Anxiety is something that everyone experiences at one time or another, to one degree or another. Perhaps when you had to give an oral book report in front of your 6th grade class, or your first presentation to a new boss, or when you were waiting for a loved one to get out of surgery. Often times, others don’t even know you are anxious as you devote every resource to making yourself appear fine (at least outwardly), while praying that no one asks you to something as unreasonable as multiply 6 times 8.
You may have tells, such as biting your lip, twirling your hair, pacing, or tapping your foot, that people may or may not recognize as symptoms of stress or anxiety. When I was a kid, my mother, assuming I was bored rather than anxious, would tell me to “Stop figeting!” My sister on the other hand, would get quiet and withdrawn, earning her the title of the “Good Kid.”
I have written (and podcasted*) about stress signals and the importance of recognizing your dog’s particular behaviors that indicate he is not comfortable. Learning to read your dog and understanding the way in which he communicates his discomfort is the first step in helping him with his anxieties or fears. But, that is just the beginning. What do you do when you see Rover is uncomfortable with the situation?
The first thing I recommend is physical distance. For example, if your dog is uncomfortable with large dogs and you see a great hulking beast headed your way, don’t insist that your dog meet his fears head on. Instead, add enough distance so that your dog can watch Sasquatch go by without overreacting. Give him lots of tasty treats as the dog goes by so that he is focused on you, rather than his fears.** This teaches him that the presence of dogs means I should look to my person for assistance. Moreover, because good things now happen to him when scary dogs come by, he will begin to look forward with anticipation (rather than fear) to big dogs.
I am frequently asked if I am rewarding the dog’s fear by giving him treats when he is scared. My question in return is: When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? With our dogs, we are trying to change their emotional responses from fear to anticipation. When we offer them treats, the chewing and eating helps to not only distract them from the menace, but it also makes them happy. And, it is very very hard to be both happy and afraid at the same time.
So, what do you do when a big dog appears out of nowhere, and you have no room to move away? This is where you need to give your dog mental distance from the situation. Take a fistful of treats (yes, an actual fistful, this is no time to skimp!), and put your hand right at your dog’s nose! (Your hand needs to be touching his nose, not 6 inches in front of it.) This should get your dog’s attention and now you pick up the pace and move as quickly as possible away from the situation, all the while keeping the treats right at your dog’s nose. When you get a reasonable distance from the distraction, give your dog 3-4 of the treats in your hand, tell him he’s good boy, and resume your walk.
If you really cannot move your dog away from the problem, try to position yourself in front of your dog, blocking (or at least partially blocking) his view of the dog. Stay calm and keep the treats close to his head, feeding him one at a time as the other dog moves away. As soon as you can add physical distance, do so, treating him as needed to keep his focus on you.
Keep in mind that it is far better to get your dog away from a situation that will cause him anxiety, fear, or to overreact, than it is to try and force him to deal with his fears in an unexpected and distressing situation. By adding physical distance before he reacts, or using food to lure him or encourage him to focus on you and forgetting the scary thing over there, you will be teaching him skills that will make his life (and yours) easier.
If, however, your dog is consistently overreactive to a particular thing, such as other dogs or people, or he seems to be getting worse, then consider hiring a positive reinforcement trainer who is experienced with fearful dogs. Using a controlled setting that allows him to learn, without being overwhelmed by his anxieties will help Fido get over his fears, as well as boost his confidence. When your dog can negotiate difficulties without fear, stress, or anxiety, then he will see that the world is a happy and safe place to be.
*In pretty much every podcast Colleen Pelar and I discuss stress signals in dogs, so it is hard to make a specific recommendation for which one to listen to. Thus, I heartily recommend that you start at the beginning, listen to every one, subscribe, and write a wonderful review on iTunes. But, that’s just a suggestion…
**If your dog will not take any treats, then you are probably too close to the thing which scares him and you need to add some more distance.
And, alternatively, if your dog is toy rather than food motivated, have a tug toy or squeaky toy in your pocket to use as a distraction when the scary thing comes by. There’s nothing like a good game of tug to keep your mind off that which scares you.
I have a huge soft spot in my heart for shy dogs or ones who have had a less than ideal start on life. Often times these dogs find even the simplest things in life to be overwhelming. Life is hard, often scary, and it might be asking way too much of a shy dog to greet a visitor to the house or to be petted by a stranger on a walk. Your job, therefore, is to be his advance man, running interference and protecting him from the maddening crowds.
