that are already genetically predisposed to be quiet, sensitive and reserved towards strangers. Common examples include sighthounds such as Greyhounds, Whippets, Salukis and Borzois. But some bully breeds, guardian breeds and even Mastiffs can be quite sensitive as well. Examples include the Pitbull, the Staffy, the Belgian Malinois, the Doberman, and even the powerful Cane Corso. If not balanced by calm, consistent leadership, the genetic predisposition for shyness can escalate into anxious and fearful behaviour. And unless counteracted by loving leadership, such anxiety and fear can easily escalate into reactive behaviours - such as nervous whining, barking, and even fear-biting.
2. Lack Of Leadership
Whilst some anxious and fearful tendencies are rooted in genetics, a lot has to do with the relationship between dog and owner. Here at Fenrir, we emphasise calm, consistent leadership as the foundation for a strong relationship with our canine companions. Creating a stable bond with your dog is crucial, as it opens the communication pathways between the both of you. In this way, communication can flow freely both ways. This means that your dog will be looking to you for guidance, and you will clearly understand their communication signals. With the triad of leadership, relationship and communication firmly in place, you can enjoy an almost telepathic communication with your dog. But without leadership and relationship, this is impossible.
Dogs that are living without calm, consistent leadership in their lives are prone to feeling stressed, anxious and fearful. These emotions can express themselves in various fear-based behaviours - such as nervous whining and barking, destructive chewing and scratching, or even fear-biting. If your dog is afraid of anything in their environment, they are not looking up to you for guidance and direction in that moment. Of course, your dog might still respond with fear or avoidance to certain situations. We cannot change the world we live in, and some things in this world are scary to some dogs. But if these dogs trust their leader to protect and guide them in any situation, they are more likely to remain calm. This even applies to the times when we need to leave our dogs alone in the home: Dogs who trust their leaders are more likely to stay calm whenever their leader tells them to. After all, they have learned from experience that following their owner’s guidance always works out to their advantage.
3. Insufficient Socialisation
Another common cause for canine anxiety and fear is lack of socialisation: Unless young puppies are exposed to many different situations, objects, people and animals, they can develop inappropriate fear-responses to these stimuli. We are not saying that a certain amount of caution is wrong. And we do not want our puppies to excitedly jump up on every dog or person they meet. But having a dog that panics whenever they hear loud noises, or see large vehicles, can be problematic. Dogs that are in an acute state of panic cannot respond in balanced ways. And neither can they look up to us for guidance and direction in that state of mind. Such dogs might run away, or hide underneath furniture, whenever their fear is triggered. Under-socialised dogs can become fearful, reactive or aggressive, simply because they have never been familiarised and desensitised to their environment.
The best way to raise puppies into well-balanced adults is by socialising them to as many different things and situations as possible. Let them experience a wide variety of circumstances, urban locations, city parks, vehicles, objects, nature spots, buildings, surfaces etc. Take your puppy to different places, such as dog-friendly stores, cafes and restaurants. Get them used to being alone sometimes, and gradually familiarise them with a crate or kennel. There will always be sounds, sights and situations that feel uncomfortable to the dog. But a well-socialised canine will be able to behave adequately in the face of all these things.
TOOLS FOR HELPING FEARFUL AND ANXIOUS DOGS
1. Building Leadership
Leadership is the basis of a trusting relationship between us and our dogs. And it is this trust in us that makes our canince companions feel safe: Dogs with calm, consistent leaders have no reason to be afraid of people, other animals, oir unfamiliar events. They know that we will guide them safely through any situation. These dogs have no need to be timit, anxious or stressed.
2. Exercise & Structure
To remain well-balanced and content, canines need a certain amount of exercise and mental stimulation on a daily basis. Dogs suffering from anxiety and fear can greatly benefit from a structured exercise regime that is tailored to their needs. How much activity a particular dog needs depends on their breed, age, temperament and energy levels. And as your dog’s loving leader, you will know best what kind of exercise your dog enjoys, and how much of it they need. If are unsure about this, observe your dog when you come back inside from an exercise session. This can be a walk, a swim in the pool, or a game of fetch. A dog that just had all the activity they need, will soon settle down and rest. As we like to say here at Fenrir: Tired dogs are good dogs. And tired dogs are also happy dogs.
Exercise and mental stimulation such as obedience drills, interactive play and walks are excellent ways to drain the nervous energy of an anxious or fearful dog. And by complementing exercise with structure and healthy routines, you can improve your dog’s well-being even more. Dogs need a certain amount of structure and routine in their lives to feel safe, secure and content. There is nothing wrong with taking some days off from this routine, and do something different - especially during weekends: Most dogs enjoy going on outings to the park, the mountains or the beach with their family. In everyday life, however, shy, timid and anxious dogs greatly benefit from having structure in their day.
Let us use the example of Sandra and her Golden Retriever “Princess” to illustrate how a healthy, structured morning routine could look like. Sandra is working from home part-time. And she needs Princess to be quiet during her working hours. To help her shy and timid young dog stay calm, Sandra has conditioned her to a crate. Knowing that Princess needs lots of exercise to be content and happy, she gets up early. And the first thing she does is letting Princess out into the garden. Then, after Sandra had her breakfast, she takes her Golden Retriever on a nice, structured walk to the park. To stimulate her dog’s mind, she asks her to stay in an approximate heel position all the way to the park, and back.
But during their time the park, she allows Princess to run around off-leash, sniff the ground, and play with other friendly dogs. Back home, Sandra asks her Retriever to go into her crate for around 30 minutes to cool down, and calm down. Then, she feeds her dog. After Princess has eaten, she goes back into the crate for the next 2 hours. To keep her busy, Sandra gives her a frozen chew toy filled with meat paste. Princess is busy working on her toy, and eventually, she doses off. After the 2 hours have passed and it is time for Sandra’s coffee break, she takes her Retriever outside into the garden for a vigorous game of fetch. To provide Princess with additional mental stimulation, Sandra combines the game with some obedience drills. Then, after giving her time to drink water and cool down, she asks her dog to return to their crate for 2 hours more. After this, it is lunchtime, and Sandra’s work for the day is done. She opens the crate door and lets Princess out into the garden. (This is just one possible example on how we can structure our everyday life with our dogs.)
3. Relieving Separation Anxiety
Having a dog that suffers from separation anxiety can be quite challenging. To help your anxious dogs, we highly recommend crate training them. Also, make sure to provide them with plenty of exercise before crating them: As we said before, a tired dog is a good dog.
4. Walks & Socialisation
Taking our dogs for walks has many benefits. For example, walks are excellent opportunities for socialising our canine companions – and to keep them socialised throughout their lives. Dogs who enjoy daily walks on a loose leash are far more likely to look to us for guidance and direction. These dogs will have no reason to react fearful when they encounter other dogs, large farm animals, tractors, children, lawnmowers or any other stimuli.
Structured walks on a loose leash are very effective in boosting our dogs’ confidence. And building confidence is very important in helping anxious and fearful dogs remain calm in any situation. Every positive experience that a dog has on a walk will help them to become more confident. Every challenge they master under their leader’s loving guidance will boost their self-esteem – and decrease their levels of fear and anxiety.
And this concludes our discussion of canine anxiety and fear. If your dog is shy, timid, or anxious to any degree, you are not alone. Here at Fenrir, we are committed to helping people just like you. Ultimately, our goal is not to try and “fix” your dog: Our goal is to empower you, and provide you with all the tools you need to help your dog. The more you learn, and the more you step up your loving leadership, the less reasons your canine best friend will have to feel afraid. Believe in yourself, believe in your dog, and you will succeed.