Living With A Nervous Dog

Each time I go for a walk I spend a lot of my time observing dog behaviour – in my own group but also in other dogs… I just find it fascinating.  I believe you can learn a lot about dogs by just watching their own behaviour and interaction with their owners but also their behaviour and interactions with other dogs, particularly dogs which are unfamiliar to them.  And they always amaze me…

Most dogs meet other dogs quite naturally whilst on their walk… they’re happy to go over and say hello and meet a new friend; their body is fluid and relaxed and they can easily sense when another dog doesn’t want to meet them and will then walk away.  If you think about it, your dog will generally meet quite a few unfamiliar dogs every day on every walk and for the most part, dogs which are used to this routine will cope incredibly well.  However, if you happen to have a nervous or timid dog then just taking them for a walk can be quite stressful.  We’ve all seen those dogs in the park which bark incessantly at our dogs, the dogs which are on a lead on their walk and pull and lunge at other dogs while the owner gets embarrassed and pulls them away, whilst apologising to the other dog owner.  To the untrained eye, most people will wrongly assume this dog is aggressive.  This is a common misconception and I hope everyone can take away some understanding on this topic from this blog post.

Did you know that the loudest dogs are often the most fearful? Did you know that dogs who are on a lead may actually be on a lead for a reason? Did you know that the reason may be because they can’t cope with meeting unfamiliar dogs and so the lead acts as a support and barrier for the responsible dogs owner?  This is why when you see a dog on a lead you should always place your dog on a lead too… or at least ensure that your dogs recall is reliable enough to keep your dog from approaching the on-lead dog.  It saddens me when I see dogs on lead who are clearly fearful and other owners allowing their dogs to charge over to them to say hello and who always say ‘don’t worry, my dog is friendly!’  That may well be the case, but what about the fearful dog who is on a lead and has nowhere to escape to?   Do you think it wants to meet your dog?  This can be an incredibly daunting experience for them… and for their owner who is responsible enough to place their fearful dog on a lead in the first place, they are just hoping for a quiet and enjoyable walk with their dog.

Some dogs are genetically born with the predisposition to be nervous and some dogs become this way because of a bad experience with another dog or group of dogs.  From my own personal experience, I took home the ‘runt’ of the litter – tiny, nervous and who needed a lot of nurturing.  My puppy was terrified of absolutely everything and simple things like going out for her first post-vaccination walk, which should have been a milestone and something to celebrate, left her petrified to the point of shaking and drooling.  Now this is not ‘normal’ but it was certainly an eye-opener and having come full-circle with her I am now especially sensitive when I see other dogs behaving in a nervous way and want to help them too.   They are just crying out for help and guidance.

Everyone who has owned multiple dogs in their life will know that each and every dog is different, no matter what breed they are and if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to have a nervous dog, they will teach you so much if you really pay attention to their body language and behaviours.  I say ‘lucky’ because these dogs will teach you more than any ‘normal’ dog ever will.  For those of you who own a well-balanced and sociable dog, don’t take this for granted… in my experience it is a rare thing!

I spent a considerable amount of time and effort (and still do) managing my dogs nervousness and building her confidence to the point that I engrossed myself in canine behaviour and actually quit my job and made a career change focussed on dogs.  Everything I did was for my dog to ensure she was happy and within her comfort zone… the last thing I wanted was to have a fearful dog who then became aggressive as there is a very fine line between the two.  Each walk was focussed on watching her body language and helping her to move away from things which she was nervous of (plastic bags in hedges, dogs charging towards her, people running in florescent clothing… the list was endless!) And by doing this, I built up an incredible bond with my dog.

I attended several seminars and undertook courses in canine behaviour so I could understand and recognise potential ‘threats’ and the right way to manage this and now I use this in my every day life working with dogs.  The good old ‘flight, fight, freeze, avoid’ theory is just a start but it’s so true… how many times have you observed two dogs meeting and one of them freezing while the other sniffs around it?  The ‘frozen’ dog then shakes and runs back to its owner?  This is not a nice meeting for the dog who froze and they didn’t take anything away from this meeting… they were just put in a really uncomfortable situation and the more this happens, the more the dog will learn that freezing doesn’t help the ‘scary dog’ move away and so they try a new tactic of either flight; running away or fight; where they may bark or scowl to tell the dog to move away.  The problem here is that if they realise that barking and scowling actually works then they will use this again and again… and here we have ‘the aggressive dog’ who is then placed on a lead in the park.  Most people won’t recognise that these dogs aren’t actually aggressive but that they have just learnt to use aggression as a way to avoid situations which they find uncomfortable or daunting and it’s the owners job to help to recognise this and to remove their dog from the situation.

The amount of dog owners I know whose dog has been attacked and then become fearful afterwards is overwhelming.  These are the owners who now get up very early in the morning to walk their dog so that they can enjoy their walk and not worry about encountering other dogs which may set their fearful dog off.  For those of us living in London, this is no mean feat… dog are everywhere and many owners don’t recognise that just because their dog is friendly, all other dogs don’t want to meet it.

When I’m out walking I always watch the body language of other dogs to ascertain if they are indeed friendly and if they want to meet my dogs.  If they look stiff and uncomfortable as we approach, then I change direction and move my group away… why would I knowingly put my group into a situation which may result in them being snapped at? I just wouldn’t.  So whether you have a nervous dog or a super sociable one, when you’re out on your next walk, be a little sensitive to the dogs you may meet and please place your dog on a lead, or call them back to you if they start running up to a dog on a lead… your dog may be friendly but the poor dog is on a lead for a reason and the owner is clearly trying to work on its confidence levels.  And if you have a nervous dog, don’t force them into situations and really take the time to understand their coping thresholds and what their triggers are… and then avoid putting them in fearful situations and work (at a distance) to build their confidence and their recall.  Because every dog deserves to enjoy their walk and being able to read canine body language and understand it is truly an incredible thing.

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