The first rule of thumb for a shy dog* is: No one touches Fido unless Fido seeks it out or permits it, and this includes his owners as well! Dogs view the world in terms of safe and unsafe. We all feel safer when we feel as if we are in control of a situation. Allow your dog to decide who he does and does not meet, and you will help him to be more comfortable and secure in his world.
So, how do you tell when she wants physical contact with you or anyone else? If he leans away, looks away or otherwise moves away from you or others, he is saying you are too close at that moment, so give him some more space and allow him to make the move towards you if he so chooses. If he moves towards you, leans on you, gets up on the couch and snuggles, or puts his head on you, this is him making the choice to interact and should be rewarded (with praise, food, gentle petting, but not on the top of his head!).
3) Pay close attention to the space around his head. Most dogs are very sensitive to the area around their face and head and if you crowd them they get stressed. Let him make the decision to bring his face or head close to you.
5) Once again, distance is critical. Work below the threshold point where Fido loses it, (freezes, hides,
growls, or bolts, for example) and will not take treats. If you get too close to a person while walking, then do your best to remove him from the “threat” (and reinforce him when you get to a distance he can take treats again). This is the time to keep escape routes in mind! Some ideas for adding distance: back up, turn around and go in the opposite direction, cross the street, move into a yard, go behind a bush or tree.
I have referenced Reisner Veterinary Behavior & Consulting Services in past posts as they have a terrific way of succinctly stating canine problems, their causes, and their solutions. On Facebook they have a “Tuesday’s Pearl” that is always worth checking out and this last week was no exception. The topic at hand is fearful puppies who graduate to become fear biters, an all too common story:
Tuesday’s Pearl: Nervous, fearful puppies often grow into adults who bite.
It is notoriously difficult to predict a puppy’s future temperament. This is the case even when the temperament of both parents is known – though, then, the odds are much better that predictions will come true. There is one pattern that emerges again and again, however. When a puppy exhibits fear (even without aggression), she is more likely to show fear-related biting as an adult.*
Unfortunately, owners often guess that the opposite is true. Puppies, they assume, just have to learn to navigate the world through socialization. The sensitive period for socialization is approximately from the time puppies can see and hear (about 2-3 weeks) until the age of 3 months, and exposure to both social (mother, littermates, human hands, children) and environmental (temperatures, surfaces, noises, crates) stimuli is necessary. But, like humans, puppies come into the world with inherited predispositions as well. It’s the combination of genes (traits) and environment (learning) that create the sum of adult behavior. Ignoring the fear will not help.*
Fearfulness and worry have a common trajectory in dogs. A nervous puppy may show reluctance or active avoidance when she’s exposed to new stimuli. This may appear ‘cute’ as the puppy hides behind her owner’s legs in Petsmart, but should very quickly change to curiosity and engagement with friendly dogs and people. If it does not, by four to six months, fear can be manifested through arousal – the puppy’s hackles may be up, her body language defensive, and she might start to show mild aggression through growling. By nine months her fear may become more preemptive as she stands her ground. Barking, pulling towards the stimulus and even lunging are common; in fact, the sensation of being held back (and trapped) by a leash can contribute to classically conditioned reactivity. Young dogs who act this way with unfamiliar people or dogs are at high risk of biting when they become behaviorally mature at 1-3 years of age.
Behavior is plastic and responds well to gentle handling, encouragement and training (learning), but it’s important to recognize that biting as young adults is a very common outcome for nervous puppies. Common does not mean inevitable – however, recognizing the course of behavioral development can make a big difference in helping an anxious puppy to feel safe and to navigate the world.
Should you have concerns about your puppy’s shyness or other behavioral issue please do not wait for the problem to resolve on its own. If you are uncertain as to whether or not there is an issue, check out my blog “This is not the dog I wanted…” for The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Pet Initiative list of red flags in puppies. Or, call me (740-587-0429) and together we can decide on the next best step for your pup.
*Text emphasis mine.
When my daughter got her Golden Retriever, Hudson, in January of 2005, she was determined that he would be well socialized. Her previous dog, Molly, was adopted when she was about 1 year of age and was most likely grossly under-socialized to people, places, pets, and the rhythms of life in general. She was quite leary of people and aggressive towards dogs. Try as we might, we were never able to get her past her behavior issues.
Emma kept a detailed log of everyone that Hudson met by 4 months of age. At that time we lived in Spotsylvania county Virginia, a fairly rural area surrounded by the Chancellorsville battlefield. Getting him out to meet people required some planning and creativity on our part. Nonetheless, by 16 weeks of age he’d met 750 people. As a result of this intense effort to socialize him, Huddy adored people and could work a room better than most seasoned politicians.
In general, you should aim to have your puppy meet at least 100 people by four months of age. Consider keeping a log of the type of people your dog meets: babies, boys, girls, tall and short people, men with beards, people with hats, sunglasses, and/or both, etc. All these people look different to your pup and the greater the variety of people he meets the more comfortable he will be as an adult dog. Colleen Pelar has a wonderful Scavenger Hunt for Puppy Socialization on her website Living with Kids and Dogs that gives you a checklist of people, places, and things your puppy should encounter.
Any behaviorist or trainer worth their weight in dog biscuits will tell you: the very best way to have a socially sound, well mannered, and stable adult dog is to socialize him, in a positive way, during this critical period. Once the socialization window closes at 16 weeks, it does not reopen, and you are no longer socializing, but counter conditioning. So, when you get your new puppy, commit to introducing him to a variety of people, places, substrates, and objects, when he’s open to it, so you won’t have to hire someone to try and fix him later.
Some veterinarians will tell you that you should not get your dog out until his puppy shots are complete. I understand their desire to reduce your baby’s exposure to diseases such as parvovirus, I do not want your dog to get sick either. However, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) Position Statement on Puppy Socialization, “[b]ehavioral problems are the greatest threat to the owner-dog bond. In fact, behavioral problems are the number one cause of relinquishment to shelters. Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age.” (Emphasis mine.)
While puppies’ immune systems are still developing during these early months, the combination of maternal immunity, primary vaccination, and appropriate care makes the risk of infection relatively small compared to the chance of death from a behavior problem. Enrolling in puppy classes prior to three months of age can be an excellent means of improving training, strengthening the human-animal bond, and socializing puppies in an environment where risk of illness can be minimized…In general, puppies can start puppy socialization classes as early as 7-8 weeks of age. Puppies should receive a minimum of one set of vaccines at least 7 days prior to the first class and a first deworming. They should be kept up-to-date on vaccines throughout the class.
In addition to a good puppy class, your dog can be introduced safely to a variety of things, if some guidelines are followed:
Being forced to meet someone who scares or intimidates you is not fun, at all, ever.
For naturally extroverted people, this may be a rare occurrence, but ask any shy person (who you know well) what it feels like to routinely encounter someone who descends upon her with a boisterous voice, an overly eager handshake, and a million rapid-fire questions. Chances are this is her worst nightmare, and being told to “just get use to it” probably isn’t helpful, at all, ever.
The same is true for your shy, worried, or fearful dog. I once met a lovely woman with 2 small dogs, who were rather shy with strangers and not eager to meet me. So, I sat quietly at the kitchen table, ignoring them (waiting for them to make the first move to meet me), when all of a sudden the woman said, “This is Violet, she’s a bit shy but will be just fine.” Then, in one quick movement, she grabbed the little dog and plunked her in my lap. Violet and I were both caught off guard, and we both froze in place. After a moment, I gently petted her side and let Violet jump off my lap as soon as she could move again. Although I appreciated her attempt to help Violet get to know me, it didn’t help, and Violet never became comfortable with me, at all, ever.
Forcing your shy dog to participate in the big, wide world, without the necessary support, can make her fears and anxieties worse. Reisner Veterinary Behavior and Consulting Services posted this on their Face Book page in January 2013 and I think it is a good reminder of what nervous dogs face and what our good intentions may actually mean to them:
If your dog is worried or nervous, especially if she is an adult, taking her to public places to ‘socialize’ her is not necessarily a positive thing to do for a few reasons: (1) it is not possible to control what other people do; (2) unfamiliar people may come too close, too quickly or touch and interact with your dog inappropriately; (3) it may be scary for her to be given treats by strangers; (4) it will not give your dog an opportunity to gain confidence at her own pace. This is a kind of ‘flooding’, which is not recommended for anxious dogs (at all, ever…). Instead, keep your dog at a safe (for her) distance*, using food (from you, not from strangers), voice and movement to counter-condition her anxiety. (Italics mine)
If you have a dog that is anxious and uncomfortable, call me, 740-587-0429. While I cannot promise that your dog will be nominated for “Socialite of the Year”, I do know that together we can help your dog become more comfortable with her world now and, perhaps, for ever.*A good rule of thumb for measuring a comfortable distance for your dog is the closest distance that a stranger can get and your dog will continue to take treats. For example, if your dog stops taking treats when a person gets within 6-7 feet, then a comfortable distance for strangers, for your dog, is 8-10 feet.
Stranger Danger, or “I want my dog to be like Rin Tin Tin, and protect me!”
Imagine, if you would, a moment in your life that you were anxious, upset, fearful or just leary of what was happening around you. What did you do? Did you bite your lip, lick your lips, or press them together? Perhaps you avoided eye contact with the person who made you uncomfortable, clenched your jaw, wrinkled your brow, or stiffened as the moment became increasingly distressing. Maybe you backed up, turned away, or started sweating. All these are natural responses to stress, fear, anxiety and all of them have corresponding behaviors in our dogs.
When faced with the unknown or the uncomfortable, our dogs will tell us in no uncertain terms that they are stressed. We just need to recognize the signals, both subtle and un, that our dogs display. For example, the puppy at the upper left is telling me that he is uncertain about something. I know this because his mouth is closed, his head is turned away, and I can see the whites of his eyes. The labrador to the right, does not like the camera and tells me this by looking away with wide eyes, ears tucked, a closed mouth, and a veins on the side of his face are enlarged.
Another sign that your dog may be excited, stressed, or aroused (higher energy and awareness of his surroundings) is lip licking when no food is around, or yawning when he isn’t tired. (Left two pictures).
Interestingly, even as our dogs smile (as I mentioned last week) so do they also frown! Patricia McConnell, PhD, describes it in For the Love of A Dog,
When humans frown, we move the centers of our eyebrows down and toward each other. Dogs frown, too, and it’s another relatively easy signal to read once you learn to look for it. It’s clear that these are important signals in social communication – in both species the muscles above the eyes are accented, by hair (in our case) and coloration changes (in the case of most dogs).
In the case of Roxy (black dog to the right), this was one of the first times that her owners were away and she was getting to know me, as well as trying to figure out what I was doing! Her wrinkled brow tells me that she is not altogether certain that what I am doing, right then, is “okay”. (As an aside, I took her picture and then let her sniff my phone. A few treats also helped to assuage her!)
There are many signals that our dog use to communicate to us that they are uncomfortable, and I have illustrated just a few of the more common ones. Some others include stiffening, sweaty paw pads, and leaning back or backing away from something. (We humans do these things as well when nervous or leary, though we generally do not sweat through the bottoms of our feet!) You can begin to recognize the way your dog communicates his or her feelings by watching what they do, and what their bodies and faces look like when you know they are experiencing particular emotions such as excitement, uncertainty, or fear. Knowing how to read your dog’s body language will also help you to know when your dog is asking for your help to better manage the unexpected.
This picture is in response to the comment by Laura below and is Roxy (the dog immediately above) doing her round head look. In this instance she had not done anything wrong, but I think I might have shouted to one of the other dogs to come and she was right next to me when I raised my voice so the other dogs could hear me across the fenced-in area. She looks guilty (or pitiable) but I really think it was in response to me raising my voice, not anything she had done. It is, however, very cute and is sure to illicit a treat from me every time!
When my dog Mr. Bingley was about 6 months old we walked past a neighbor’s house where a cement pig resides in the front yard. We’d passed this house many times, but for some reason, on this particular day, Bingley noticed the pig and froze, staring at it and puffing up like a bottle brush. He didn’t know what to make of this strange and apparently dangerous object! To help Bingley overcome his seemingly irrational fear of concrete porkers, I kept his leash loose and gave him a treat as he looked at the pig. I stepped toward the pig and waited, offering him another tasty morsel if he took a step closer. He did. I repeated this procedure until he was able to sniff the offending swine and easily take a treat from the top of its head. This whole procedure took less than 10 minutes and from that day on Bingley has ignored the cement beast. Because he was able to approach and explore the object at his pace and he got rewarded for doing so, Bingley learned that there was nothing to fear.
In working with dogs, cats, and horses, I have noticed that they are most comfortable with new things when given the opportunity to explore novel items at their own pace. Temple Grandin describes this phenomenon nicely in her book Animals Make Us Human, “[N]ovelty can be attractive or scary depending on how it is presented. The single most important factor determining whether a new thing is more interesting than scary is whether the animal has control over whether to approach the object. Animals are terrified by forced novelty. They don’t want new things shoved into their faces, and people don’t either.” Bingley and his encounter with the cement pig, is a classic example of this.
If you need to introduce your cat, goat, dog, guinea pig, horse, or bird to something novel, especially something that is going to be in the animal’s life for awhile, remember that forced novelty is frightening. Give your pet the time and space it needs to explore the item, reward it for its efforts to engage the object and you will likely have a happy and non-traumatic encounter.